The interior of Three Caves is closed due to rockfall. The property is posted NO TRESPASSING and admission to the cave bowl is by permission only. The trails surrounding the cave are open.
Three Caves is not a cave at all, but a former limestone mine called Hermitage Quarry. The mine began operating on a small basis in the spring of 1945. The site of Three Caves was owned by Madison County and leased to Madison Limestone Company for five cents per ton of limestone hauled away.
The initial operation was on a very small scale. Dynamite was used to blast the ground and expose the limestone. The large limestone rocks were then broken by manual labor using a sledgehammer and hauled to the “jammer” mill, which crushed it into useable pieces. It was then trucked away for either agricultural or construction use.
After World War II ended, the demand for limestone for construction increased for a fast-growing Huntsville. At its height, the quarry spawned tons of limestone that paved the majority of Huntsville’s original main streets and parking lots.
First, a jaw crusher was installed. This took the place of the manually operated sledgehammer. Dumpsters replaced the wheelbarrow for hauling the limestone rock to the crusher. Eventually, huge Euclid’s would replace the dumpsters. As time passed, another jaw crusher and two more hammer mills were added. (Remnants of these items may be found near the gravel road entrance off of Kennamer Lane.) At its height, the mine would employ twenty-five workers.
Around 1949, the type of mining shifted from the “drill and shoot” method of blasting an open pit to the more complicated “room and pillar” method of mining. There were two reasons for this change. First, the upper strata contained little of the good limestone needed. It was rocky earth, which had to be blasted out and then moved to expose the “good” limestone beneath. The second was that the city of Huntsville was growing rapidly around the quarry area. The “drill and shoot” method, with its open blasting, resulted in large quantities of dust and flying rocks landing outside the boundaries of the quarry, sometimes with disastrous results.
The Hermitage Quarry closed in 1952 due to skyrocketing operation costs and the growth of Huntsville. The cost of excavating equipment and newer competitive open pit mines were squeezing out the quarry. The quick expansive growth of Huntsville was encroaching on the boundaries of the quarry. The rock crushing process raised huge clouds of heavy white dust that settled onto laundry, autos, and people alike. The constant noise of the heavy lumbering trucks traveling up and down the roadways and the frequent explosions were very unsettling as well. Progress had caught up with Hermitage Quarry so the mine was abandoned.
The former quarry was donated to the Land Trust of North Alabama in 1989 and became Three Caves. Madison County designated Three Caves as a fallout shelter during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Since the 1980’s, Three Caves has been used as a movie backdrop for films including “Ravagers,” starring Richard Harris and Ernest Borgnine (using about 350 Huntsville residents as extras) and “What Waits Below” with Timothy Bottoms. The locally produced movie “20 Years After” also prominently features Three Caves.
The band Kansas released a 30th anniversary CD/DVD box set called “Sail On” that has most of the music videos that Kansas did from the seventies and eighties. There is a video shot in Three Caves from the Monolith album is called “Reason to Be.”
Due to rockfall issues, summer tours were ended and the interior was closed in 2007. Today the old quarry bowl is the site of the Land Trust’s popular Moon Over Three Caves Dance (always on the third Saturday in September), Spring Jazz Concerts at the Caves, and environmental education activities. Rescue and law enforcement groups have been given permission to train at the site.
Though the Caves are a man-made phenomenon, Mother Nature is slowly asserting her influence. Geological formations of flowstone, stalactites, and stalagmites are forming. Some birds, lizards, and lichens have been noted. The future of the Three Caves Quarry is now assured through the preservation of it history and its natural evolving wonders by the Land Trust of North Alabama.