Riverbluff Cave recognized as Greene County historical site

Published: Sep. 19, 2023 at 6:49 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - Did you know that the oldest cave in North America can be found in Springfield, Missouri? And that had it not been for one of the darkest days in our country’s history, it would have never been discovered?

Well, that is the case when it comes to Riverbluff Cave between Springfield and Nixa. On Tuesday, the Greene County Commission issued a proclamation recognizing the cave’s unique importance by designating it as a Greene County Historical Site.

“This is really a hidden treasure,” said Greene County Presiding Commissioner Bob Dixon at the ceremony. “It was fortuitous. It was discovered on the day it was discovered because it would have been destroyed on any other day. But we are thrilled to bring awareness to it because there’s a lot of people learning from it and still a lot to discover.”

Riverbluff Cave is not a tourist attraction. It’s not even open to the public, and you wouldn’t even know it was there as you drive past it on Cox Road. But a nearby field house that is open to the public has some samples of all the fossils discovered in the cave, from mammoth elephant bones and teeth to a fossilized worm that is the only known specimen of its kind in the world.

Riverbluff Cave is North America’s oldest ice age cave, dating back at least 1.8 million years. Researchers worldwide have been looking to the Ozarks to check on discoveries in what’s turned into a 2000-foot-long subterranean historical treasure chest.

But this amazing find is even more amazing when you learn it was discovered by accident on September 11, 2001, because of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

“It was the darnedest thing,” said Dave Coonrod, who was Greene County’s Presiding Commissioner at the time.

On 9/11, contractors were already setting up explosive devices while clearing the way for a new road near the Rivercut Golf Course. However, the terrorist attacks kept them from completing their work.

“A lot of people don’t know this, but the federal government not only grounded all the air flights that day, but they also reached out to contractors and asked them to stop blasting as well,” Coonrod recalled. “Our contractors had already set a few charges, so they had to go ahead and detonate those before they curtailed their blasting for the day. And that small charge created a fissure in what is now the roof of the east room of the cave. That was our initial access to a cave that had never been visited by a human being before.”

“For me, that was the closest I’m ever going to get to walking on the moon,” said Greene County geologist Matt Forir, who was among the first to set foot in the new discovery. “To see that footprint and say, ‘That’s mine! It’s the first one.’ That was unbelievable. But had 9/11 not happened, I wouldn’t be working here today, and the first few hundred feet of that cave would have been vaporized (by the bigger blast that was planned that day). And all those big discoveries would have never happened.”

Forir is now the lead paleontologist and Executive Director of the Missouri Institute of Natural Science that oversees the cave, and the research done there has produced many discoveries over the years that show the cave was used heavily by animals for shelter before it was closed off many years ago, waiting to be opened and rediscovered by humans.

“About 25-30,000 years ago, humans got here,” Forir said. “But the roof of the cave was sealed off a half-a-million years ago. So people lived on top and around the cave walking over it for thousands of years without knowing it was under their feet.”

The original opening is believed to be closer to the now “back” of the cave but was covered by mud and dirt thousands of years ago. The extensive tracks, fossils, and dung have been found sitting in the very top layer of mud currently inside the cave. Little to no digging has been done so far, leading to the assumption that many more remains are still buried in the mud. Discoveries are made on each trip, but Forir says he has no interest in rushing the excavation, wanting future generations to enjoy the research when higher-tech tools are available.

“There’s plenty to see. When you’re in the cave and look to your left and right, you see signs of pre-historic animals that are extinct now,” Forir said.

Photos from the inside show claw marks from an American lion, tracks from an ice age peccary pig, extinct turtles found in sediment dating back a half-million years, and several giant claw marks from short-faced bears. Those extinct ice age creatures were up to three times bigger than brown and grizzly bears, averaging 10-15 feet tall with powerful teeth and short, sleek bodies.

“They were fast,” Coonrod pointed out. “They could run sustained speeds of 45 miles per hour. You think about how fast that is for a big animal like that, and you know you wouldn’t stand a chance.”

And the surprising discoveries just keep on coming.

“One of our more recent discoveries is of volcanic ash from the last Yellowstone eruption,” Forir said. “So we’re now looking at regional extinction events and how that fits into the big picture of super volcanos. We continue to work in there all the time, finding new discoveries and trying to see where they fit in as part of our world history. It’s like a time capsule. I know sometimes people kind of forget that we exist, but this honor is a great chance to remind them of the incredible, pre-historic resource we have here in Greene County.”

“Our citizens really benefit from having a sight that is so unique like this,” Coonrod added. “People understand we are in cave country with over 6,000 caves in the state. Interacting with the cave systems helps us understand the importance of not polluting the groundwater that we depend on for our wells. So it helps us appreciate the beauty of the area but also what we have to do to preserve that beauty.”

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