Ruby Falls Cave, one of the Southeast’s must-see attractions, lay hidden 1120’ under Lookout Mountain until Leo Lambert discovered it in 1928. He knew he found something special and immediately began to turn it into a tourist attraction. Today, it’s part tourist trap, part Chattanooga icon, and part testament to the spirit of discovery and childhood dreams.
We have been on caving expeditions deep in the Belizean rainforest and photographed attractions worldwide. We came to Ruby Fall with expectation like the lyrics of a Bond Song – “All we wanted was a sweet distraction for an hour or two.” However, we found a beautiful centerpiece attraction wrapped in many layers of fascinating stories and secrets.
Lookout Mountain Caverns
Ruby Falls Cave is geologically part of Lookout Mountain Cave, which is one of the longest caves in America with 2.481 miles of mapped passage. The natural entrance to the cave sits near the Tennessee River and is, or was, a straightforward horizontal cave entrance that has been known and visited since the ice age, as evidenced by the Pliocene bones found in the cave. It was mined for saltpeter to make gunpowder and used as a makeshift hospital during the Civil War. Even POTUS Andrew Jackson visited and was so impressed that he signed the walls.
Perhaps the most significant visitor to Lookout Mountain Caverns was Leo Lambert. Leo, like many Chattanoogans of the time, loved to explore Lookout Mountain Cave. In 1905, his childhood playground was closed when the Southern Railroad Company was forced to build a tunnel through Lookout Mountain, which sealed the natural cave entrance.
Leo never gave up his dream of returning to Lookout Mountain Cave. In 1928, he found investors and started drilling an elevator shaft 420’ down to the main passage. Although this might sound like a pipe dream, the project was underway. Every day, the laborers dug deeper and deeper. They inched along digging 5’ a day until, at the 260’ mark, something remarkable happened. The jackhammers plunged into a void that led to the magnificent Ruby Falls.
See Ruby Falls
When Leo heard about the breakthrough, he immediately set out to explore it. He and his partner dropped down the dark shaft and disappeared into the unknown. The passage was only 18” high, and 5’ wide, but they were undaunted. Slowly, they crawled through the cold, wet passages. After three hours, they were able to stand up for the first time. After ten hours, they were the first living creatures to see Ruby Falls. Finally, seventeen hours later, the re-emerged into the outside world excited to share their discovery.
Who was the first person they took to the falls? Leo’s wife, Ruby Lambert, and I can only imagine how that conversation went….
“I haven’t seen you for seventeen hours. Where have you been?”
“Crawling through a 56 degree, underwater stream in 18” high passage. It was great. You need to see the waterfall at the end.”
“Sounds like fun, when can we go?”
“How about tomorrow”
Actually, I can’t imagine that conversation ever taking place, yet Ruby went down three days later to see the falls for herself. What an amazing woman. When I think of women from the twenties, I imagine flapper dresses, but this gal was hardcore. A fitting namesake for a beautiful place.
How Lookout Mountain Cave Became Ruby Falls
Leo kept digging down the remaining 160’ down to Lookout Mountain Cave and opened up a tour route there in 1930, but the tours only lasted for five years. In 1935, the last commercial cave tours to Lookout Mountain Cave stopped. In part, because Ruby Falls is so beautiful and unique, but there was a darker reason – soot.
Lookout Mountain Cave continued to be visited from time to time. In 1961, Thomas Barr Jr led a scientific expedition to Lookout Mountain Cave. His team found and mapped previously undiscovered passage. They also found nearly every up facing surface fouled with soot.
The railroad tunnel pumped pollution right into Lookout Mountain Cave. Passages exist that humans can’t possibly crawl through. These micro-cracks from the railroad tunnel to Lookout Mountain Cave allowed engine smoke to enter the cavern. Barr said this of the experience “exploring of the cave is unpleasant because of the necessity of wading, crawling, climbing, and becoming covered with soot.”
Delicate cave ecology can’t recover from pollution and abuse because of minimal air and water circulation and precise chemistry at work. Even the touch of human hands can stop flowstone from every growing again. There was no way this cave was more powerful than a locomotive, so it’s legacy was fouled by coal and soot.
In 2005, Tennessee Elevator Inspectors sealed or resealed the cave’s fate. They ordered the lower elevator shaft to be permanently closed. The Ruby Falls operators complied and sealed the passage. Since that day, nobody has entered Lookout Mountain Cave again.
Building Ruby Falls as a Tourist Destination
Malcolm Gladwell defines the tipping point as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point” In his book by the same name, he says “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.” Specifically, a social epidemic like creating the tourist destination of Ruby Falls involves three types of peoples mavens, salesmen, and connectors. Mavens are information specialists who connect us with new information like the lost cave of Lookout Mountain. Salesmen are persuaders who can get a project going. Finally are the connectors who can bring groups of people together.
