Exploring the diverse museums and stunning geologic formations of the Shenandoah Valley
Founded in 1796, New Market lies in the heart of Virginia’s scenic Shenandoah Valley. This small, peaceful town with a mere 1,700 residents boasts lovely tree-lined streets, quaint shops, historic buildings and numerous caverns in and around the area. However, New Market wasn’t always peaceful. It was once the site of a bloody battle.
That battle is memorialized at the New Market Battlefield State Historical Park. All sites within the park — a historic farm, walking trails, picnic areas and the magnificent Hall of Valor Civil War Museum — are within easy walking distance over mostly flat terrain. With a map obtained at the museum, we opted for the self-guided battlefield tour that provided us with an opportunity to reflect upon the social and military struggle that had taken place in New Market.
The museum is a memorial to the Virginia Military Institute cadets and all soldiers who fought during the Battle of 1864. It houses fascinating artifacts and dioramas conveying the story of Virginia during the Civil War. The unique stained-glass window mural, depicting the war in the Shenandoah Valley, is awesome. An award-winning film, Field of Lost Shoes, plays every hour and dramatically describes the battle and why 257 young cadets from the Virginia Military Institute joined the Confederate forces to help defend the Valley and, miraculously, won.
After spending some time inside, we roamed the grounds examining displays that made history come alive once again. Along the 1-mile numbered path, we found key points of the final Confederate assault of the Union line, which helped to visualize what the Cadet Corps had to contend with. Included is the Bushong Farm where several generations of Bushongs lived before the orchard became a battlefield and the family’s house was turned into a hospital. The lower floor replicates what the hospital looked like when it was used to care for wounded soldiers. Be forewarned: If children are with you or you get queasy seeing blood, skip this room because imagining the soldiers’ suffering is upsetting while looking down at the 10-12 inches of straw. The straw wasn’t used to protect the flooring, but to absorb oozing blood and give the doctors traction while operating — without antiseptic or anesthesia to block the pain.
Located outside the house is farm equipment from that period — the typical semi-cylindrical oven used by Valley families, a large hanging bell next to the oven used to summon the family to dinner or as a warning signal, a summer kitchen, wash house, and blacksmith and wheelwright shops.
After their victory, New Market’s citizens helped the Confederate States Army bury the dead (including 10 cadets), care for the wounded and search for abandoned Federal supplies. While this battle was a success for New Market, it was also the last of major Southern victories.
In addition, we explored numerous caverns near New Market. We started with Endless Caverns, a limestone solution cave, adjacent to the NASCAR RV Resort. The RV resort is a deluxe campground with exceptionally large, wooded, pull-through sites offering full hookups, clean restrooms and hiking trails. One moderately strenuous trail leads to the largest lighted sign in the nation, where the name, “Endless Caverns” is spelled out in letters 70 feet high! The sign can also be reached by automobile.
Two boys who were chasing a rabbit across their grandfather’s farm discovered the caverns in 1879. Just when they thoug
ht they had cornered the rabbit between two boulders, it disappeared into a hole and, instead of finding the rabbit when they crawled in after it, they found the caverns.
During our 75-minute guided tour 145 feet below ground, we learned that the temperature in the cavern remains at 55 degrees year-round. Walking can be a bit tricky, as the trail is uneven and wet in spots, so use the handrails. Many explorers have attempted to reach the end of the caverns but, to this day, no one has been successful in finding the end — thus its name, Endless Caverns.
We admired the striking colors and shapes of hundreds of formations, learning that the white coloring is from calcite deposits, green from iron oxide and blue from manganese. Since the acid in water only dissolves a tenth of an inch of limestone per year, it’s easy to understand why it took centuries for these caverns to form.
Highlights of the cavern include the huge Ballroom where weddings are held, seeing formations known as “Draperies” that hang freestyle and those that cling against the wall, called “Curtains.” The scariest part was when our tour guide turned off the lights and we stood in total darkness for a couple of minutes. Without light, we realized we’d never be able to find our way out!
From New Market we traveled a few miles west to the famous Luray Caverns for a different perspective. Designated a U.S. Natural Landmark by the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service in 1974, Luray was discovered in 1878 by a tinsmith who felt a draft of cool air rising from a hole in the ground. He and a companion carefully widened the opening, climbed down and found the caverns.
The Cathedral Room houses the “Great Stalacpipe Organ,” reputed to be the world’s largest musical instrument. Covering 3.5 acres, it produces tones of symphonic quality when electronically tapped by rubber-tipped mallets. Leland Sprinkle, the mathematician and electronic scientist who began the monumental three-year project, searched the vast chambers of the caverns selecting stalactites to precisely match a musical scale. Ultimately, in 1954, he invented this one-of-a-kind instrument.
