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Silver Dollar City: The Cavernous Past of a Modern Theme Park

Sign for Marvel Cave as seen in the 1950s
Sign for Marvel Cave as seen in the 1950s

For our local history series, Sense of Place, we explore times past that make our region what it is today. Much of the tourism that has been so vital to the local economy has been based around the Ozarks landscape and the natural features within it. For this installment, KSMU’s Emma Wilson studies the history of one popular theme park that traces its roots deep below the surface.

[Sound: splashing, yelling.]

If your family is a fan of roller coasters, water rides, and other diversions, you may be strapping on your fanny-packs and heading down to Silver Dollar City near Branson at some point this summer.  What some may not know is that hundreds of feet below Wildfire and Grandfather’s Mansion is the original attraction that first brought tourists here 120 years ago.

“[It] happens all the time. Some people come here and they’ve been coming for decades and they didn’t know a cave existed underneath them.”

Levi Tobias manages front gate and cave operations at Silver Dollar City. On a recent Friday, he and I tagged along on one of the tours through Marvel Cave. We started by walking down a narrow set of stairs.

“Well right now we’re going down the sinkhole, which is about 90 feet deep. And we’re going down into the Cathedral Room, which is one of the largest domed entry rooms in North America.”

That entry room is one of the reasons this cave is registered as a National Natural Landmark. It is a massive underground space that has attracted visitors since tours of the cave started in 1894. A Canadian businessman William Henry Lynch purchased the cave in 1889 from Marble Cave Mining Company. That company had hoped to mine, well, marble from the cavern.

“But unfortunately they found limestone, not marble, and you can find limestone just about anywhere on the surface. So they mined the bat guano instead and they used it in fertilizer and gunpowder.”

Once the guano supply was exhausted, the company itself shut down, as did Marmaros, the town located at the entrance to the cave. By the time Lynch arrived at his newly-purchased property, Marmaros had been burned to the ground, supposedly by the vigilante group the Baldknobbers. (By the way, the destruction of the town is the basis for the popular Silver Dollar City ride Fire in the Hole.) So, Lynch saw the cave as a tourist attraction and his two daughters, Miriam and Genevieve became the tour guides and ran the cave tours for more than half a century. Crystal Payton is a local historian who co-wrote The Story of Silver Dollar City, a book that details the history of the cave and the park that grew around it.

“Miriam was an opera singer. They lowered a grand piano into the cave for opening day and she performed arias down there. You had to climb down a ladder backward down into that cave from the sinkhole.”

The 60 foot ladder allowed visitors to climb down from the sinkhole to a mud-covered debris pile. They then had to slide down the debris pile nearly a hundred feet. After that unceremonious journey, they’d receive a candle and be sent to explore on their own or with one of the Lynch sisters.

Payton says, “The Lynches operated the cave as a tourist attraction and they had a small lodge where they rented out cabins. And in the late ‘40s a couple from Chicago, Hugo and Mary Herschend came down to vacation. They were lovers of wildflowers and they had heard of the wonderful wildflowers down here.”

A friendship developed between the Herschends and the Lynch sisters. Miriam and Genevieve were ready to retire after more than 50 years of giving the tours and Hugo, the adventurous Danish vacuum salesman from Chicago, decided to lease the cave from the Lynches. The 99-year lease was signed in 1950. Hugo, Mary, and their two sons, Jack and Pete, started to bring popular events to the cave and it grew as a tourist attraction. Throughout the 1950s, the cave hosted everything from square dances and radio shows to séances and hot air balloons in the Cathedral Room.

“So they had developed other promotional activities and reasons for people to come. Hugo died in 1955 of a heart attack, which left Mary and the boys to run the park.”

In the years following, Mary Herschend developed the cave with the help of Jack and Pete. They dug out pathways that had been blocked by mud and debris, added a concrete stairway down to the top of the debris pile, and built the unique slanted trams that are still used today. Levi Tobias says this is when the attraction really started booming.

[Sound: clanking of the tram]

“The cable train was installed in 1958, and once they put the train in everybody basically wanted to take the tour because they could take a ride out versus walking all the way back out.”

Both Hugo and Mary were lovers of traditional crafts and Americana so Mary wanted to feature local craftspeople who could sell their wares to people waiting to take the crowded cave tours. The Herschends built a facsimile of an 1880s Ozark village at the entrance to the cave. Their publicist, Don Richardson, came up with a marketing ploy that would promote the park by word-of-mouth and gave it its now-famous name.

“He came up with the idea of giving change to everybody in silver dollars. Hoping you’d travel down the road and spend your silver dollars and people would want to know where the silver dollars came from and you’d tell them about Silver Dollar City.”

Today, most of the tourism to the park is centered on its multitude of roller coasters and other themed amusements. The Herschend family formed the corporation Herschend Family Entertainment which has expanded to own or manage attractions like Dollywood in eastern Tennessee, the dinner theater chain Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede, Ride the Ducks, the Showboat Branson Belle, and several others around the country. The park has adopted many of the modern trappings of a successful theme park but has maintained traditions like the seemingly impromptu shootouts on Main Street and the train robbery. Mary Herschend’s near-militant defense of the trees also continues, creating a park with many shady areas. Now, thousands of people visit the park daily, some without ever knowing that deep below their feet lies one of the most important and longest running tourist attractions millions of years in the making—and it’s still open for tours.

[sound:train clanking, tour guide voice]

For KSMU’s Sense of Place, I’m Emma Wilson