People on the old staircase in the cave circa 1940s

A Brief History of Cave of the Mounds

Written by Stalac-Tate

Brigham Farm, surrounding Cave of the Mounds, is the oldest farm in Dane County. Ebenezer Brigham received ownership of the original plot of land from the U.S. Government in 1828, and the land has remained in the Brigham family ever since.

 

Lead mining was the most important industry in this region in the early 1800s, and Ebenezer Brigham first came to Blue Mounds looking for lead. Brigham’s rich strike, less than one mile southwest of Cave of the Mounds, enabled him to buy roughly 2000 acres of the surrounding countryside. Brigham’s enterprising spirit helped Blue Mounds flourish for years as lead mining and other industries grew. In fact, Blue Mounds became such an important settlement, school geography books once described Milwaukee as a “village on Lake Michigan east of Blue Mounds.”

Portrait of Ebenezer Brigham
Vintage Photo of the Discovery Blast with Workers

Decades later, Charles Brigham, Sr. discovered a large concentration of high-quality limestone while building his house on Brigham Farm. The resulting Brigham quarry served many local needs, but it was never a very active site for limestone removal. Many geologists, however, used the quarry for educational purposes. Students from the University of Wisconsin and the University of Chicago often visited the Brigham Quarry.

The fate of Brigham Farm changed drastically in 1939 when Charles Brigham Sr. leased the quarry to a contractor who was to supply crushed rock for Dane County Highways. The contractor decided to blast out an enormous amount of rock all at once, and he called in Lance Dodge (the local well driller) to help. Dodge set up his drill at the top of the quarry and proceeded to drill eight holes into the rock. Each drill hole was six inches wide and thirty feet deep.

Near the bottom of three of the holes, the drill bit suddenly dropped another thirty feet. It was fairly common in the unglaciated part of southwestern Wisconsin for well drills to dip quickly for a few feet, but Lance Dodge was very surprised to see his drill bit drop so far. He knew there was some sort of cavity deep in the rock, but he had no way of knowing how long or wide it was. He certainly never dreamed that he had drilled through the ceiling of such a natural wonder as Cave of the Mounds.

Dodge didn’t want to waste the three “bottomless holes” so he plugged them with blocks of wood. Into the eight holes, he then tamped a total of 1600 pounds of black powder. When Lance Dodge plunged the blasting machine and set off the explosives, over 5000 tons of limestone flew into the air.

The first opening to the cave in 1939

As the dust and smoke cleared, the workers saw two gaping holes in the quarry face. The blast tipped out the ceiling and west wall of the cave for about forty feet at what is now the entrance. The first people to climb over the fallen rock and into Cave of the Mounds were Charles Brigham, Jr., son of the landowner, Lance Dodge, Wayne Lampman, and Stacy Collins.


Their eyes were the first to see the spectacular beauty of a cave that is now visited by thousands of people every year.