Visitors such as Tom Jackson are allowed to get up close to the walls and rocks of the cave, formed when seams of gypsum dissolved and allowed surrounding limestone to collapse. (THE BLADE/LORI KING) <br> <img src=http://www.toledoblade.com/graphics/icons/photo.gif> <font color=red><b>VIEW</font color=red></b>: <a href=" /apps/pbcs.dll/gallery?Avis=TO&Dato=20080609&Kategori=NEWS17&Lopenr=999724881&Ref=PH" target="_blank "><b>Seneca Caverns</b></a>
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BELLEVUE, Ohio - Fifty feet below the vast farmlands of Thompson Township in Seneca County, the visitors clamber down stone steps, deeper and deeper into the cave.
"That rock's called Duck Rock," said Justin See, 17, working his third summer as a tour guide at Seneca Caverns. "That's because if you don't duck, you might quack your head open."
Nearby, another tour guide tells a group of chattering children that an oddly shaped lump of stone is fossilized dinosaur droppings.
They squeal and laugh - until the guide reveals that the lump is actually an abandoned bag of cement turned rock-solid by the moisture in the cave.
The jokes are corny, said Mr. See, a senior at nearby Bellevue Senior High School, but they keep children entertained through the technical talk about stalactites, stalagmites, and speleothems.
Seneca Caverns, named one of Ohio's natural landmarks by former Gov. George Voinovich, has been open to the public for 75 years now, introducing thousands of people to the world beneath the surface of the earth.
Owner Dick Bell, 79, said the combination of entertainment and education in a hands-on environment distinguishes Seneca Caverns from the hundreds of other commercial caves in the country. The caverns offer visitors a more authentic experience, he said.
At many commercial caves, visitors walk across cement paths, holding onto handrails. Not at Seneca Caverns.
Most of the stairways and paths that lead visitors down into the depths of the cave are natural, although they've been cleared of debris and mud. Visitors travel up and down stone stairways and narrow passages, ducking beneath and stepping over outcroppings of rock.
Although the path isn't too physically demanding, visitors can feel the walls and the clay and get their shoes dirty. They can even take a sip from the crystal-clear river that runs beneath the cave, although it doesn't taste too good.
Seneca Caverns has grown over the years, trying to make itself more friendly to families by adding a picnic area and what it calls the "Seneca Mining Company." Visitors can buy a bag of dirt (they cost between $4 and $13, depending on the contents) and pan in a running water sluice to find the gemstones, arrowheads, or fossils hidden inside.
Though Seneca Caverns draws many families, it's also a popular destination for geology students and researchers, Mr. Bell said. That's because Seneca Caverns, nicknamed "The Earth Crack," is the only cave of its kind in North America open to the public, said Mr. Bell, a former president of the National Caves Association, the trade group for commercial cave owners.
Most caves form when water erodes solid limestone, opening up winding underground paths.
But scientists think Seneca Caverns formed when the river running beneath them rose and dissolved seams of a soft, delicate mineral called gypsum. As the gypsum washed away into the river, the surrounding limestone collapsed, leaving the jagged underground fissures that inspired the cave's nickname. The cave's ceiling and floor match like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in places, showing where the limestone broke apart.
The Jackson family of Indianapolis visited the cave last week on their way home from a trip to Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky. Tom Jackson, a father of two, said he had visited many caves after becoming interested as a Boy Scout but had never seen anything like Seneca Caverns.
"I've been to a lot of caves, and a lot of them are really commercialized," Mr. Jackson said. "This one is pretty natural, so it's cool they were able to maintain that."
While Seneca Caverns' natural feel has become a selling point, nature can also be unpredictable.
Most summers, the cave goes down seven levels and about 110 feet before hitting "Ole Mist'ry River," the underground stream that flows all the way to Lake Erie.
But northern Ohio has seen about five more inches of precipitation than normal this year, flooding the fifth through seventh levels of the caverns.
Mr. Bell said this kind of flooding occasionally happens during the spring, adding that he expects the bottom three levels to reopen by late summer as hot and dry weather brings the water table back to normal levels. In the meantime, he has lowered admission prices.
Mr. Bell has owned and operated the cave since 1964. He bought the cave from his father, Don, a Bellevue trial lawyer and geology enthusiast who purchased the cave for commercial development and opened it in 1933. It had been discovered about 50 years earlier when a pair of boys who lived nearby fell through a sinkhole while chasing rabbits, attracting amateur explorers and curious children, some of whom etched their names into the walls of one room for posterity.
Mr. Bell, who runs the caverns with his wife, Denise, said they do better business now than ever before, attracting between 200 and 500 visitors daily through the summer season.
Starting as a young boy, Dick Bell gave tours of the caverns to visitors, an experience that inspired him to become a geological engineer. He still gives tours to the college students and scientists who come to visit.
"We have an opportunity to introduce thousands of people every year, including students, to the world of geology," Mr. Bell said. "Caves are intriguing. Every one of them's different."
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