The Spooky Caverns of Colossal Cave
Just a few miles south of Tucson lies Colossal Cave, an often overlooked natural landmark with well over a thousand years of history. The roofs of the cave are blackened from centuries of Native American bonfires and ceremonies. The bones of human and animal remains litter the ground. With no flowing water, the cave is no longer actively growing, but the ghosts and spirits in Colossal Cave are alive and kicking. At least four ghosts live in the cave system. The most encountered ghost is that of Frank Schmidt, one of the early developers of the cave. He tends to accompany visitors to the caves to ensure that they don’t stray too far from the beaten path. Frank was always smoking, and the smell of smoke fills the caves when he appears. He’s often seen in restricted areas and vanishes into thin air before being seen by the staff. A group of train robbers used the caves to hide after hitting a big score in the late 1800s. After being traced to the caves by authorities, a shootout ensued. A few of the bandits were killed, while others were caught, but the money was never recovered. The Wells Fargo stamped bags are still said to be somewhere in Colossal Cave, and the ghosts of the dead train robbers have been seen wandering around the caves looking for their lost loot. The ghost of a Native American woman can be heard moaning and sobbing around the caves, and the ghost of a lady in white has been seen floating around the entrance.
Early History of the Colossal Caves
Over a thousand years ago, around 900 AD, the Colossal Caves were discovered by local Indigenous peoples. The Hohokam, Sobaipuri, and Apache tribes all used the caves for various purposes, including ceremonies, rituals, and protection from the elements as well as other tribes. Some say that they may have even lived in the caves. The ceilings in some areas are blackened from centuries of bonfires, and bones are straddled along the floors of the caves. Many of them have been removed, but early European settlers claimed to have found hundreds of antlers piled inside. There were also human remains littered across the cave floor. The Native Americans evacuated the caves around the time of European conquest, sometime between 1450 and 1600.
The Americans rediscovered the Colossal Caves in 1879. Solomon Lick, a former Union soldier, and owner of a nearby ranch, stumbled upon the cave while surveying his newly acquired property. He originally called it Mountain Springs Cave, after his ranch and the accompanying hotel. Lick and his search party began exploring the cave, noting the massive piles of bones, as well as the strong stench from the years of bat guano that had been building up over the centuries. Due to the physical limitations of the cave at the time, Lick and his crew only ventured about half a mile in before turning around.
The cave was further explored by William Shaw after his takeover of the Mountain Springs Ranch. A five-hour excursion into the cave revealed its true depth. Shaw and his men were awed at the size of the caverns, and some holes were so deep, that one could drop a stone and never hear a sound.
Over the next few decades, the cave began to generate revenue. Guano from the cave was extracted and shipped to Los Angeles. Tunnels were bored into the cave to get better access. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps helped create a walking path through the Colossal Cave. The area was named Colossal Cave Mountain Park and became a tourist attraction over the years. Despite the natural beauty of the Colossal Cave, it’s still relatively unknown to many. The park has grown to add a number of other attractions in an attempt to bring more guests. Ghosthunters often come to the cave to capture evidence of spirits.
The Bandits of the Southern Pacific Express
Sometime in the 1880s, a group of train robbers discovered the cave and decided that it would be a good place to set up their base of operations. The Southern Pacific Express railroad wasn’t too far off, and the Colossal Cave provided protection from the authorities. Their first heist was a success, they got away with over $3,000 in straight cash. The bandits wanted to try their luck again. The second robbery netted the bandits a ton of gold and silver Mexican coins.
After the second heist, the local authorities had caught wind of the bandits. They got a tip that the robbers could be hiding out in the cave system near the Mountain Springs Ranch. They sprung into action. They surrounded the cave and found the bandits upon entry. After a lengthy shootout, two of the bandits were killed, while the others escaped. The stolen goods were never recovered from the caves.
Local legends say that the loot is still somewhere in the Colossal Cave, hidden among the complex maze of stalactites and deep crevasses. The money and coins they stole were said to be stashed in Wells Fargo stamped bags, and as of yet, no one has found the bags.
The ghosts of the bank robbers who were shot dead in the shootout are said to still haunt the Colossal Caves. Visitors and staff have seen the shadows of men in cowboy gear wandering around, who then disappear into thin air. Some say it’s actually the ghost of Frank Schmidt, but those who are familiar with the cave and its ghosts say that Frank has a much friendlier vibe. Supposedly the ghost bandits are still in the cave guarding their precious loot.
Ghosts of the Colossal Cave
While some visit the Colossal Cave for a spelunking adventure, others go to see if the haunted legends are true. In addition to the ghost robbers, at least three other ghosts are known to haunt the cave, including the spirit of Frank Schmidt.
Frank was one of the early developers of the cave, and he apparently still hangs out in there in the afterlife. Frank often follows tour groups as they walk through the cave, and you know when he’s around because the smell of tobacco fills the air. Turns out that Frank was quite the smoker. A few guests have seen Frank hanging behind the tour group smoking a pipe, before suddenly disappearing. Staff have seen Frank hanging in restricted areas, or walking around the caves after closing time. He usually vanishes when the staff try to chase him down.
Back when the caves were still used by Native Americans, a woman from a local tribe was being chased by a bear. She ran towards the caves in an attempt to find safety. In those days, the entrance to the cave had a steep twenty-foot cliff. The woman ran into the cave without minding the drop and fell to her death.
Her ghost is still often heard moaning and crying, scaring many of the guests. A few of the staff believe that her moans are actually the sound of the wind blowing through the cave, but her cries have also been heard on days when there are no strong winds. Due to the steep drop at the entrance, park staff have long since changed the public entry point into the Colossal Cave to protect the safety of the guests.
The ghost of a woman in an all-white dress is often seen near the entrance of the cave as if acting as the cave’s guardian, though it’s been a few years since she last appeared. Because she seems to appear near the cave entrance, some say she may actually be the apparition of the Native American woman who fell to her death.
Some centuries ago, staff say that two young Native American boys died while exploring the cave. They say that the ghosts of the two boys still roam around the cave. Their apparitions have yet to be seen, but ghost hunters and paranormal experts have picked up EVPs and audio recordings in the area where they were said to have died. Many guests have also reported having their phones and cameras malfunction in that area as well.
Want to learn more about Arizona’s haunted history?
The days of the Wild West are long gone, but the legacy lives on. The centuries of cattle wrangling, coal mining, and saloon shootouts have left their spiritual mark on the Copper State. The ghost of cowboy artist Lon Megargee is seen wandering around the Hermosa Inn, his old guest ranch turned luxury hotel. Morton Hall at NAU is haunted by the spirit of a bright young student who committed suicide. The Hayden House in Tempe was the birthplace of one of Arizona’s most influential families, and later became a haunted steakhouse. Patrons of Monti’s La Casa Vieja just love having a side of ghost with their meal. You should also read up on the top ten most haunted spots in Phoenix before planning your next visit!
Main Image Source: Flickr/Bill Morrow