Good Life

Penns Cave offers portal to the past

A boat pulls into the dock area and entrance to Penns Cave following a tour on Monday, July 6, 2009. CDT/Christopher Weddle
A boat pulls into the dock area and entrance to Penns Cave following a tour on Monday, July 6, 2009. CDT/Christopher Weddle

You’re just about halfway down a steep flight of stairs when it hits you: a sudden rush of cool on a hot summer day. With each step, the chill gets stronger and by the time you reach your destination, you’re glad you brought along a sweater.

It’s midsummer in Pennsylvania, but here in Penn’s Cave, a massive limestone cavern in Centre Hall, the temperature is always a cool 52 degrees.

“It’s funny, it seems so cool now but if you come in February, it feels really good to go in there,” said Terry Schleiden, marketing director for Penn’s Cave.

As you take your place on one of the flat-bottom boats to tour the country’s only all-water cavern (more than 11 million gallons of water run through it), fat trout splash all around, jockeying for feed pellets visitors toss into the waters. Inside the 30-million-year-old cavern, tour guides point out glittering stalagmites and stalactites that have formed through the millennia.

Although most formations have names reflecting their shapes (Statue of Liberty, Niagara Falls), Jeanne Schleiden, president of Penn’s Cave Inc., said tour guides are placing more emphasis on the geologic development of the cavern.

“There are some, like the Statue of Liberty and the Garden of the Gods, that have held for more than 100 years,” said Schleiden, also a granddaughter of early owners Henry Clay Campbell and Robert P. Campbell. “But as the tour has evolved, we try to present more educational material so we don’t talk so much about the names of formations anymore.”

A healthy respect for nature

The property, situated on 1,600 acres, includes the cave, hotel, wildlife preserve and working farms where they raise feed for the animals in the preserve. Family-owned and operated for more than 100 years, the property recently was designated a century farm.

For the owners, the Schleiden family, caring for the cave and wild animals — bison, elk, mustangs, longhorn cattle, mountain lions, bears and more — truly is a labor of love.

“I never know how to dress when I get up in the morning,” said Russ Schleiden, CEO of Penn’s Cave Inc. “Sometimes I’m in dungarees, sometimes I’m in a suit representing the caves at a business meeting in State College. Sometimes we have to bottle-feed (baby animals) and the CEO does it. I’m out there mixing formula and playing momma. It’s a 24-hour-a-day responsibility.”

The boats pass through a low tunnel to emerge into the manmade Lake Nittany, where swans glide across the water. Elk, part of the adjacent wildlife preserve, can often be seen grazing lakeside. Both the tunnel and the lake were the brainchild of Jeanne Schleiden’s grandfather, Robert P. Campbell.

Sometime during the ’20s, Campbell, a civil engineer, came up with the idea of lighting the cave. The tunnel and lake were built to power a hydroelectric plant in the lake that provided electricity for the cave’s lights. “We really credit R.P. for his forward thinking,” Terry Schleiden said.

First discovered by the Seneca Indians, it wasn’t until 1795 that the Rev. James Martin, pastor of Penn's Valley’s first Presbyterian congregation, became the first white man to enter the formation. Guided tours of the cave have been offered since 1885, when the cave was viewed by lantern light. To accommodate guests, a hotel was built close by.

Today, the hotel (now serving as corporate offices and small rental facility) and cave are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Robert P. Campbell and Henry Clay Campbell bought the property for farming, not for the cave, Jeanne Schleiden said. Tours were still provided back in those days, but it was a much more casual affair.

“We had a little bell and you’d ring the bell and the guide would come in from the field where he’d been working and give a tour,” she said.

In 1980, Russ Schleiden, then a Pennsylvania game commissioner, was contacted about a mountain lion that had been taken from a private home. They built an enclosure near the entrance to the cave, and the wildlife preserve was founded.

Today, Penn’s Cave offers a 90-minute bus tour that takes visitors to see Texas Longhorn cattle, wild mustangs, bison, elk, deer, black bears, bobcats and mountain lions. As with the cavern tours, education is a key part of the tour and there’s nothing like seeing a black bear up close to make one appreciate their awesome power.

“One of our goals here is to have people learn to see and respect what’s out there,” Terry Schleiden said.

While they don’t release exact figures on how many people come through the cavern each year, Terry Schleiden said, the number is in the thousands. Visitors come from as far away as Hong Kong and Australia and all 50 states.

“On any busy summer day you can hear at least three languages in here,” she said.

Taking care of an ancient geologic formation isn’t always easy.

“I think the average person who walks through the door thinks we just collect tickets, but there’s an awful lot that goes on here,” Russ Schleiden said.

Simply changing a light bulb in the cave is quite a challenge. “It requires a lot of care and two or three people because you’re working in water with a boat and a ladder — sometimes up a 50-foot wall,” he said. “And you have to do it all without harming the formations.”

Around the entrance, the steep steps have to be kept clean and dry, and special lights that don’t promote algae growth are installed throughout the area. Other considerations include careful management of the farming so runoff doesn’t affect the cavern.

“We stopped using the silos around the barn because we were afraid silage leaking would do harm (to the cavern),” he said. “We’re very careful we don’t put anything on the ground that might harm it.”

“I think of myself as a gatekeeper, somebody that’s here to care for it and preserve it,” Jeanne Schleiden said. “I feel blessed I can be part of its management.”

Even after all these years, Jeanne still finds the soaring ceilings and complex formations inspiring.

“When you go in the cave and see the beauty, you just know it’s so much more than just you.”l

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