A Tale of Two Caves, A Vintage Vignette

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A Tale of Two Caves
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
April 8, 2008

There are at least two significant caves associated with the Madison area. Many hikers know that there are several small caves on Rainbow Mountain, but the two larger caves of the area are relatively unknown. One of them is indeed on Rainbow Mountain, but not in the area that hikers usually explore. The other is on Redstone Arsenal, but just barely. In fact, portions of it extend northward from the arsenal boundary underneath Interstate 565.

While the caves are not directly linked in geological aspects, they have both been involved in events related to military history. One was explored or used for respite by troops from New York in 1898, whereas the other was used to avoid military service during the War of 1812, according to some reports. It is the cave on Rainbow Mountain that may have given refuge to a local landowner who wanted to “dodge the draft” almost 200 years ago. Today the cave is found in an overgrown area of city park property at the southern end of Rainbow Drive. In fact, the approach to the cave is hazardous, as it is almost undetectable until one is standing almost directly over a deep vertical shaft. It would perhaps be more appropriate to call the cave a “pit”, as it does not extend horizontally into a bluff. Fortunately, the opening is narrow, so the chance of inadvertently falling into the pit is reduced a bit. This was reported to be used as a hiding place by Richard Martin when the local militia was forming a company for the War of 1812. However, the report of his hiding came many years later, from communication with a local postmaster who may not have even personally known Richard. In fact, he may have been relating tall tales when the government was trying to confirm Richard’s service with respect to his application for a pension as a veteran of the war. Richard was the father of 4 or 5 Confederate soldiers, including Elijah Thomas Martin. His father Frank was a Revolutionary War soldier, and it was said that his uncle Jesse was an acclaimed Indian fighter. It is therefore not at all likely that Richard shirked any duty to defend the area. The longstanding Martin family military traditions would not have allowed such a thing. Furthermore, family records detail that Richard served as a Private in Lt. Col. Nixon’s regiment of Perkin’s 7th Battalion. Such known detail and the fact that Richard as a citizen of foremost integrity applied for the pension affirm the claim.

The cave on the arsenal is likewise under dense growth, and it too has a significant vertical drop from two entrances. However, another approach has been improved by the army, so now the cave can be more easily entered by walking along the bed of a creek that used to flow out of the main chamber’s mouth when the water table was high. These entrances are located just a few yards south of the arsenal’s boundary fence, across Interstate 565 from the fireworks store and the old Sunbeam bakery. The cave is described in the book Tales of Huntsville Caves by William Varnedoe and Charles Lundquist (2005). It is called Matthews Cave, but it was initially owned by pioneer James Manning before Luke Matthews came into possession of the tract. When trash and graffiti were cleaned out of the chambers in 1993, it was discovered that there was an inscription on the wall that reads “J. C. A. T. Co. A, 69 RGT NY 1898”. Research showed that Company A of the 69th Infantry Regiment of New York Volunteers was among those encamped in western Huntsville in the latter part of 1898. Elizabeth Humes Chapman in her book Changing Huntsville, 1890-1899 reveals that there were three soldiers with initials “J. C.” – James C. Callahan, Joseph Clark, and James Coleman. The “A. T.” may have been the initials of another soldier, or perhaps it was the designation of a rank, function, or subunit within the company. Apparently, some of the soldiers here for rest and recuperation after hostilities of the Spanish-American War of 1898 enjoyed opportunities to explore features of the local landscape. Today, this particular area is restricted to more modern soldiers, but few are aware of the presence of the cave, so it is rarely visited now.

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