Harlansburg Cave Management Plan


The Mid-Atlantic Karst Conservancy (MAKC), a non-profit organization incorporated in the state of Pennsylvania leased Harlanburg Cave, Lawrence County, Pa., in November of 2002.


Bruce Smith prepared a brief history of the cave for the Pittsburgh Grotto’s August/October 1970 Netherworld News. Smith was able to interview key participants in the cave’s early exploration. In order to expand upon Smith’s short paper, Tom Metzgar is searching courthouse documents, newspapers, and caving publications and has conducted some additional interviews. The MAKC will eventually publish a detailed documented history. This management plan contains a greatly condensed version of Harlansburg Cave’s history taken from a multitude of primary and secondary sources.

Construction workers straightening a steep and dangerous curve on PA Route 108 blasted into Harlansburg Cave during the summer of 1950, revealing multiple entrances on both sides of the road. While workers attempted to fill in the collapsed areas, water drained out of the cave for several days, flooding the village’s main street. By early autumn, explorers from the local area and from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum began investigating the newly discovered passageways. The cave leapt into national news on October 23rd, 1950, when three poorly equipped and unprepared local boys became lost after their flashlights failed not far inside the maze, prompting a greatly overblown rescue.

Within weeks, NSS cavers from Ohio and Pennsylvania flocked to the site in order to assist Pittsburgh scientists who continued their studies. They visited nearly every weekend, attempting to stay ahead of careless explorers and vandals who were quickly destroying paleontological and mineralogical features.

Wishing to capitalize on the widespread publicity and convenient location near the intersection of two major highways, a group of Lawrence County residents led by NSS caver Challice N. Bruce formulated plans to convert the muddy maze into a show cave.

Mrs. Anna Johnson leased the cave rights under her farm to Challice Bruce on May 11, 1951. Bruce, along with Kelly Owens and his brother Frank, Norm Regotti and professional land surveyor J. Howard Forbes, began preparing a map of the cave. Bruce guided primitive tours through the cave to try to gain funds for commercialization. He installed the cave’s first gate in a failed attempt to control access while he selected a site for a more suitable entrance away from the highway.

In 1952 Kelly Owens penetrated the rubble beyond the Ruby Room and discovered what he proclaimed to be the largest underground lake in Western Pennsylvania. His discovery received widespread news coverage.

On November 1st and 2nd, 1958, Stu Wilson of Youngstown, Ohio TV station WKBN produced a 16mm black and white movie in the cave.

Realizing the prohibitive cost of draining the remaining water, installing walkways and lights, erecting a ticket building and promoting the site to tourists, Challice Bruce abandoned his dream of commercializing the cave. His health failing, he cancelled his lease on March 25th, 1961 and died on April 10, 1961.

Lacking adequate entrance control, hundreds of unsupervised explorers ransacked the site. Speleothems and fossils collected from the Harlansburg Cave decorated fireplace mantles for miles around.

On July 20, 1966, five poorly prepared boys from Youngstown, Ohio became lost in the cave when their flashlights failed just inside the entrances, spawning a highly publicized large-scale rescue effort. National Speleological Society members, local residents who knew the cave well, Lawrence County Civil Defense workers, and lots of media people turned up. The cave again received national attention. Despite protests by cavers and others, State Highway Department superintendent Wilbert T. Spangler directed his workers to seal all of the entrances with concrete and stones. The New Castle News published a sketch map depicting the portion of the cave where searchers found the lost boys.

Within months, sledgehammers and crowbars demolished the Highway Department’s July, 1966 walls. People resumed their vandalism.

Not all of these unauthorized visitors were ill-prepared boys and ruthless spray paint wielding specimen collectors. In July, 1970, seventeen years old Peter Quehl camped in the cave by himself for over 100 hours. At that time, he was the last of a four-man mapping team that had been studying the cave for over two years. Like the earlier J. Howard Forbes survey and sketch maps made by Carnegie Museum scientists, we have not yet located Quehl’s version of a Harlansburg map, if indeed it still exists.

