In 1928, local cave enthusiast Leo Lambert launched a project to drill an elevator shaft from the surface of Lookout Mountain 420 feet down to Lookout Mountain Cave, which had been sealed off when the Southern Railroad Company built a tunnel along the face of the mountain.
Work began, slowly. When the excavation reached 260 feet, they found a void in the mountain 5 feet wide and 18 inches high.
Lambert and a small crew explored the opening. For hours, they crawled deeper and deeper into the mountain.
They found unusual rock formations, stream beds and — finally — a hidden treasure: a 145-foot underground waterfall.
That first venture took about 17 hours. Lambert soon returned, this time bringing his wife, Ruby, along. He named his find after her.
Lambert continued his venture to offer an elevator to Lookout Mountain Cave, another 160 feet below. Limestone from the elevator shaft and cave trails were used to build the Cavern Castle that serves as the welcome center, gift shop and cave entrance.
Some of the passages were enlarged so that people didn’t have to crawl for part of the tour. In recent years, a few new passages have been created to speed up the time it takes to see Ruby Falls from more than three hours to about an hour and a half.
The public soon took part in tours of both the Ruby Falls Cave and Lookout Mountain Cave, but Ruby Falls was the most popular with its collection of flowstones, stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws and columns, and the waterfall.
Lookout Mountain Cave was closed to the public in 1935.
Today, more than half a million visitors enjoy cave tours at Ruby Falls. It’s also close by the famous Rock City where you can reportedly see seven states, and an incline railway climbs the world’s steepest passenger railway.
Ruby Falls was recognized this past year for its environmental sustainability and conservation efforts for a 2018 renovation of the Cavern Castle. The award noted the project focuses on energy efficiency, water conservation, habitat protection, land conservation, occupant health and wellbeing and community access.
On a recent tour, my group was led by a familiar guide — Crossville native Jill Hassler, now a student at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. Her work complements her studies, and she shared a mystery about the waterfall — the source of the water is unknown, coming from a collection of rainwater and springs.
The water collects in a pool and then drains through the mountain before joining the Tennessee River.
Ruby Falls is open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Eastern and closes only on Christmas Day. Since it stays a pleasant 60 degrees year-round, it’s a great winter destination. The Cavern Castle protects you from the elements as you wait to descend the 26 stories for the guided tour. Tickets provide a timed entry, and can be reserved online at rubyfalls.com.