It’s fairly common knowledge that it took two major continents, North America and Africa, colliding over 200 million years ago to form what we now know as the Appalachian Mountains; and that because of their geographical location they were able to escape the last ice age 10,000 years ago. Millions of tourists flock to these beautiful mountains each year to enjoy the vast array of plant, wildlife, and fishing to be found in abundance on these majestic hills, ridges, valleys, and streams. Some of the world’s most breathtaking views can be found in the heights of these incredible mountain tops, but did you know they also harbor a very special secret underground? That’s right, these legendary mountains aren’t only awesome on the outside, these towering monoliths stand guard over the entrance to a whole new world found underground at Craighead Caverns and is home to the world’s second largest ‘non-subglacial’ underground lake known as the “Lost Sea”. From ancient Jaguars, Cherokee Indians, Confederate soldiers, mushroom farmers, nightclubs, too moonshiners, these caverns outside Sweetwater, Tennessee have had a long and varied history.
‘The Lost Sea’ is a 4.5 acre body of crystal clear water located some 140 feet underground, at the very bottom of a series of ancient caves known as Craighead Cavern. This quiet, undisturbed lake has a visible surface area of 800 feet (240 m) long by 220 feet (67 m) wide. Considering the enormous lakes we are accustomed to seeing, like the Great Lakes of the northeast United States, the Lost Sea’s size does not seem all that impressive, however, in the 1970s cave divers explored several underwater rooms without ever finding the end of the cave. Modern divers using sonar devices have mapped over 13 acres of large inter- connected rooms, but still no end has ever been found. Every direction tested with sonar, sounds back as just more water. Rainbow trout were introduced to the lake with the idea that if there were any kind of natural outlet, the fish, would of course find it. ‘The Lost Sea’ is now home to some of the largest and oldest Rainbow trout in North America. Sorry, fishing is not allowed.
‘The Lost Sea’ is part of an extensive and historic underground cave system known as Craighead Caverns. Located in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains this natural opening on the side of the mountain leads into a series of huge rooms. Approximately one mile from the entrance is a very large room known as ‘The Council Room’. It was once used as a meeting place by the Cherokee Indians and was named after their former owner, Chief Craighead. Many Indian artifacts have been discovered throughout the caves. A wide assortment of such items as traditional pottery, arrowheads, weapons, and intricate jewelry, just to mention a few lay testimony to the use of the caves by the Cherokee Indians. But were the Indians the first to use these historic caves and who else might have used them for their own needs, purpose, or profit?
The earliest recorded visitors to these famous caves were found in 1939 by off duty guides Jack Kyker and Clarence Hicks who were exploring the lower caves during their off work hours. The bones of a Pleistocene jaguar were found and reported to the current owners of the cave, Dr. W.J. Cameron and W.E. Michael, of Sweetwater, Tennessee. The bones were submitted to the “American Museum of Natural History” in New York City for testing and carbon dating, where they were identified as the bones of a very large jaguar and those of an elk fawn, dating back 20,000 years. Casts taken of footprints left in the mud and undisturbed for thousands of years makes it appear our earliest visitor may have become lost, wandering in darkness for weeks before falling down a steep ravine to its ultimate death. But don’t cats have good night vision and always land on their feet? Was there another reason this creature of the night suddenly lost its way in the dark? We will never know, but some of the bones found in 1939 are on display at the American Museum of Natural History. Others, along with some of the plaster track casts are on display at the Lost Sea visitor center in Sweetwater, Tennessee.
In the 1800s when white settlers discovered these caves, they found as had the Indians, that these caves had many uses. Because of the constant 58 degree temperature it makes for a natural refrigeration system making the caves an ideal location for storing potatoes, squash, carrots, and other root vegetables not to mention the various fresh vegetables and fruits like corn, peaches, apples, nuts, beans, and berries. These caverns were used as a place of shelter by both the Indians and the white man and like all men they were equally awed by the vast enormity of the splendor that makes up these creations of natural beauty. From stalactites, and stalagmites, to the crystal clusters of anthodites these passageways are a true wonder to behold.
A date of 1863 was found in one of these large rooms and was later carbon dated and proven to be authentic. It is the oldest date found in these caves. During the Civil War the Confederate Army used these caves for a mining operation and the date is believed to have come from the ash of a torch used by a confederate soldier who was there mining saltpeter, a natural material in great demand for the making of gunpowder. One war story dating from a diary of that period, tells the sorrowful story of how a young Union spy was ordered to infiltrate the Confederate lines in the hopes of destroying the Confederate’s saltpeter mine located within the caves. He was successful in penetrating the well guarded cave and in nearly blowing up the mine before being shot. According to the story, he was shot near the large gum tree at the entrance to the cave. Such a tragic story for such a lovely place.
