It’s not often that one gets to see a waterfall that is underground.
When I arrived in Chattanooga, I did not know about Ruby Falls—I was mostly interested in the Civil War sites. But I had grown up in eastern Pennsylvania and had visited Lost River Caverns many times, which features an underground river. So I quickly made plans to visit Ruby Falls.
During the Civil War, Chattanooga was a major transport hub and supply center, strategically located on the Tennessee River and several railroad lines. So when the Union Army captured the city in August 1863, the Confederates fought fiercely (but unsuccessfully) to take it back, resulting in the Battle of Chickamauga and then the Battle of Lookout Mountain. At Lookout Mountain, in November 1863, Union troops under General Joseph Hooker fought Confederates under General Braxton Bragg in a heavy fog which filled in the valley below while the top of the mountain poked above it. The fight became known as “The Battle Above the Clouds”.
During the fighting both Federal and Confederate troops had found shelter inside a large cavern that ran into the mountain. Most of Lookout Mountain consists of limestone from an ancient seabed, and millennia of rainwater had carved out several caves inside. Local Native American hunters and war parties had long utilized many of them as campsites, and Lookout Mountain Cave also became well-known to local adventurers. But in 1905, the cave entrance was destroyed when the Southern Railway Company blasted a tunnel through the area.
About ten years after the Railway Company finished its construction, Leo Lambert arrived in Chattanooga. He was following his fiancée Ruby Losey, who had moved here with her family, and the two were married in 1916. Leo was an avid spelunker, or cave explorer: he had been the first to investigate the caves on Mount Aetna TN, and had also managed Nickajack Cavern in Marion County, which was open to tourists. So he knew all about the Lookout Mountain Cave, and had grand plans to find the entrance and reopen the cave to tours. By 1928, he had scraped together enough money to buy land on the mountain, form a company, and hire workers to begin digging. His plan was to dig his way into the cavern from a level above the original cave entrance, and install an elevator to carry tourists in and out.
He was more successful than he could have hoped. In December 1928, while drilling out the elevator shaft about 200 feet down, Lambert’s workers unexpectedly hit an air void, exposing a narrow opening about five feet long. Since Lambert knew that the Lookout Mountain Cave was still at least 200 feet further down, he concluded that this must be a new and unknown cave. Squeezing through the narrow opening, he found himself in an underground passageway that winded its way for almost 100 yards into the mountain and apparently had no natural entrance on the outside. And then he found the falls: a large vertical chamber within the cave, about a thousand feet underground, where water percolating down from the surface formed a subterranean stream that plunged 145 feet into a pool of water, which then drained out into the Tennessee River. After taking his new wife down to see the spectacle, he named it Ruby Falls, after her.
It took another three months of digging to reach the original Lookout Mountain Cave, and now Lambert had plans to open both caverns for tourists. Using the limestone that had been removed from the elevator shaft, he built an imposing stone entrance building with a gift shop and restaurant (now known as “Cave Castle”), where visitors entered the elevator and were taken down to the subterranean chambers. The caves themselves were prepared with level walking pathways and electric lights. Tours of Lookout Mountain Cave began in December 1929. The work on Ruby Falls Cavern took a little longer, and tours didn’t begin there until the following June. After a short time, it became apparent that the tourists weren’t all that interested in the Civil War era cave—they all wanted to see the stunning underground waterfall instead. So the tours to Lookout Mountain Cave ended, and Ruby Falls became the sole focus.
Unfortunately for Lambert, the Great Depression crippled the tourist industry, and after several years of financial struggle he was forced to sell out. The cave complex was passed on to the local Steiner family, who still own it.
The new owners began an advertising blitz. Local farmers were paid to paint huge “See Ruby Falls” signs on the side of their barns, and roadside billboards appeared on roads and highways for dozens of miles around. When Route 75 was built in the 70s, it was festooned with billboards.
Today, Ruby Falls is one of the major tourist attractions in Chattanooga, along with the Civil War battlefields. The site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.
There are regular tours all day. Since the cavern is relatively young, geologically speaking, it does not have as many calcium formations as the larger and older caves do, but the tour still stops at a number of stalactites, columns, flowstones and chambers. At one point the tour guides note that the water that percolates down into the cave contains a lot of dissolved magnesium, and joke that if you drink any, you probably won’t have enough time to make it back to the bathroom before you make a mess.
The climax of the tour is of course the Falls. There is a flat area at the base of the Falls, next to the pool, where tourists can gather for a prerecorded choreographed show featuring colored lights and music. The Falls is fed mostly by rainwater which filters down from the surface, and it takes a few days for the water to get all the way down. So the best time to see the Falls is a couple days after a heavy rain (though the Falls never dries up completely).
For some reason, there is a silly conspiracy theory about Ruby Falls that has gained life on the Internet, claiming that the Falls actually stopped running a long time ago (or perhaps never ran at all), and that the whole thing is now faked using water pumps inside an artificial chamber (perhaps lined with Styrofoam or cement to look like rock). It’s … um … not true.