In 1977, Phil Fawley and Ken Long began production of the only published Harlansburg Cave map. A very reduced version appears in the December 1997 Journal of Cave and Karst Studies. 

During the late 1990s, members of several NSS grottos began yet another map of the cave. This ongoing project will produce a high quality document that will enhance management practices and scientific studies.

The cave’s present owners entered into a lease agreement with the Mid-Atlantic Karst Conservancy in November of 2002. The MAKC is the sole contact for cave access. The owners do not want to be bothered by cavers, although they never were consulted by the hundreds of people who have visited their cave during the past quarter of a century without obtaining proper permission.


The cave’s entrances are located in a road cut primarily through the Kittanning Sandstone which caps some of the hills in the area. This road cut varies from a few feet up to about 25 feet in depth, with the cave entrances located just 5 or 6 feet from the paved berm.

The Harlansburg 7.5′ USGS topographic quadrangle map depicts the surface above the cave. The cave is partly formed in the Vanport Limestone, partly in the overlying iron ore, and partly in the Kittanning Sandstone which collapsed in slabs of varying thickness from the ceilings of wide passageways and “rooms.” The cave was apparently initially formed by the dissolution of limestone, but the resulting passageways have been considerably enlarged by ceiling collapse. In fact, some of the crawlways appear to be voids left when the iron ore “rusted away.” Compare this cave’s predominately walking height passageways with the predominate crawlways in other Vanport caves where the ceiling is still iron ore except where it has been mined away, yielding walking passageways.

Parts of the cave are formed in the uppermost portion of the limestone, with the prominent undulating contact between the top of the limestone and the bottom of the iron ore visible on the walls. At many places, an equally prominent contact between the top of the iron ore and the bottom of the overlying sandstone also appears on the walls.

Some parts of the cave floor are water covered, underlain by mud with the consistency of pudding, with great powers of trying to suck off the boots of cavers foolish enough to plunge into it.

Pure white cave popcorn decorated the walls in many areas. Milky white and almost transparent bacon strips and stalactites once decorated some of the passageways, but the cave has been heavily vandalized.

Black manganese dioxide films coat some areas which are subject to dripping and splashing. In fact, water drips through ceiling cracks at numerous locations, yet these cracks in the overlying sandstone are not enlarged much relative to the non-dripping cracks elsewhere.
Much of the floor consists of breakdown materials, mostly sandstone slabs and heavy chunks of iron ore. The water table appears to be relatively uniform, with small ponds and tiny puddles found wherever the floor dips below the water table. Some passageway are flooded to depths exceeding boot height. However, the underlying mud is not as thick and treacherous as that at Hindman Cave, another mazy Vanport limestone feature about 30 miles east of Harlansburg.


Newspaper and caving literature accounts reported that “millions” of bats inhabited the cave upon its discovery and during the ensuing years. The bats and raccoons apparently used natural entrances prior to the 1950 road construction. After the state concreted shut the roadcut entrances in 1966, the bat population reportedly declined dramatically. In 2003, Harlansburg residents reported that “hundreds” of bats fly around the village in the summer evenings. One local woman told of a cat that brought home one to two bats nightly for years. One night she followed the cat up PA Route 108 to a cave entrance, and waited for it to emerge with its nightly snack.

The bat population of Harlansburg Cave needs further study, documentation and protection in order to determine its size.

Harvestmen, flies, and other small insects have been observed in the cave. J. Philip Fawley and Kenneth M. Long of Westminster College reported in the Journal of Cave and Karst Studies (December 1997, Pages 106-111) reported microbiology studies at Harlansburg Cave. They encountered bats, raccoons, salamanders, meadow voles and earthworms in the cave, and did a thorough study of microbe populations of three pools within the cave.

In some sections of the cave, especially the Coon Heaven area, which is close to the side of the hill, raccoon tracks outnumber caver tracks, and the accompanying scat sprouts varying types of fungal growths.