Throughout the history of the eastern United States there were numerous rumors of a large underground lake somewhere within the cave system known as Craigshead Cavern. Imagine the excitement when in 1905, 13 year old Ben Sands, a typically curious young local boy, wiggled his way through a small muddy hole some 140 below ground level to find himself standing in a room so large and dark it swallowed his tiny light. Realizing the room was filled with water he began throwing mud balls in all directions but heard only the splashing of water. Understanding the magnitude of his find, young Ben raced home to fetch his father, but upon returning, he found the water level had risen, hiding the entrance to the soon to be famous lake. This caused a lot of disbelief and unrest and was believed untrue until the lake was rediscovered several years later by local explorers. For the rest of his life Ben Sands delighted in telling how, throwing mud balls caused the best and worst day of his life, by finding and loosing the hidden lake all on the same day.
Craighead Caverns have been home to Cherokee Indians, settlers, and confederate soldiers. Fort Oglethorpe supplied manure for a mushroom farm operating from 1939-1940. The beds were located just a few hundred feet northeast of the historic main entrance in what was commonly known as the “Big Room”. In 1947 a wooden dance floor was added to this room and this part of the cave became a nightclub known as the “Cavern Tavern”. Cockfights were a frequent activity and this vast system of caves was the perfect location for moonshiners to produce that brew for which the Appalachian Mountains are still so famous today.
Millions of visitors line up each year to take the guided tours that wind their way through the multitude of large stalactite and stalagmite filled rooms leading to the Lost Sea in the deepest areas of the caves. Tours generally last around 1hr/15mins and the climb back up to the surface is rather steep, but the caves are always at a comfortable 58 degrees year round, which make for a relaxing climbing and walking experience. Visitors are treated to a unique variety of fantastic and rare crystalline formations called “anthodites”. Spiky, fragile clusters called “cave flowers” are only found in a very few of the world’s caves. The United States Department of the Interior designated the Lost Sea as a Registered National Landmark, an honor shared with such unique geological locations as the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina and the Yosemite National Park in California. Guides will keep you entertained with the colorful and sometimes notorious history of these ancient caves along with interesting geological and geographical information. Reaching the lowest level brings you to the end of the descent and gives visitors the first look at the mystery that is the Lost Sea. Where did it come from? How long has it been here? Why has it never dried up? Are there streams and rivers that feed it? We may never know the answers to these questions, but it’s doubtful if people will ever stop trying to find out. The absolute highlight of the tour is to take a ride on one of the many glass bottom boats and watch the large Rainbow trout as they splash and play in the cool, unpolluted waters of this amazing, beautiful lake. In 2007-2008 during an extreme drought the lake receded approximately 28 feet below normal and the management had to extend the walkway and the boat docks in order to continue providing the boat tours. The Guinness Book of World Records Lists the Lost Sea as the second largest underground non-sub glacial lake in the world, second only to Dragon’s Breath Cave, Namibia. After your tour be sure to visit the gift shops, sweet shops, restaurants, and glass blower.
OTHER LOCAL ATTRACTIONS
AMERICAN MUSEUM OF SCIENCE AND ENERGY
A super-secret city during World War 11 Oak Ridge is now a world famous center for energy research and development. Packed with models, movies, devices, gadgets, and machines all designed to tell the dramatic story of how energy has fascinated man since he learned to control fire.
Gorilla Valley, Cheetah Savanna, and the African Plains are only a few exhibits you will discover at the Knoxville Zoo. Experience animals from all over the world living right here in the heart of east Tennessee.
TENNESSEE VALLEY RAILROAD
The “Golden Age” of American railroading lasted for about 50 years. During this time empires were built, two wars were fought and passenger trains rolled everywhere. The Pullman Company provided 50,000 berths every night and the steam locomotive was the power of choice. In 1961 the Tennessee River Valley Railroad was founded and was determined to preserve operating steam passenger trains. Grown from a faint hope in 1957,The TRVRR has become the largest operating historic railroad in the south.
SEQUOYAH BIRTHPLACE MUSEUM
Enjoy this beautiful museum nestled in the majestic Great Smoky Mountains on the shores of Tellico Lake. Hear wonderful Cherokee myths and legends, marvel at the syllabary which took Sequoyah twelve years to develop, but only a few hours for the average person to learn. See the artifacts excavated in the Little Tennessee Valley in two decades of archeological work spanning 8,000 years of continuous human habitation.
FLEAS UNLIMITED FLEA MARKET
Welcome to the Sweetwater Flea Market. We currently have 800 vendor booths and most have been with us for many years. We have been fortunate to attract a wide range of businesses offering their services and products at great prices. We select vendors carefully to ensure visitors to the Sweetwater Flea Market have a wonderful and memorable shopping experience.
So whether you are coming for the day or the week, rent a cabin and stay, you will soon find that there is always something new to see in the great state of Tennessee.