The Alabaster Cave, El Dorado County
By John E. Allen
John E. Allen is an instructor in history at American River College and a research associate at the California State Capitol Museum. He is the author of Sacramento’s Capitol Park, Arcadia Publishing, 2013.
As a teenager my friends and I were always trying to find out-of-the-way places at Folsom Lake to hang out. One of them proved to be a particular favorite. It was not only quite isolated, located on a winding country road northwest of Pilot Hill, but also very mysterious with old ruined buildings and an operating quarry. Better yet, it had an entrance to a cave which we would crawl into and explore. Little did we know at the time that it was the location of one of the Golden State’s largest limestone quarries and home to a famous 19th-century resort and hotel.
Some years later, I returned to find the quarry was closed down and the opening to the cave covered up. I started to research the site to learn more about its lost story. My visits to the California Room at the California State Library helped me greatly in filling out the story of Alabaster Cave. I was amazed to find out how popular this now forlorn and lonely site had been at one time. My research led me to a particular lithographic poster in the collection that especially caught my attention and imagination. It has always remained in my memory over the years and has continued to inspire me in doing further research into one of the Gold Country’s least known historic places.
El Dorado County was home to numerous limestone quarries and kilns. The Alabaster limestone quarry and kiln was a major producer of lime, the burnt limestone used for making mortar and plaster. It was quarried on a site located on Kidd Ravine near the north fork of the American River. William Gwynn and H. T. Holmes operated the Alabaster limestone mine for many years after its discovery in 1860. Holmes would also operate the nearby Alabaster Hotel.
The Alabaster quarry and kiln supplied San Francisco and Sacramento with large volumes of processed lime. The kiln produced forty barrels a day, requiring more than three cords of wood. The burnt lime was loaded into wagons to be shipped across Rattlesnake Bar cable suspension bridge to then be freighted down to Sacramento for further shipment across California. Alabaster lime was used in the construction of numerous brick and stone buildings throughout the state — including the California State Capitol. The quarry was in operation for over a century.
Along with the discovery of the Alabaster limestone quarry itself, came the opening up of a series of underground caves and caverns. As word spread about subterranean marvels, interest developed among the public in the “Alabaster Caves.” As newspaper reports and then magazines and books spread the news about its wonders, demand to visit the caves grew. This soon led to the rerouting of stage lines from Folsom so visitors could make the round trip in a day to visit the site. Two promoters, George S. Halterman and a man named Smith, who were the lessees of the property, began providing tours of the Alabaster Cave after its opening in April 1860. Well over 600 visitors toured the caves in just the first month.
There were two separate chambers in the caves. Visitors were greeted as they entered the first by the “Coral Cave” register which contained the names of 2,714 visitors for the first four months. Various remarkable features were quickly assigned imaginative names on account of their varied shapes: “Agate Hall,” “Mystic Gallery,” “Sea-shell Pass,” “Lot’s Wife,” “Hercules’ Club,” and “Mrs. Lincoln’s Handkerchief.” One area, the “Crystal Chapel,” with its very own “Pulpit,” was even used for religious services and choral performances.
One of the many visitors was Maude Needham (Latimer), a California woman artist and the wife of Judge Lorenzo Dow Latimer. The Yreka resident entered drawings in the 1860 State Fair. These later became the basis for illustrations in the 1860 Hutchings’ California Magazine article about the cave’s many underground wonders. These were copied in later publications such as Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity in California.
One of Needham’s illustrations also served as the inspiration for the State Library’s striking lithograph poster advertising the caves. In it, the woman standing with her back to the viewer in the foreground reminds one of the famous Caspar David Friedrich’s painting, Hiker above a Sea of Mist, with a man standing at the edge of an abyss. Only in this case the abyss is subterranean. Part Gothic fantasy, part mystical reverie, the scene reflects the Romantic artistic trends of the day, which place humans on a much smaller scale in the face of a seemingly overpowering backdrop of nature.
Alabaster even had its own post office for a time which operated from February 23, 1883, to July 10, 1888. The Alabaster Post Office was probably connected with the Alabaster Hotel. William E. Donahoo was the first and only postmaster. To date, no postal cancelations or correspondence have been reported from the five years when it was in operation.
One of the cave’s earliest and most famous visitors was Thomas Starr King. Starr King (1824–64) was a prominent New England Universalist minister who played a crucial role during the Civil War in helping to maintain California’s loyalty to the Union. The preacher, turned mountaineer and naturalist, was one of the most eloquent spokesmen for the state’s natural beauty. He became a pioneering champion of California’s natural treasures. Through his many writings, the “Bostonian Californian” often spoke eloquently of creating “Yosemite’s of the soul.” He helped to influence President Abraham Lincoln and Congress to make Yosemite Valley into California’s first state park in 1864.
During his numerous visits to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Starr King was the first person of note to visit the caves in August of 1860 and to write a glowing account of “this crystalline museum”: The reports of its beauty, we were glad to find, had not been exaggerated . . . . The variety and detail in the cavern . . . are the most fascinating specimens of color I have ever seen . . . . It would be impossible, without prolix and wearisome minuteness, to describe the varieties of ornament and colors on the walls of the main cave. Every step takes the visitor to some new quaintness of device, or charm of crystallization, or delicacy of tinting which puts a fine edge on his delight.
Starr’s visit was followed the next month by the reporter from Hutchings’ California Magazine who wrote about “this New California Wonder” and in particular about the “Crystal Chapel”: “The most beautiful chamber of the whole suite, entitled the ‘Crystal Chapel,’ is impossible to find suitable language or comparisons to describe this magnificent spot . . . . The sublime grandeur of this imposing sight fills the soul with astonishment . . . . Every imaginary gracefulness possible . . . is here visible, ‘carved in alabaster’ by the Great Architect of the universe.”
He ended with the following encouraging words for other visitors of his day, “As the ride is agreeable; the fare cheap; the coachman obliging; the guides attentive; and the spectacle one of the most singular and imposing in the State, we say to everyone, by all means, go and see it.”
Sadly, this is no longer possible as all that remains today of the limestone mining operation and the Alabaster Cave is a substantial, three-arched stone ruin with a much-worn inscription: “W. Gwynn 1862.” So now, we can only make the visit to this early California wonder in our imagination, but happily aided by Maude Needham’s wonderful illustrations and the reports of the cave’s early visitors.
This article is from the California State Library Foundation’s Bulletin #124. For more articles, artwork or information please visit our website www.cslfdn.org
SHORT READING LIST
J. Ross Browne. “Washoe Revisited.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Vol. 30. №180, May, 1865.
Caroline M. Churchill. Over the Purple Hills or Sketches of Travel in California. 1882.
Edan Milton Hughes. Artists of California, 1784–40. 2002.
J. M. Hutchings. Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity in California. 1862.
Hutchings’ California Magazine. Vol. V, №6, December, 1860.
Kevin Knaus. Hidden History Beneath Folsom Lake. 2016.
Robert Monzingo. Thomas Starr King. 1991.
Angel Myron. History of Placer County. 1882.
G. W. Pine. Beyond the West. 1871.
H. E. Salley. History of California Post Offices, 1849–1990. 1991.
William Day Simmons. Starr King in California. 1917.
Paolo Sioli. Historical Souvenir of El Dorado County. 1883.
Thomas Starr King. “Visit to a Cave in California.” Christian Ambassador. Vol. X. №40, 1860.
— — — — — — — — — — — -. A Vacation Among the Sierras. John Hussey, editor. 1962