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The Iowa Grotto

Iowa Chapter of
the National Speleological Society

The Iowa Grotto is a non-profit, volunteer organization dedicated to
the exploration, preservation, and study of Iowa caves since 1949.

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The Founding:

The preceding paragraph is the opening lines of a newspaper article from the April 12, 1949 issue of the DAILY IOWAN, a university paper from the State University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa. In this article, William Petrie, a college student from Arlington, Virginia announced his intent to arouse interest in forming a SUI grotto of the National Speleological Society (NSS).

The first organizational meeting was held on Tuesday, April 19, 1949 in room 206 of the geology building on the SUI campus. This meeting was attended by about twenty people. This made the Iowa City Grotto the 19th grotto to be founded as part of the NSS. Later renamed "The Iowa Grotto", the newly founded grotto made trips to many caves in Iowa and some caves in Missouri and Wisconsin.

With any caving club, however, interest can build and dissipate over time. The first dark time for the Iowa Grotto came with the deactivation in the summer of 1954.

The Reorganization:

The year 1957 saw the comeback of the Iowa Grotto. During the summer of 1956, Mr Richard A. Watson wrote to the NSS requesting the C-3 slide show to present at a meeting of prospective grotto members. This slide show was presented in September, 1956. Mr. "Red" Watson wrote letters to the known NSS members in Iowa announcing the attempt to reorganize the Iowa Grotto. On Thursday, October 25, 1956, a group of cavers decided to reorganize the grotto. A trip was planned for Sunday, November 4, 1956 to Spook Cave near McGregor, Iowa. About ten people went on the trip. Interest continued to grow slowly. By March, 1957, Red Watson had found enough NSS members that the Iowa Grotto could move forward in high gear toward reorganization.

Earl Carter who was chairman at the time of deactivation functioned as caretaker until reactivation in 1957. He was a staff member of the University of Iowa and a prominent member of the Iowa Mountaineers outing club.

The second dark time for the grotto was during the years of 1962 and 1963 when activities came to a near standstill. There was only one grotto meeting per year in both 1962 and 1963. The members at the December 1963 meeting decided that the grotto was no longer serving the function of a grotto of the NSS. Deactivation was discussed but formal action was postponed until June 1, 1964.

Early in 1964, a group of people interested in caving started meeting in Iowa City under the name of Iowa Grotto. On March 8, 1964, the acting secretary-treasurer of the official Iowa Grotto, Robert Henshaw, wrote a form letter to all former officers and members of the Iowa Grotto introducing this rapidly growing group in Iowa City. He listed the qualifications of the officers and some of the new members. He further recommended that the official Iowa Grotto be turned over to this group in Iowa City, Iowa.

George Hedges, the brother of the former grotto chairman, started publishing a new Iowa Grotto publication in March, 1965. The newsletter was printed under the name INTERCOM. It was published "semi-spasmodically" but became bimonthly by its second year, although semi-spasmodically has been painfully evident over its 40 year history. The INTERCOM was founded as an authority of Iowa Grotto activities. Articles, trip reports, special events, future activities, minutes, and membership lists were included.

During the tenure of McDonald and Prof. Everett Alton, the Iowa Climbing Cam was invented by Iowa Grotto members for use in the pits of Dubuque. At that time, cavers were using the prussic knot or nothing. The Iowa Climbing Cam was the first practical mechanical ascender to replace the knot and dates to 1964. The design was later "reinvented" by Gibbs Products and became the Gibbs Ascender, still one of the standards of vertical work.

This group of cavers grew steadily, gaining members mainly from University of Iowa students. There was a list of grotto members who were graduating from high school in 1966, so it was a young and vigorous group. There was a lot of caving with many out of State trips. Most of the in-state work was centered around the Dubuque Survey project until about 1968 when Dave Jagnow became chairman and Coldwater Cave was discovered. Steve Barnett entered the first room of Coldwater Cave September 17, 1967, which would eventually change the face of Iowa caving.

May, 1969 was the grotto 20th anniversary celebration. It was attended by 107 people from eight states. NSS president, Jack Stellmack was the guest speaker.

From 1969 through 1971, the main passage of Coldwater Cave was explored through the natural entrance using scuba gear in the half mile of intermittent entrance sumps. Practically every grotto meeting saw a new set of Coldwater slides and heard another fantastic Coldwater trip report. Iowa Grotto members installed a gate inside the resurgence that is still maintained by Coldwater cavers to this day.

In February, 1972, the Iowa Geological Survey drilled a new entrance into Coldwater Cave and the State of Iowa took control of the cave. Scientific studies were conducted in the cave by numerous researchers and the Iowa Geo. Survey.

