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Pruning the Parks: Shoshone Cavern National Monument (1909-1954) Would Have Cost Too Much to Develop
Shoshone Cavern National Monument was abolished 54 years ago. When a national park’s name is deleted from the rolls like this, and no longer identifies a discrete unit of the National Park System, the passage of time makes it easier to forget that a park bearing that name ever existed. This is not only true for delisted/decommissioned parks like Shoshone Cavern National Monument, but also for parks whose resources remain in the Park System. Redesignations, mergers, and related actions have swept many park names into the dustbin of history.
Park System history is loaded with park names that are, or will soon become, little more than historical footnotes. For three short years, Lafayette National Park was the official name of the place we now call Acadia National Park. Fort Jefferson National Monument was a national park for 56 years, but you haven’t been able to visit a place by that name since Dry Tortugas National Park was established in 1992. Zion National Park used to be Mukuntuweap National Monument, but few people alive today have any personal recollection of visiting a place that stopped using that name 90 years ago.
Every one of the many now-defunct park names is linked to an interesting story, some of which have been narrated already in Traveler. I’ll be relating more of these stories – and others about park-elated people, places, and events of historical interest -- in a new Traveler series called “Gone, But Not Forgotten.” We’ll try this Gone, But Not Forgotten thing about once a week or so and see if it works out. Historical perspective is important, but we don’t want to overdo it. Traveler’s prime focus is – and will remain -- the reporting, analyzing, discussing, and productive exchange of information and ideas about management of the National Park System now and in the future.
Shoshone Cavern National Monument is first on the docket for this new series, and I hope you’ll agree that it’s an interesting little story. I welcome your suggestions for other Gone, But Not Forgotten topics.
Shoshone Cavern National Monument in Wyoming was established by presidential proclamation on September 21, 1909. On May 17, 1954, an act of Congress abolished the park, which had already been transferred to the city of Cody, Wyoming, in 1951. This long-gone park’s story illustrates the familiar dictum: “Err in haste, repent at leisure.”
The main problem with Shoshone Cavern National Monument was there from the git-go. It wasn’t one of the country’s most geologically significant or recreationally appealing caves, and it was very difficult to get to and tour. The cave is interesting, yes. “Buffalo Bill” Cody himself even visited it. But America has many caves of better quality and greater visitor interest than this one.
If Shoshone Cavern is not worthy of national park status, why was it made a national park? Why did it remain on the national parks roles for 46 years? These are very good questions.
Shoshone Cavern was just the ninth national monument created by presidential proclamation as authorized by the Antiquities Act (approved June 8, 1906). Under the terms of the act the president was authorized “….in his discretion, to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments."
Not even four full years had passed since the president acquired this authority, and there was still a great deal of uncertainty and concern surrounding this method of establishing national parks. The prime unknowns were these: Would a high standard of quality or worthiness be maintained in the absence of Congressional vetting? Would the president allow political considerations to unduly influence his decisions about which parks to create by proclamation?
The case of Shoshone National Monument showed that creating parks by presidential proclamation can burden the park system with a minor park whose development and operation can’t be fit into a chronically tight budget.
University of Wyoming History Professor Phil Roberts, an expert on Wyoming history, has written a manuscript and lectured about the circumstances surrounding the creation and eventual delisting of Shoshone Caverns National Monument. Dr. Roberts points out that the national monument was created in response to local pressure for a federally-funded tourist attraction that would bring more national publicity and tourist dollars to the Cody area. Creating the park would also serve the interests of the Burlington Railroad, which provided passenger service to this part of Wyoming.
Here is a description of the park in an annual report on national monuments published in 1913, four years after President Taft proclaimed Shoshone Cavern National Monument.
The Shoshone Cavern National Monument embraces 210 acres of rough, mountainous land. The cavern entrance is located upon the north face of Cedar Mountain, about 3 miles east of the great Shoshone Dam in Big Horn County, Wyo. From its entrance the cavern runs in a southwesterly direction for more than 800 feet, if measured in a direct line. The route which must be traveled to reach this depth within the mountain, however, is so winding and irregular that at least a mile is passed before the terminus is reached.
There are en route many dark pits and precipices of unknown depth and therefore of a special interest. The various chambers and passages are beautifully decorated with a sparkling crust of limestone crystals and from the roof hang myriads of stalactites.