Like other visitors, we couldn’t resist tossing a coin into the large subterranean pool of water that’s more than 6 feet deep and known as the Wishing Well. When the pool is drained once a year, the coins are removed, counted, bagged and deposited in a special bank account for future distribution to charitable organizations. So far more than $450,000 has been donated.
Included in the admission is entry to the adjacent Car and Carriage Caravan Museum, which traces the history of America in an exhibit featuring more than 140 items relating to transportation dating back to 1725. The rare 1892 Benz, one of the oldest cars in the country, is still in operating condition.
Also on-site is the Luray Valley Museum, which celebrates the region’s Shenandoah culture. It features numerous displays of the area’s artifacts from the 1750s to the 1920s, including a German Bible dating from 1536. Here, the history of the early settlers is told, from their decorative arts to their search for religious freedom. In addition, a collection of historic local buildings have been moved to this site and restored to represent a small 19th-century farming community.
Luckily, we were in time to hear the bells at the Luray Singing Tower opposite Luray Caverns. Erected in 1937, at 117 feet high, it contains a carillon of 47 bells, with the largest weighing 7,640 pounds and 6 feet in diameter, and the smallest weighing 12½ pounds.
After the tour, we stopped at The Garden Maze 100 yards past Luray Caverns. Said to be the largest one of its kind in the Middle Atlantic states, it was one of the highlights of our trip. When we tried to find our way out of this lovely 1-acre ornamental garden, we kept going back and forth until “rescued” by one of the attendants. She described the trick to getting through, and noted that mazes have existed for centuries in scores of cultures in countless forms around the world. This half-mile-long maze consists of more than 1,500 8-foot-tall, 4-foot-wide dark American arborvitae. To make our journey more complicated, and baffling, a misting fog was set off at various locations to provide cooling and special effects. We had to laugh when it began raining during the fog! Fountains and various adornments are tucked into nooks and crannies and an elevated platform provides a good view of the maze below.
On another day, we drove to Shenandoah Caverns where several attractions await visitors for one admission fee. Discovered in 1884 while building a division of the Southern Railway, it opened to visitors in 1922. This was the easiest cavern to explore with paved passageways, no steps to climb and hardly any grades — and an elevator that takes visitors from the main center to 60 feet below. The one-hour, 1-mile guided tour was unforgettable, especially Bacon Hall, named for the formations that resemble huge strips of bacon suspended in air. Many large areas were profusely decorated with thick coatings of flowstone and giant drapery stalactites, while a narrow passageway led into a pretty alcove containing an array of small stalactites and columns. At Goat Head Rock, the deepest point in the caverns at 220 feet, we admired additional sheets of bacon formations, more stalactites, stalagmites and beautiful flowstone formed by calcium carbonate masses covering the walls.
One of the delightful attractions at Shenandoah Caverns is Main Street of Yesteryear — a collection of animated window displays that had once graced the windows of many department stores. Winding our way through displays more than 50 years old, we delighted in the family of growling gigantic stuffed bears originally featured in the 1993 Rose Bowl Parade, a working circus under the big top, Cinderella at the Ball and many more.
We also enjoyed seeing the smallest working post office in the United States. When the caverns first opened, the post office was in operation 24 hours a day for hotel guests, but it closed during World War II and reopened in 1966.
Another on-site attraction is the American Celebration on Parade, a 40,000-square-foot building housing parade floats, props and sets from major national celebrations. We admired the Statue of Liberty, a 40-foot-tall, 1,700-pound statue greeting visitors at the entrance. Some of the most impressive floats are the American Eagle theme float built for the 2001 Inaugural Parade, the huge American flag designed for President Reagan’s second inauguration in 1985 and the Four Native Americans Exhibit, outlining the history of the Shenandoah Valley. The sculptured Native American Indian head was built around a tractor that towed a large Thanksgiving float in the Philadelphia Thanksgiving Parade. Later, it was also used in President Clinton’s inaugural parade.
Our visit to New Market proved to be a fun and educational experience above and below ground. Whether you’re an American history buff, or have an interest in geology, you’ll find something to enjoy at New Market.
IF YOU GO
Endless Caverns & RV Resort | 540-896-2283 | www.endlesscaverns.com
Luray Caverns | 540-743-6551 | www.luraycaverns.com | Garden Maze, 540-843-0769
New Market Battlefield State Historical Park | 866-515-1864 | www2.vmi.edu/museum/nm
Shenandoah Caverns | 888-422-8376 | www.shenandoahcaverns.com
Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Camp-Resorts | 800-420-6679 | www.campluray.com