Coldwater exploration by the Iowa Grotto was replaced by work on the 1974 NSS Convention that was to be hosted by the grotto in Decorah, Iowa. The Decorah convention was hailed as the best convention ever, partly because it was woefully understaffed and conventioneers were allowed to run amok. They loved it! 686 people were registered but we don't really know how many were actually in attendance.

Due to the continuing lack of regular publication of the INTERCOM and a complete lack of communication, a new publication was started, the Hot-Line. It was a one page newsletter to be monthly and cover future trips and upcoming events. Anything that needed to be communicated went into it and it was small enough that it could be kept on time. The first issue went out in February, 1974.

January 1975 saw Coldwater Cave turned over to the landowner when the State didn't renew the lease on the entrance area. March saw the first Iowa Grotto trip back to the cave but there were no regular trips.

The Iowa Grotto continued its steady decline with fewer and fewer active cavers and caving trips. Only eight issues of the INTERCOM had been published since 1969 in 1976. There were supposed to be six issues per year! The grotto hit bottom about October 1976 as burned out people from the convention project had retired from active caving.

In 1976, The Rock River Speleological Society began surveying Coldwater Cave with regular trips scheduled for the third weekend of each month. Iowa cavers began to assist in this effort.

In the summer of 1979, Gwenne and Gary Engh showed up and Gwenne started getting things done. She was a sparkplug at Coldwater and other caves. By late 1981, there were regular monthly mapping trips to Coldwater. With the end of the university money, the INTERCOM was dying on the vine with no issues in 1982,1983, one issue in 1984, then nothing till November-December 1986.

By December 1984, the membership had turned around with 53 members. With many of the new members coming from a distance to meetings, we went from two to one meeting per month to try to boost attendance. The grotto truly began to cover the entire state.

After joining in late 1985, Mike Nelson became our new sparkplug at Coldwater Cave. He became a certified cave diver and got some other members to join him. 1987 saw the group dive the upstream sumps in Coldwater to open up "The Nelson Section" of the cave which has added new frontiers and miles of passage. Sumps in several areas were also pushed, many springs were explored and several significant caves were found. Coldwater Cave was also named a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service.

The modern era for the grotto began in 1988. Publishing was current and exploration and mapping was going strong in numerous caves - old and new. Doug Schmuecker took the safety coordinator position and organized a grotto rescue callout list and has also offered annual cave rescue and vertical training to Grotto members ever since. Grotto meetings were rearranged so that programs came first instead of business, then trip reports, then future trips, then business last. That way, people coming from a distance could leave after the good stuff and get home in time to make it to work on time the next day.

The 1990 Iowa Grotto Annual Picnic saw its first auction in an effort to offset printing and mailing costs, which has become a fixture at our annual gathering.

The following year (1991) saw 92 members on the roster and the survey of Coldwater Cave had reached 14.1 miles. By this time, the Coldwater project was manned by Iowa Grotto people as most of the Rock River Speleological Society people had retired from active caving or moved out of the region. The tradition of maintenance and improvements to the Coldwater facilities begun by the Rock River cavers has also continued to the present day. The Iowa Cave Map Book, Volume 1 was published containing 210 cave maps, some old and many new.

Membership climbed sligthly to 95 members on the roster in 1995. The Coldwater Cave survey passed the 15 mile mark. Grotto growing pains had vanished by this time.

In 1997, the grotto membership continued to hold steady at 89. The Iowa Cave Map Book, Volume 2 was published with over 200 cave maps. In 1998, 27 caves were mapped as well as the ongoing survey and resurvey at Coldwater Cave where 368 hours were logged for the year.

The next year (1999) saw the Iowa Grotto 50th Anniversary in Dubuque which was attended by over 120 cavers from across the U.S.

In his 13th year as INTERCOM editor and 32th consecutive year as an Iowa Grotto member, Lowell Burkhead passed away in 2001. However, his impact on the Iowa Grotto and Iowa caving is still felt to this day. Several scientific studies were launched (and still ongoing) in Coldwater Cave, including the most comprehensive examination of the hydrology of the Coldwater drainage basin.

By 2004, Coldwater Cave had grown past 17 miles of mapped passageways and continues to grow. The ongoing documentation of all Iowa karst features had also become a robust caving project with 50 to 100 small caves per year surveyed and over 90% of all known Iowa caves being mapped to date. Volume 5 of the Iowa Cave Map Book is currently being compiled.

In The Years To Come...

The Iowa Grotto continues to flourish, offering a welcoming atmosphere to cavers and their families from Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin. Numerous ongoing caving projects in Iowa and beyond are always in need of help from local cavers as we work WITH private landowners and public land managers to preserve Iowa's caves. Is there a place for you underground? You bet, and we'll help you find it.

See you underground!

Copyright © 2005 - 2007. The Iowa Grotto, P.O. Box 228, Iowa City, Iowa 52244, All rights reserved.
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