Leo Lambert was the maven who envisioned building the elevator shaft and the salesman who formed Lookout Mountain Cave Company to dig the shaft. However, the Great Depression was too much for the company, and they went bankrupt.
The new ownership was the connectors. They began the ‘See Ruby Falls’ campaign that permeated, not only billboards for hundreds of miles away but also popular culture. When Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison write a song about you, you know you have been heard.
Ruby Falls Cave has been developed as well. They were one of the first commercial caves with electric lighting that has since been transformed into solar-powered LED lights. The 18” high ceiling passage was dug out into a cobblestone walking passage. The rock removed from the elevator shaft was used to build a replica 15th-century castle called Lookout Mountain Castle. Currently, there is a 20 million dollar expansion project running through 2020.
Is Ruby Falls Fake?
I put this section in with a little trepidation. Ruby Falls obviously uses artificial lighting, widened the passages, and installed a walkway. These modifications were necessary to create a safe and accessible tourist cave experience. The question remains, is Ruby Falls a real waterfall.
I am a member of the National Speleological Society, which is the United States’ premier organization for the protection and exploration of caves. I searched their archives for a clue and came across this entry from an NSS member whose NSS number was in the 6,000 range. This means he was one of the first 7,000 people ever to join this organization. For reference, my member number is in the 50,000 range.
Quite a few years ago, Ruby Falls Cave hired Roy Davis of Cumberland Caverns fame to “supplement” their waterfall.
As is true of most karst streams, the waterfall in Ruby Falls was quite spectacular during most of the winter and spring, our wet season, but dried up to barely a trickle in the summer and fall. Unfortunately, the summer is their big tourist season.
Roy Davis used scaffolding and installed a pump, so now there is a “nice” waterfall for the tourists to see year-round.
The last time I was in Ruby Falls, and it was many years ago, the Falls was in the dark when we arrived there on the tour. The tour guide punched a button, a pre-recorded spiel about the waterfall was heard, and, in the background, I heard the pump kick on and the volume of the waterfall increase significantly. As soon as the waterfall was up to “commercial flow”, the lights came on and the tourists went: “Ooooh….Ahhhh !!!!”.
So is Ruby Falls fake or real? I believe the falls are absolutely are real, and the flow you see on the commercial tour represents a reasonable, high season volume. There is evidence, like this NSS entry, the reported pump sounds, and the fact that the flow varies little season by season, that suggests the falls might have been augmented for the tour. One might even argue the enhancement is reasonable for a commercial cave tour.
Other Ruby Falls Tours and Trips
An adult ticket for the basic Cave Walk costs $24.95. If you are feeling adventurous and want to explore Ruby Falls in a more natural way, the Lantern Tour lets you experience Ruby Falls in a new light! This after-hours specialty tour is lights-free, except for the hand-held lanterns held by participants. They also offer the Ruby Falls Dread Hollow Halloween experience, where they create a cast of characters that haunt your evening with extreme haunt attractions and escape rooms. The legend of Dread Hollow is said to have spawned from Ruby Falls Haunted Cavern and is scary enough to come with a parental advisory. If that doesn’t get your adrenaline pumping, you can try the Ruby Falls Zipline.
Wrapping Up Our Experience at Ruby Falls
Today’s Ruby Falls tour takes just a little over an hour. A guide will gather you all at the bottom of the elevator and lead you on about a ½ hour walk through the cave. They will point out pools and speleothems (stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, etc.) that are passably ok. The passage is not quite wide enough for a wheelchair or strollers, but you can walk around with ease. Your guide describes the cave history and points out particularly interesting formations. However, the reason everybody visits is the Falls Room inside of Ruby Falls.
The Falls Room has nature crowd control. Each tour group enters when the light show starts and exits when the lights go down. The lights illuminating the falls change from blue to red to white. Groups shuffle closer and further from the base of the falls to avoid the cool mists and to change their perspective. You have enough time to see the falls and take your pictures but don’t wait too long to get a clear frame.
After the falls, you are now a survivor. Your group shuffles back to the entrance returns to the surface. It’s a fun tour, and the falls are a unique cave experience.
Ruby Falls has a fantastic history and backstory. The elevator makes the tour accessible to many people who could not otherwise venture that deep into a cave. Even if there is a little extra lighting and storytelling, you can’t help but marvel at the natural beauty of a 145′ waterfall deep inside Lookout Mountain.
If you want to learn more about Chattanooga activities, check out our Chilling in Chattanooga the Guide to Good Times. Nearby Cloudland Canyon has some wild cave tours if you are looking for more caving adventures. If you’re heading to Lookout Mountain on the first or last weekend of the month, you could snag a permit and hike the Lula Lake Trails.