Ocala Caverns-A fond Memory of Days Gone By

Feb 06, 2021

After groggily awaking to the sound of pouring rain and 45 degree temperatures outside, it seemed like a good Saturday to just stay in bed. The morning hygiene ritual was conducted without much thought before moving on to a good cup of coffee. Sitting down and feeling the gentle steamy warmth radiate into my hands, I thought of the day’s plans and preparations. Taking my first sip of the sweet bitterness while looking at the first rays of light competing with drifting dark splotches of clouds outside the rain soaked windows, I realized I just wanted to go back in lie down. By the time my mug was empty, I felt a bit more awake. It was time to leave the second comfort zone of the day and start the two hour drive south from Jacksonville to Ocala.

Windshild wipers make a futile attempt at keeping the windshield clear as traffic lights throw blurred misty stars of color over empty puddled streets. It seems no one else wants to be out in this terrible weather either. Turning up the radio volume, Bob Seeger belts out a finger tapping tune in competition with the rhythmic thumping of the windshield wipers–WE ARE ON OUR WAY!

The rain had stopped by the time I arrived at the meeting place, which was a closed down BP gas station in Ocala. Karen had just driven three hours from Tallahassee and Nicole, being from Ocala, didn’t drive far at all. I have never met either person before, but we all have common interests in the nature and the underground. We are all excited and ready to go. After a quick check for several missing people, we found that our group was complete. We drove over to meet the wonderful smile of Carrie Brown who had unlocked the gate for us and was awaiting our arrival.

The trash can looking object was a safety device put over the top of the sinkhole to prevent people from falling into the cave below.

An Interesting History

Ocala Caverns was a quarry around the turn of the century up until the early 1920s. It was used during the 1930s for a movie set, and purchased in the late 1940s for a tea house property. The tea house sat out-front with paths into the quarry. They had plants and flowers along the path for a botanical garden experience. In 1953 Edmond Heintz bought the property and turned it into ‘Magic Valley and Coral Caverns’, showcasing the quarry and dry cave.

Then in 1958, Alex and Clara Petz bought the property, and changed the name to ‘Uranium Valley and Caves’. This may have been when the “Iron Curtain” was hung in the back of the dry cave. Uranium was thought to be good for your skin. There is no Uranium back there, but it was a great selling point.

The Tea House is visible, with the new tower to overlook the gardens.

The property was really updated in 1958 when Clifford Jack bought it. He made the underground boat tour, added lights, and may have built the stairs and pyramid entrance to the wet cave.

Ocala Caverns in 1958.

Professional Wrestler Jim (Man Mountain) Dean owned “Ocala Caverns” from 1965 until his death in 1972. Man Mountain Dean attempted to add more to the attraction. A large cave man was built outside the entrance. Mr. Dean also tried to incorporate the wrestling hall of fame at Ocala Caverns. However, interstates were built and traffic bypassed the old tourist attraction. Man Mountain Dean did everything he could to keep the grand tourist attraction going. However, upon his death in 1972, Ocala Caverns closed and was never reopened. Today you can see what it was. It is a bit like visiting a lost city that has been taken over by jungle.

Ocala Cavers Entrance in 1961.

The Uranium Mine

The Quarry

The upper building on the right is gone, the lower portion where the chairs are sitting. remains. The building in the center was the old tower, it was reduced in height. That building once covered the entrance of the Uranium Mine and is now also gone.

The Water Cave

This is the entrance to the Wet Cave. Long ago there was a sign by this very entrance that has been lost to history. However, it is visible in the 1964 Florida Guide pamphlet. This sign stated some interesting facts…well, maybe not fact, but things of interest. Read the interpretation to discover what lies under this pyramid.

The translucent body of a Cave Crayfish greets us.

There are more types of Cave Crayfish in Florida (11 known species) than anywhere else. Although not an expert on Crayfish, this may be a Juvenile (3/4 inch) Alachua Light-Fleeing Crayfish (Procambarus Lucifugus Alatchua). Even though they survive as Troglobites in a subterranean environment, these crayfish still have minimal light seeing ability and will shy away from light when shined upon.

Alatchua Light-fleeing Crayfish are found in a line of sinkholes and caves between Newberry and Ocala, and nowhere else. They have been adapting to their environment and changing to meet the food needs for a very long time.

It is just amazing that subterranean crayfish can live on almost no food. They are dependent on dead organic material to be washed into the cave. They are completely isolated and have been that way-breeding and surviving since a normal crayfish got stuck and could not get out. The water table used to be 60 to 70 feet higher than today. It is a theory that subterranean crayfish may have been isolated about 4 million years ago when the water table started dropping to its present level.

Ocala Caverns was heavily vandalized for years which forced the Florida Speleological Society (FSS) to gate the cave and protect the grounds. Now life is slowly returning. We saw 3 small crayfish and around 8 bats that were a mix of Tri-colored and Little Brown Bat. It is nice to see that limiting visitation is having positive effects.

Well, this is relaxing.
Exploring a side passage down the Oligopolies River.

Ocala Caverns does not really have a river, it does have flow, but is more of a spring fed pond. The early brochures named this the Oligopolies River after Sea Urchin Fossils that are plentiful in the Limestone (Karst) rock.

After a great day of exploration, we exit the beloved Ocala Caverns.

From a cold rainy morning to a warm afternoon, we are all very happy and thankful we made the trip. You never know what each and every day will bring. I would have missed sharing an amazing day of above and underground exploration with two new friends and Carrie (who is an old friend). Take advantage of every day that life gives you. Be safe, be happy, and be kind to everyone and everything. Take advantage of every day and make it the best day ever!

Story by Philip Walker