A Cave That Breathes

The Lakota say it is the opening through which the buffalo emerged from the underworld. Later, when the world was ready, humans also came through there. The creator god shrunk the opening after everyone emerged so that the people would remember where they came from.

A Sioux story tells of a medicine man who was drawn to the opening by the whistling noise it was making. He felt a strong wind blowing and was afraid. He said there was a giant living inside and the wind was its breath. Much later a great warrior was sent inside to find out if the giant still lived there, but as the warrior approached a woman appeared. She told the warrior that she was the buffalo woman and if his people would dedicate the cave to the Great Spirit and offer tokens then the buffalo would come out of the gap and fill the Great Plains.

summitdotorgwindcaveopening 2
The natural entrance to the Wind Cave. It is barely big enough to fit a small, skinny person. Photo credit: summit.org

The “discovery”
In 1881, two brothers, Jesse and Tom Bingham, heard the whistling noise, though there would be no buffalo woman this time. Instead, Tom’s hat was blown clean off his head. A few days later Tom came back with some friends – because that’s what you do when a hole in the ground blows your hat off. You gather witnesses. To his surprise, on his second visit his hat was sucked into the hole.

Oh, how I wish there really had been a giant down there.

Sadly, this is a Columbusing story. And like most Columbusing stories things get worse before they get better. This was the 1880’s in North America. It was the time of Jesse James and Billy the Kid and the OK Corral. Lawlessness was the law of the land, and in 1887 the U.S. government passed the Dawes Act, which was the first of three laws that systematically deprived the Native Americans of what little lands they had left. (All three of those laws – Dawes, Curtis, and Burke – were criminal. Read up on them and despair).

So. Much. Wrong. Photo credit: Wikipedia

By 1890 it didn’t matter that the Wind Cave was a sacred site to the Lakota. It had been “discovered,” and there might be gold. GOLD! Mining rights were established and the South Dakota Mining Company hired a family – the McDonalds – to manage the claim.

No gold, no problem
Only there wasn’t any gold in the cave. There weren’t any worthwhile minerals at all. It was just a cave. But it was massive. So the McDonald’s changed their game and decided they could make money by giving tours.

Now, I have to pause here to give some respect to Alvin McDonald, the son of the elder McDonald. This kid really loved exploring that cave. He started when he was sixteen. He’d go in with a ball of twine and a candle, and he’d map whatever he could. The twine he unraveled would be his only path out again.

On our tour the ranger turned out the lights to give us a sense for what Alvin was up against. It’s dark, you guys. Like, zero light. Nothing is alive down there. Nothing moves. It’s just dark and silent. This Alvin kid kept going back down there even though at one point he wrote in his diary that he’d “given up trying to find the end of the cave.”

Alvin McDonald. He died at the age of 20 from typhoid fever. The cave didn’t get him sick. Chicago did. Photo from NPS.gov

The McDonalds eventually partnered up with another family, the Stablers, to open an inn that would house the tourists. Things went well for a while, but then the two families started feuding. One was keeping money they shouldn’t, the other had no right to the land, yadda yadda yadda, next thing you know they’re in court.

What the government giveth, the government taketh away…and then sort of giveths again
In a turn that made my heart glow a little, the courts decided that since no mining or homesteading ever actually took place at the site neither family could legally claim rights to the cave. They were both booted off the land and Theodore Roosevelt made it a national park in 1903.

So the sacred land that had been taken from the Lakota and opened up for exploitation was now federally protected. In a way, it got its sacred status back, although it never was returned to its rightful people. Huzzah, and also ick. Shit’s complicated.

As above, so below
Geologically speaking, the whole area is a treasure. Above ground it’s a vast open prairie. It is truly an amazing thing to witness a herd of buffalo walking through prairie grass.

windcave - 3
Where the buffalo roam…on federally protected lands. Photo by Tricia.

Underneath all that yellow and green magnificence is this crazy cave, formed over millennia by water. It seeped into the limestone and dissolved it, bit by bit, as it it passed through cracks and pores in the stone. This went on for millions of years until most of the stone was hollowed out. Some left over calcium was re-deposited in the cave and became these crazy formations. It’s not especially pretty in there, but it is unique.

Inside the cave. The formations at the top of the image are called “boxwork” and 95% of the Earth’s boxwork formations are in Wind Cave. Photo credit: Pure Wander

At present, cavers have mapped 140 miles of cave passageways all within just one square mile of land, and the rangers say that’s probably only five percent of what’s there. Balrog may yet lie in wait.

windcave - 2
A few of the more creative names that cavers have given the passageways. Photo credit: T

Conservationists are also working to return the land above ground to what it was prior to our inglorious exploitation phase. We know now that what goes on above ground has a dramatic impact on the cave. Shifting patterns of wildlife can change the way that ground water flows, which can change the cave a lot.

The cave that breathes
This is indeed a cave that breathes. The wind blows in and out at about 23 miles per hour. The direction of the breath has to do with barometric pressure. If the pressure higher in the cave, the wind blows out. If it’s higher outside the cave, the wind blows inwards.

Either way you’ll lose your hat.


  1. Love the crazy names: El-Poopo, Cow Pie…did they let the teenagers name parts of the cave? 🙂
    So cool that you got to see this and tell us all the history. Oh white people, we do tend to muck things up Big Time.


  2. This is great! I hope you are putting all these stories into a book! Such great information about the area, it’s history and your personal humor makes it a worthwhile read!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s