On November 16, 2019, the MAKC Board of Directors adopted the National Speleological Society White Nose Syndrome Policy for  its managed, leased and owned preserves. The Policy was approved by the NSS Board of Governors on April 17, 2010. In part the policy reads:

“The NSS recognizes the serious nature of white-nose syndrome (WNS) and its devastating effect on bat populations in the eastern United States. The Society is committed to advancing scientific knowledge of WNS, helping to determine its cause, and limiting its impact on cave organisms. At the same time, the NSS will promote responsible study, management, and access to cave resources based on demonstrated risks and the latest available data. The NSS has a responsibility to its current members and cavers of tomorrow to do what it can to ensure that any restrictions on cave access are based on demonstrated threats, sound evidence, and recognition that risks are site- and strategy-specific.”

The entire policy is at this weblink.


At many places, plant fossils decorate the sandstone ceiling – mostly portions of Sigillaria, Calamites and Lepidodendron bark and trunks. Several sources mention studies of the cave’s paleontology by the Carnegie Museum. More research needs to be done on the results of those studies and collections.


Many articles have noted the removal and vandalism of Harlansburg’s speleothems. Those that remain need to be further documented by an accurate map.


Researchers are required to submit a preliminary report documenting initial findings, data, and project progress no later than 30 days after access to preserve. A final report is required within one year of completion of project. A schedule of reports for longer-term projects can be established if necessary.


The MAKC board will designate a preserve management team to oversee the property. The size of this team shall be determined by the board and one team member shall be named as the preserve manager. The preserve manager shall report directly to the MAKC board of directors on all issues concerning the Harlansburg Cave Preserve.


The Mid-Atlantic Karst Conservancy, Inc., seeks to publicize caves only as befits our mission as stated in our bylaws and constitution: for education of the public about caves and karst resources; for published scientific studies in cave-related publications, and, depending on the sensitivity of the material, on the world wide web.

Specific cave location information will not be released to the general public; i.e., directions to the cave or maps of the cave. Given that it is named for a local town, and that it is in a roadcut, its location should be fairly obvious to any astute observer. However, the MAKC will seek to minimize publicity of the cave’s location.

The MAKC can use the cave name in publicizing acquisitions and in its newsletter and other caving publications, such as the NSS News and local grotto newsletters. The management plan will be available for publication in these mediums and can be published on the world wide web (with contact information).

Specific requests for publicity concerning the cave/cave preserve that are not covered under this policy should be approved by the MAKC Board of Directors.


Pennsylvania Cave Protection Act (1990), No 1990 -133, SB 867, Signed into law Nov. 21, 1990, prohibits removal of any type of material or species and organisms from a cave: remove, deface, tamper with or otherwise disturb any natural or cultural resources or material found within any cave; kill, injure, disturb or otherwise interfere with any cave life, including any cave roosting bat, or interfere with or obstruct the free movement of any cave life into or out of any cave, or enter any cave with the intention of killing, injuring, disturbing or interfering with life forms therein, except where public health may be threatened and willfully or knowingly break, break off, crack, carve upon, write, bum, mark upon, remove or in any manner destroy, disturb, mar or harm surfaces of any cave or any natural material which may be found therein, whether attached or broken, including speleothems, speleogens and sedimentary deposits.

For the complete text of federal and state cave laws, refer to this link.


The MAKC has a lease on the cave rights. The owners retain the surface rights and management.

The MAKC has arranged with the Scott Township Volunteer Fire Department to park at the edge of the fire department’s lot so as not to bother local townspeople, especially those living near the cave and operating businesses there. There are no restroom facilities, changing areas, or areas to clean off following cave trips. Cave visitors should visit a restroom prior to arriving at the cave, and try to be discreet when changing clothes as there is a public highway, a horse arena and houses right along the road.

It is MAKC’s long-term plan to establish its own parking/changing area and possibly a field house in the area; however, there are no finite agreements on any of that at the time the lease was executed.


