Nestled deep in the heart of the old Lehigh Portland property, a stone’s throw from U.S. 169, lies John Brown’s Cave.
Legend has it the cave was named for the infamous abolitionist, and was even used as a hiding spot for slaves and equipment as part of the Underground Railroad.
Don Burns, one of the key figures in getting the cave reopened to the public, is skeptical.
“I mentioned that once,” he said in recounting a conversation he had with a member of the Kansas Speleological Society, a group dedicated to exploring caves, which had representatives in Iola twice this year to explore the cavern.
It seems like every town has a John Brown cave, they told Burns, “and every other town has a Jesse James.”
Truth is, nobody can tell for sure whether Brown had ever visited the cave, or had even heard of it before his fateful raid on Harper’s Ferry in the runup to the Civil War.
Nevertheless, Burns and Randy Rasa are optimistic the cave is certain to be a popular exploring site for trail users, another gem for Iola’s still-growing trails system.
The cave was opened to the public Oct. 7, Burns said, after the landowners, Iola Industries, were certain the trail was covered by their insurance for the rest of the Lehigh Portland Trail.
“It had been open for a little bit, once we got the trails open, but we had to close it to the public earlier this year,” Burns said.
The cave’s reopening already has sparked interest among trail users, even though there is minimal signage directing visitors to the cave.
The only marking is a small metal sign inconspicuously positioned along 1650 Street, not far from the Lehigh Portland east trailhead.
From there, hikers or bicyclists must traverse roughly 200 yards, across a few rocky areas, to get to the cave itself.
FINDING THE cave is easy enough. Getting through it is another matter.
Aside from the spacious openings on both sides, venturing inside the cave involves crawling about 250 feet, Burns said. And because the cave continues to be formed by water runoff from Elm Creek seeping through the cracks and crevices of its limestone walls, the bottom is almost always under water.
“There are no ‘rooms’ inside,” Burns said. “You have to crawl all the way through. At its deepest, the water will come to your belly.”
Burns explored the interior with the KSS members when they were in town in August to map, explore and photograph the cave.
“It was pretty cool,” he said.
As KSS members explained, John Brown’s Cave is considered a “living” cave in that the Elm Creek waters continue to shape it.
At its west entrance — the wider of the two — the passageway shows bulb-like protuberances, called “Buddha Bellies.” Another small line of tiny jagged stones are called “sawtooth” formations.
“The cave is still growing, and changing,” Burns said.
The wooded area surrounding the cave gives the impression of the Ozarks.
“You often find yourself thinking, ‘Am I still in Kansas?’’” Burns said with a chuckle. “This place has more of an Arkansas-ish feel to it.”
THE CAVE was a popular haunt for locals up until the Lehigh Portland Cement Company closed its doors in 1970.
Before then, the cave almost could be considered part of a neighborhood.
“You had an actual subdivision around here,” Rasa noted, pointing to piles of brush-covered rocks and other debris that presumably were houses.
Burns even found what had been an old gas station.
Rasa has pored through old Iola Register articles to find multiple references to the cave involving church and school outings, club meetings and picnics.
Rasa surmised the popularity waned after the cement plant closed and landowners became more protective of their property rights.
But with the new trails system in place, that is certain to change.
Rasa and Burns are hopeful to avoid two pitfalls of the cave’s added popularity — litter and graffiti.
Rasa pointed to a small peace symbol painted on the cave wall’s west entrance.
“I’d hope they leave it alone,” Burns said.
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