I wish I owned windows like these. Light streams in from seven Gothic openings stretching almost from the floor to the 25-foot ceilings. The openings are irregular, curved, carved, twisted, and phantasmagoric: an ace of spades, a bowling pin, a goose taking flight, tongues of fire. From the outside they can barely be seen, but from the inside the seven windows cast light spells across the otherwise darkened room.
Dianne and I are in the Rock House cave in southern Ohio’s Hocking Hills. Largely hidden behind a massive sandstone wall, the cave is accessible only through its seven window-like openings. This cave—running 200 feet long, 20-30 feet deep, and 25 feet tall—has been home to ancient peoples for thousands of years. The windows are water- and wind-hewn entrances to the cave interior. We use our camera flashlights to negotiate the deeper recesses and uneven floors where the light doesn’t penetrate. We bask in the coolness of the chamber, and in the perfect balance of light and earth and underworld.
Hocking Hills is a 2000-acre state park in southern Ohio, known for its numerous waterfalls, arched cliff faces, and steep, narrow box canyons. Other features of the park, like Ash Cave, Old Man’s Cave, and Whispering Cave, are not true caves but recessed, horseshoe-shaped rock shelters wedged into the bedrock, hidden away behind waterfalls that drop 200 feet or more from overhanging ledges. People have taken refuge here for thousands of years in a delicate balance straddling the land surface and the underground.
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An hour west of the Hocking Hills near the present-day city of Chillicothe, ancient indigenous peoples once pondered the relationship among the earth, sky, and underworld. This southern Ohio region is home to at least six different sites with conical, linear, serpentine, and elliptical burial mounds. This was the birthplace of the Hopewell culture from 200 B.C. to 400 A.D., whose trade patterns, artwork, and signature burial and ceremonial mounds spread throughout the Midwest and beyond.
Metalwork and carved mineral-stone from across North America have been unearthed from the mounds. Copper—perhaps from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—was patterned into a copper headdresses, copper hands, copper stars, copper antlers, copper falcons. Mica from North Carolina mountains was thinly sliced, like onion skin, into shapes of hands and abstract swirls. Ceramics and pottery utilized designs traceable to indigenous peoples from the Appalachian mountains. Local Hopewell-based ceramic pipes were shaped as turtles, wildcats, falcons, and squirrels.
Dianne and I walked among the burial mounds at one of the sites called Mound City. Taller than our Upper Mississippi mounds, the largest here reached 17 feet with a 90-foot circumference. No indigenous peoples lived at the earthworks, but nearby villagers and likely gathered here to trade, to marry, and, of course, to bury the dead.
Archaeologist John P. Hancock writes that in Hopewell cosmology “the earth where we live is brought into being between the sky world and the underworld.” There was balance here: earth, sky, water, and what lay buried.
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Southeast of the Hocking Hills lies one of America’s earliest coal regions where the underworld got out of balance. Nelsonville, Athens, and a host of other local coal towns boomed in the 1870s and 80s. Sunday Creek, not far from our campground, gave its name to the second largest coal mining company worldwide. Small company towns abounded, with their tell-tale look of semi-identical homes on small lots, all in a line.
But controversy and tragedy were hauled up alongside the wealth of coal. In 1884 striking workers set fires in numerous coal mines that burned for decades, venting from cracks in the surface ground. The largest mining disaster in Ohio history occurred in the Hocking Valley in 1930 near Sunday Creek when an explosion killed 82 workers. Mining disasters killed another 180 Ohio workers before the end of World War II.
At the start of the 20th century 50,000 coal miners were employed in the region. But after World War II, mine shaft operations began shutting down, replaced for a while by surface strip mining. Eventually these, too, began closing. Today only a small number of coal-related jobs remain in the area.
Meanwhile, despite some successful mitigation and restoration efforts, over three hundred miles of southeastern Ohio streams still bleed orange, white, and green where their waters emerge from abandoned underground mines.
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One early evening, we rode out from our Hocking Hills campsite to the Moonville Tunnel in the Zaleski State Forest. We turned into a muddy parking lot. One nearly-broken-down car sat amid the puddles near the access to the 16-mile Moonville Rail Trail. The trail led to an abandoned train tunnel that cut into the hills.
Moonville was home to 100 villagers in the late 1800s, coal miners mostly. Workers walked the tracks to and from the local mines. The town dried up as the coal mines closed, with the last family departing in 1947.
The Moonville tunnel is still part of local lore as the haunted site of six accumulated deaths until the railroad ceased operating in 1988. The 100-foot tunnel sports a handsomely bricked edifice announcing, in large letters, “MOONVILLE.” Above, below, and beside the town name, and inside the tunnel as well, layers of time-worn graffiti compete with the encroaching forest attempting to snuff out the passage.
It was eerie, all right. There was something haunting at the Moonville Tunnel, but it wasn’t about railroad deaths. It was something from the underground itself.
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Ancient, indigenous peoples strove to keep the upper, lower, and middle worlds in balance. The Hocking Hills’ geological wonders kept the equilibrium as well, with underworld caves and rock shelters providing refuge to the middle world’s indigenous peoples. The Hocking Hills waterfalls today still bind earth and sky and underworld, plunging from the cliff faces and pattering at the stony canyon floors.
But what happens, then, when the balance is upset? When extractive industries deplete buried ore? When boom leads to bust, and people are without jobs? When the imbalance poisons local streams?
Maybe these are the questions that haunt the Moonville Tunnel near the edge of the Hocking Hills.
-- January 2023