A Glimpses of Our National Monuments report published in 1930 said this about the park:
The entrance to Shoshone Cavern, high up near the summit of Cedar Mountain, overlooking the Shoshone River and the Cody entrance road to Yellowstone National Park, is very picturesque. It is the sort of cave opening that one reads about in story books, being located among rugged cliffs, with pine trees scattered here and there among the rocks. The entrance is about 20 feet wide and 6 feet high, and is in a fractured zone in a massive bed of limestone.
The main cavern follows a fairly straight course, as though located in a large fault in the rock and extends into the mountain about 2,500 feet. There are a few side passages, but all are believed to be short, although as yet these have not been fully explored. Entering the cavern, one soon comes to two descending ladders; then after following the descending floor of the cave, two more ladders are reached, and finally a fifth ladder. At the foot of this ladder the passage turns toward the slope of the mountain, but still continues to descend. The air is very clear and the ventilation is good throughout.
The walls of the cavern are well covered by incrustations of crystals and dripping formations, mostly white, but some brownish or reddish in color. Some of the crystals are sharp and pointed, others resemble rock candy, and some of the formations are curious. The cavern is lacking in large stalactites and stalagmites, but is extremely interesting, as is any large subterranean passage. The rooms of the cave are not of great size, the largest being perhaps 40 feet wide, with a low ceiling about 8 feet high. At other points the openings run up to 50 feet or more, but the walls are only a few feet apart.
The Shoshone Cavern is located about 4 miles from Cody, on the south side of the Shoshone River. The automobile road from Cody to Yellowstone National Park passes within about a mile of the cavern. From this road visitors proceed for half a mile along a level trail on the rim of the river canyon, and then a switchback trail is reached leading up the mountain. The trail traverses a picturesque canyon, narrow and wooded, and ends at the foot of two ladders which reach the entrance of the cave. The length of the switch back trail is about a half mile and the elevation climbed is nearly a thousand feet. A visit to the cave may be made in from four to six hours from Cody, and the visitor is well repaid for the time and effort. Cody is reached by the Burlington Railroad, and is on the direct route of the National Park-to-Park Highway. The Cody or eastern entrance is perhaps the most popular automobile entrance to Yellowstone.
The monument, which covers an area of 210 acres, was created September 21, 1909. At present  the monument is not open to visitors.
Small wonder that this park was still closed to the public 21 years after it was established! Several salient facts leap off the pages when you read these descriptions. Shoshone Cavern was situated in a high, remote location in rugged mountains. Getting there required a physically challenging hike, part of it on a steep, winding trail. Once there, a visitor found no amenities. Instead, he found a ladder-access cave that was difficult, perhaps dangerous, to tour. When through, he had to make his way out by the same arduous route he used to get there. This was a cave to be visited by fit, adventuresome people with lots of time on their hands, not the general public.
Constructing an access road and converting Shoshone Cavern into a public cave with related visitor services and infrastructure would be very expensive. Only a very special cave would merit that kind of investment. But this wasn’t Mammoth Cave or Carlsbad Caverns; it was just Shoshone Cavern. It would be a “minor” park s long as it existed.
It didn’t make good sense to keep the cave within the embrace of the park system primarily to protect it, either. There was no clear and present danger that the cave’s resources would be vandalized or stolen in the absence of national park stewardship.
There’s a thing you can do with a national park that shouldn’t be a national park, or which isn’t worth the money you’d need to spend on it. You can just subject it to benign neglect. You don’t spend money on facilities and staffing. You don’t open it to the public. You just mark time as the years or decades go by. You see that the required reports are filed. And then, after the principles have died or lost interest, and when nobody really cares much anymore, you just give it a quiet death by delisting it. That was the fate of South Dakota’s Fossil Cycad National Monument (1922-1957), South Carolina’s Castle Pinckney National Monument (1933-1956), Colorado’s Wheeler National Monument (1908-1950), and several others, including Wyoming’s Shoshone Cavern National Monument.
Caught up in the politics that surrounded the addition of Jackson Hole National Monument to Grand Teton National Park, it was transferred to the city of Cody in 1951, legislatively abolished in 1953, and deleted from the park system in 1954.
Shoshone Cavern was restored to federal ownership after being under private management for a while. It is now under BLM management with very limited public access. There are locked gates at both the access road and the cave entrance.