On May 22, 1842, Howe entered the cave with Wetsel. Day after day, the two returned to explore the caverns. Each time, they would go a little farther. Each time they would emerge wet and muddy, but exalted by the thrill of their discoveries. They hammered a piece of tin into a lamp to burn whale oil as their light source. They explored about one and a half miles of underground passageways – all by the dim, flickering light of the small oil lamp. They built a raft and crossed what we know today as the Lake of Venus.
In February, 1843, Howe purchased the property from Wetsel for $100.
At age 33, Lester Howe opened Howe’s Cave as the country’s third commercial cave venture. Improvements in the cave began almost immediately with Howe’s announcements to the press rivaling his cave with the great Mammoth Cave of Kentucky.
The treasure that was 156-feet below the earth’s surface, that had so delighted Howe and Wetsel, had begun its mission of thrilling millions more.
The earliest paid explorations in 1843 through Howe’s Cave were real adventures. Howe charged 50 cents to take visitors on a torch-lit, eight-to-10-hour tour of the caverns. Torches, flambeaus (parade torch), or lanterns were the most common lighting used. Visitors were provided with suitable clothing for the caverns trip through mud, clay and 42-degree water.
Sometimes they would be given a box lunch at the half-way point, today known as the Bronze Room. Lester Howe would, as one newspaper reporter noted, “ petrify his guests into speechlessness.” He would take, from under his arm, “a mysterious box, shaped like a baby’s coffin, from which he took out a violin” Howe, the fiddler, made the caverns’ visitors “caper about him in wild excitement…and the magic of the place transformed his humble instrument into something divine…”
Howe also delighted in showing his visitors the height of the Great Rotunda, today seen only on Howe Caverns’ Adventure Tours. Described as the greatest wonder of all, the circular room is twenty-five feet wide and three-hundred feet high. And, to show it off, Howe would shoot Roman candles into the dome so that guests could marvel at its beauty. His guests enjoyed his personally guided tours.
In 1861, students from Union College in Schenectady wrote that they “entered the cave with Mr. Howe precisely at Midnight. Two of the party ascended to the top of the ladder in the Rotunda and each fired off a Roman candle. The party reached the mouth of the cave at 7 o’clock the next morning”.
In 1843, Howe built his first cave house hotel at the natural entrance site. The earliest paid explorations through Howe's Cave were real adventures. Howe charged fifty cents to take early adventurers on a torch-lit, 8-10 hour caverns tour. Torches, flambeaus (parade torches), or whale oil lanterns were the most common means of light. (The latter two are on display at the Caverns' museum.)
Often to their chagrin and amusement, visitors were provided with clothing suitable for the caverns trip through mud, clay and 42-degree water. They were provided with straw hats, cowhide shoes, ungainly overalls and blouses. The ladies often wore navy blue flannel suits, trimmed with white braid. A box lunch was provided for the halfway point, and many visitors returned to the Cave House for a hearty meal and drink at the conclusion of their tour. Howe, as tour guide, provided entertainment for his guests.
By 1845, the Howe family Cave House needed an addition to accommodate the growing number of guests. This first hotel burned in 1847. When building the replacement, Howe located the northern wing of the new spacious hotel directly above the caverns' entrance. Visitors entered the cave through a stairway in the basement, and the cool air from the cave circulated through the hotel. This provided guests with an early form of natural air conditioning. Meals were provided in the dining room, and at night the guests were entertained by Howe or one of his daughters at the family piano.
On September 27, 1854 as a publicity stunt, Harriet Elgiva Howe wed Hiram Shipman Dewey in a natural loft called the Bridal Chamber, just within the caverns' entrance.
Please note: historical excerpts taken from The Remarkable Howe Caverns Story by Dana Cudmore, The Overlook Press, Woodstock, NY, Copyright 1990.
The coming of the railroad prompted great excitement, and many more visitors could come tour the cave, arriving at the station established at Howe's Cave, an easy walk to the Cave House Hotel. The number of guests increased steadily. Howe's Cave became a leading New York attraction, second only to Niagara Falls, as it is today.
Howe prospered. He continued to add to his property and make improvements to the cave, seriously overextending himself in the process. Then in January of 1872, the second Cave Hotel burned, and at about the same time, the public's interest in caves waned. With the number of visitors declining steadily, Howe entered into a joint stock agreement with railroad magnate/politician Joseph H. Ramsey and two other partners to keep his small empire afloat and finance a third construction of the hotel. Ramsey was an astute businessman (and the president of the Albany & Susquehanna Railroad) and realized the value of Howe's Cave for other, more industrial purposes: there was a huge market for cement and plaster as building material, and the limestone of Howe's Cave would be worth a small fortune. Ramsey, on several occasions, offered to buy Howe's interest in the cave, but Howe refused. He loved the caverns too deeply. Finally, when Howe was 59 and increasingly eccentric, Ramsey succeeded.
Howe retired to his property across the valley. From his front porch, he watched train cars of visitors load and unload at the Howes Cave depot and watched smoke rise from the cement kilns. For the next 45 years, no one toured Howe's underground world. It would take a new generation of explorers to bring back Howe's Cave for all the world to see.