The MAKC’s initial management will focus on four areas:

1. Protecting the cave and its inhabitants, at the owner’s request, by cave gates.
2. Cleaning up the cave from the many years of trash, litter spray paint and fish line.
3. Producing a detailed map to accurately document the cave. While Fawley, Long and a number of Westminster College students surveyed the southern section to over four miles of passageways, making it the longest mapped cave in Pennsylvania, the map lacks passage detail and its labeling is inaccurate. The map published in the Journal of Cave and Karst Studies does not depict the entrances in the correct position, and does not show several rooms, such as the Big Room and Carl’s Table, in the correct areas. Additionally, no mapping was done for any cave passages on the north side of the road.
4. Beginning studies on cave life in Harlansburg Cave.

MAKC will also encourage recreational trips to the cave, especially trips with a focus on litter/graffiti cleanup.


Access gates will be constructed and a system for access determined. Initial plans are to also have designated trip leaders who can demonstrate a knowledge of the cave and their ability to navigate in an exceedingly mazy cave where iron ore sometimes deflects compass readings.

A register was placed in the cave by members of the Loyalhanna Grotto. Visitors will be encouraged to sign the register book.

MAKC will, on request, and with enough advance notice, arrange trips for any qualified caver or caving group. All persons entering the cave must be properly equipped, including hardhat, three sources of light, warm, layered clothing and a compass. Any group or person charging a fee to visit Harlansburg Cave will be banned from the cave.

MAKC will place signs at the entrances directing those seeking access to the website, e-mail and other contact information.

MAKC will also do some surface survey work to determine how the cave lies in relation to various surface features. However, the owners must be notified before any surface work is to be done, and may choose to be present during surface surveying.

For access requests e-mail the MAKC at harlansburgcave@karst.org or contact us at P.O. Box 196, Murrysville, Pa., 15668. E-mail is obviously the timeliest way to contact the access coordinator. Please allow more time for mail requests.


The Mid-Atlantic Karst Conservancy, its board of directors, the Harlansburg Cave Preserve management team, the cave’s owners, the National Speleological Society or its local chapters (grottos) or any individual members thereof will not be liable for any damages, accidents, injuries, or death on the surface or subsurface of the property. All the above named organizations will also not be liable for any damage or loss of personal property while visiting the preserve.


The MAKC promotes a policy of non-discrimination for everyone. That policy, adopted by the MAKC Board on February 16, 2019, is as follows:
The MAKC does not and shall not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion (creed), gender, gender expression, age, national origin (ancestry), disability, marital status, sexual orientation, or military status, in any of its activities or operations. These activities include, but are not limited to, granting membership, selection of project volunteers and serving on internal committees. We are committed to providing an inclusive and welcoming environment for all board of directors, officers, agents, members, volunteers, and contributors.


The MAKC follows the National Speleological Society’s anti-harassment policy. That policy is as follows:

The National Speleological Society and the MAKC are dedicated to providing a safe and harassment-free (experience) environment for our members and attendees at our events, on social media and within our organization. We will not tolerate harassment in any form. Any attendee that violates this policy will be (told) asked to leave the event and may be subject to further disciplinary action at the discretion of the MAKC Board.
Harassment includes but is not limited to inappropriate comments, inappropriate sexual behavior that warrants intervention, unwanted advances and touching, invasion of personal space in a sexual manner, deliberate intimidation, and unwelcomed sexual advances. In addition, harassment includes unwanted verbal, physical, cyber, or social aggressive behavior. The action of our members and guests will be closely monitored and if an incident of harassment is reported the event staff, volunteers, or MAKC representatives will (may) take corrective action against any offenders at the time of the incident, ranging from verbal warnings to expulsion from the area and/or event and a referral of the offender to the MAKC Board for consideration of expulsion from the MAKC.

If you are being harassed or witness another person being harassed, please contact a security staff member immediately. We will be happy to assist you and provide protection for our members and attendees. We value all of our members and attendees that come to caving events and want to ensure that your safety and well-being is a top priority.


This management plan was approved by the MAKC board on May 10, 2003. The MAKC board reserves the right to update, adjust, alter or amend this plan at any time without notice.

Changes in the management plan must be sanctioned by the board of directors and the owners and thereafter will be publicized in the MAKC newsletter and/or website at the board’s discretion.