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Drought impacting southwest Missouri reveals section of rimstone cave

Smallin Cave - Ozark, MO
William Roberts
Smallin Cave
The interior of Smallin Civil War Cave Cave in Ozark.

Fluctuating water levels are normal for Smallin Civil War Cave in Ozark, Missouri. But the prolonged drought affecting the Midwest has revealed a section of the cave that has been underwater for decades.

The southwest region of the state is under an extreme drought, according to a national monitor of current drought conditions.

During the last drought in summer 2012, Smallin Cave’s owner and operator, Kevin Bright, became interested in exploring this uncharted section. However, the water was still too high.

Smallin was the first documented cave in Missouri and is a registered National Historic Place. It was home to members of the Osage Nation. As reported by Smallin Cave’s historians, it gave shelter to Union soldiers during the Civil War and the Cherokee Nation during the Trail of Tears.

The cave has a stream in it that flows out to an opening that is 55 feet high and 100 feet wide. Once the water recedes, new artifacts show up in new places and new areas are exposed.

“There is a treasure trove of valuable links to the past when different sections appear,” Bright said.

This year the water levels were low enough for Bright, a team of archaeologists and cave surveyors with Springfield Plateau Grotto to crawl for more than an hour through a narrow passage to a huge room.

“Missouri has over 7,500 caves,” said Bright. “We really don’t know where they go. We’re still finding new passageways.”

Springfield Plateau Grotto mapped the new section, and archaeologists found mastodon teeth and the shoulder blade of a large mammal. Potentially, it is that of a giant ground sloth.

“In that section we did find animal tracks,” said Bright, “which means there’s another opening somewhere. The Ozarks geology is pretty amazing, and there's something new every year that’s discovered.”

Bright said Smallin is nothing but small. And now, 1,100 more feet are explorable until water levels rise again. Bright doubts the new room will be accessible to the public. However, all artifacts found will be added to the interpretive center for tourists to access.

Britny Cordera is a poet and journalist based in St. Louis and is currently serving as a newsroom intern at St. Louis Public Radio.