Underground attraction


Since 1922, family-run Crystal Grottoes has changed little, still drawing oohs from tourists in Washington County

Maryland Journal


BOONSBORO — BOONSBORO-- --This is it," the hand-painted sign declares, with an arrow directing passing vehicles to turn off the two-lane country road just past a ripening cornfield. Making that turn transports visitors into Maryland's past, ancient and recent.

"This" is Crystal Grottoes, the state's only public cave, tucked into a rocky hill alongside South Mountain Creek just outside Boonsboro in Washington County.

Here, for no more than a sawbuck, the curious can briefly escape the summer's heat by venturing underground, where it's a naturally cool 54.6 degrees Fahrenheit. They can marvel at the cathedral-like chambers that nature has sculpted - drip by drip, over millions of years - from the limestone bedrock.

Here, also, they can experience a homespun tourist attraction from an earlier era, when sightseers hit the roads mainly to take in natural wonders rather than glitzy theme parks, casinos and outlet malls.

"This is not the biggest cave in the world," says Jerry Downs, who for the past 30-plus years has been the grottoes' manager, caretaker and chief tour guide. "But it's been said to have more [rock] formations per square foot than any other show cave in the world. And I have yet to have that disputed."

This is no Luray Caverns, the showiest of the commercial caves strung along the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. The lighting here is plain, not colored, and there are no gimmicks like "stalagpipe" organs or gaslit promenades. The greeter is Faith, a friendly chocolate Labrador who wanders in and out of the two-story stone building that houses the cave's entrance.

Crystal Grottoes is laid-back by design, Downs says, to keep the experience focused on the geology and natural beauty. He doesn't dress himself up, either, guiding visitors one afternoon last week in a denim shirt, athletic shorts and scuffed white sneakers.

That doesn't mean he doesn't try for a bit of showmanship to entertain his patrons. On tours he leads, he delivers a rapid-fire patter of geologic jargon, history of the cave's development and fanciful descriptions of the varied rock formations that adorn the subterranean chambers.

"Here we have an Egyptian mummy, all wrapped up," Downs suggests as he directs a line of visitors along the cave's narrow, winding passageways. He gestures with his flashlight toward a thick, milky formation that vaguely resembles a miniature human form.

Next, he points out a squat, dome of rock and calls it "the good ol' U.S. Capitol." Later, visitors see "Old Father Time," "Sam the Turtle, " and "The Chapel," a darkened alcove Downs says has been used to stage a couple of weddings - the first in 1935.

Inside the chambers are intricate rock formations, spiky stalagmites and wavy, almost translucent sheets of rock hanging down in formations shaped like ribbons, slabs of bacon and blankets.

"No two formations are the same," Downs asserts. "They're like snowflakes and fingerprints."

Crystal Grottoes has been luring visitors since 1922, two years after it was discovered by a road-building crew quarrying for gravel. Drilling into the rock to place explosive charges, Downs recounts, the crew realized they'd hit a cave when they lost a drill bit. They blasted an opening big enough for a man to wriggle through, and quickly recognized the scope - and commercial potential of the labyrinth.

Though the only one open to the public, it is one of the largest of more than 50 caves known in the state, according to the Maryland Geological Survey's Web site. Most are in Washington, Allegany, Garrett and Frederick counties.

The state's caves are found mostly where layers of limestone and marble reach the surface, the geological survey explains. Their cavities are formed when groundwater seeps through cracks and spaces, and slowly dissolves the minerals in the rock.

Downs has been leading tours here since 1975, when he came up from his home in Alexandria, Va., to help his grandfather, who had worked for years at the cave and had inherited it in 1966. His grandfather had a stroke and died a year later, and Downs stayed on to keep the family business going.

"Somebody had to take care of the whole thing," he says. "What I do is get up every day and run it. You've got to do something for a living."

Through the years, Downs has pressed to promote tourism in Washington County, fought a hazardous-waste dump and a coal-fired power plant and ran unsuccessfully for political office. He pulls out a faded certificate to show a visitor that he got the first permit in Maryland more than 20 years ago to distill alcohol for use as a motor fuel.

But the cave has been his life. Though hours are reduced on weekends and in winter, it's open daily year-round. Peak season runs from July 1 until school starts in late August. School and church groups, golf clubs and even bikers stop by for the 30-minute tour. So do families wandering blue highways.

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