If you take a trip to Meramec caverns today, you'll find all the modern day conveniences. It has a full restaurant, a souvenir shop and even zip line and boat tours. But even before it was a tourist stop along Route 66, you could come in here to get a glass of lemonade out front, then go inside to the cave to cool off before air conditioning was installed in cars. The cave stays a constant 58-62 degrees. It’s a nice, cool spot to stop, take a break and get a drink.
You can still find the signs today while traveling along the mother Road. Meramec caverns ads painted on barn roofs to alert travelers of the underground wonder in Missouri. But, the cave was a popular spot long before the construction of Route 66 in the 1920s.
Native American artifacts have been found here. They were the first to use the cave.
Michelle Harris is a tour guide at the cave and says, “There were all different kinds of tribes that were in here but they would take shelter if there was bad weather outside or if they just needed somewhere to live to stay cool or to stay warm in the winter because this is a constant temperatures through the year.”
The cave was then used as a gunpowder plant during the civil war.
“The union forces were making gun powder by using bat droppings which is potassium nitrate, sulfur and charcoal. They would mix it up and make gun powder for their guns at the time and then the confederates found out about it, decided to come in and destroy the factory. That was in 1864," says Harris.
Then came the infamous Jesse James days in the 1870s…the James gang used it as a hideout and stored their loot in the hidden back rooms.
Harris believes that year there had to have been a drought or some sort of thing to draw the boys back into the cave. They actually swam underneath a wall of dolimate.
The late 1800s brought community gatherings and large parties to the cave. “They started to use this as a place to go in the community. It was called the “Salt Peter Cave. They would have picnics and square dances and everything like that usually in the summertime.”
Lester Dill bought the cave in 1933 and ensured this would be a stop for travelers along the mother road. Harri says, “he was definitely instrumental in starting up the whole business. He actually did a lot of small business things before he bought the cave and he was one of the first show caves in Missouri entirely. I think the community really appreciated that people were coming through to see a part of our town and its something that would bring a lot of business to small business owners around the area at the time and I think it was very welcome by the community”
Today, you’ll see expansion of the tourist attraction and visitor from all walks of life. Many visitors that are still traveling route 66 from Chicago to California. Ziplining and boat tours are available as well as guided cave tours.
Missouri is the cave state and Meramec caverns certainly gave travelers something to remember us by on journey along Route 66.