Tour Guide in the 1970s

Discovery of a Natural Wonder

Written by Stalac-Tate

It all began in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, roughly 25 miles west of Madison, at the Brigham Farm. Members of the Brigham family had been living on the same site for about 112 years before the cave was discovered. The land where the discovery of  a natural wonder was found had been used as a dairy farm by Charles Brigham Sr, who kept purebred jersey cows. It was the first farm in Wisconsin to keep track of scientific dairy records and had been doing so for over 50 years. This meant the family had developed a very close relationship with the Department of Agriculture and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

First Cave Entrance Building in 1940

In 1903, part of the farm had been turned into a limestone quarry. The operations were conducted by Brigham farm. University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago Geology students would visit the quarry to study fossils and geological cross-sections, not realizing the greater discovery was beneath them. In 1935, the Brigham Quarry hosted the 9th Annual Field Conference of the Kansas Geological Society.

Vintage Photo of the Brigham Farm circa 1900s

In 1939, the quarry was leased to a contractor who was chosen to supply crushed rocks for the Dane County Highway Department, as had been done on many previous occasions. August 4th was a beautiful day to have a routine quarry blast! The temperature was 73° and there was a zero percent chance of precipitation.

Lance Dodge, the well-driller, drilled 8 holes about 6 inches wide and 25 feet deep. During the drilling of the last three holes, he suspected there was perhaps a cavity underneath because the drill bit dropped 30 feet deeper than he had expected. However, there was no way to tell exactly why. Dodge put three wooden plugs into each of the three holes before placing eight cartridges filled with 1,600 pounds of blasting powder. It was 40% extra gelatin dynamite in those cartridges that would blast about 5,000 tons of rock into the air.

It was about 11:00 AM when the blast was set off and the cave opening was discovered. Though from the surface, after the dust settled, it looked like two gaping holes in the quarry’s face. The workers blasted 40 feet off the ceiling of the cave.

The first opening to the cave in 1939. A moment in the history of Wisconsin
Limestone Quarry with workers on the day of discovery in 1939

“When I arrived at the scene of the blast,” noted Charles Brigham, “the crowd was still on top of the cliff looking at the two gaping holes. No one had yet dared to climb over the rocks and look into the cavities.” The workers had blasted open the ceiling of the cave.

The original plan was to wait three days, but they only waited 3 hours, for when Lance Dodge, the well-driller, brought flashlights from town the four men went into the darkness of the cave at 2:00 PM. 

Wayne Lampman, Lance’s son-in-law was the first, followed by Charles Brigham, Jr. Trailing them were Stacy Collins, a dairy farmer from the Brigham Farm, and Lance Dodge himself. They traveled south through a large cavern passageway. They concluded their explorations for the day after reaching a blockade of rock at the end of the passageway. The men were certain that they were the first humans to have ever seen this cave, as there was no evidence of earlier visitors or inhabitants.

“Everyone is crazy to get into [the cave]. Stalactites & Stalagmites of limestone. Lovely- Charles so excited” – Rosanna Gray Brigham, wife to Charles Brigham Sr. on August 4th, 1939

Early the next morning, Wayne, Lance, and Charles Jr. returned to the cave to explore more passages to the north of the discovery site, reaching the present day “Narrows”. After returning from their adventure, they confirmed that indeed they were the first to see the cave as there were no other natural openings. Charles Brigham Sr. then sealed up the entrance with wood. Charles Sr. personally stood guard over the entrance to prevent any vandalism, as news of the discovery was quickly spreading.

Eventually, the cave was leased to two local businessmen, Mr. Carl P. Brechler and Mr. Fred H. Hanneman. Soon, they developed a plan for making the cave accessible so both young and old could experience this natural, scenic wonder. Brechler and Hanneman worked tirelessly to make the cave available to be opened for guests on May 30th, 1940, just in time for Memorial Day weekend. More than 58,000 visitors would come to see this beautiful cave over the next 27 weeks.

Today, many families, children, and youth groups visit the cave to learn about Wisconsin geology, limestone cave formation, this unique discovery, and to enjoy the interpretive trails and gardens. In 1988, Cave of the Mounds was designated a National Natural Landmark by the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service for its illustrative character, rarity and its value to science and education. While Cave of the Mounds is not a national park, the park service works cooperatively with landowners, managers and partners to promote conservation and appreciation of our nation’s natural heritage.

People on the old staircase in the cave circa 1940s