Made famous by the novel ?The Adventures of Tom Sawyer?, the Mark Twain Cave is a ?showcave? situated in Hannibal, Missouri, which was used as an important setting in the said novel written by Mark Twain, a native who also spent some of his childhood days in the cave. The said novel made many of its curious readers interested in the cave and wanted to witness it themselves, and this started tourism there.
The Mark Twain Cave was discovered when a local hunter Jack Simms was near the area, while on a hunting trip, during the winter of 1819 to 1820. Simms?s dog chased an animal (believed to be a panther) and when he followed his dog, it led them to the cave. Simms went back to the cave the next day, together with his brother and torches, to explore the newly discovered cave and they were successful in finding a small opening which led to a huge concealed maze. By the mid-19th century, the cave became a popular deviation for the locals nearby and a playground for their children. The cave and its surrounding area, specially the nearby Mississippi River and the small valley between the river shams, became a favorite picnic sites for families and field trip destinations during summertime.
Based from early records of the discovery of the cave, odd and ghastly use of the cave during its early history became part of many folktales that locals had passed from generation to generation. History shows that in the late 1840s, physician Dr. Joseph Nash McDowell purchased the cave and, as Mark Twain described it in his book ?Life on the Mississippi?, the doctor turned it into a mausoleum for his daughter. Dr. McDowell set up a laboratory for experiments inside the cave and one of which was to try to petrify his deceased daughter?s remains. For many years, the doctor performed several experiments in the cave involving human corpses, which many believed were stolen from graves in the area. The daughter?s body became one of the spooky tales that had spread around.
Folklores also have it that Dr. McDowell used the cave as a secret storage for guns and ammunitions used by the Confederates during the American Civil War. The cave was also a hiding place for the legendary outlaw and one of the Confederates Jesse James, who made his mark on one of the walls of the cave by engraving his name and the date he was there. This engraving can still be seen today, while touring the cave.
The cave became a favorite tourist destination when Mark Twain?s breakthrough novel ?The Adventures of Tom Sawyer? was published in 1876. A local farmer named John East found an opportunity to earn money from the people who started to visit the cave and charged them a dime to help them tour the cave. At first, the small opening that was discovered by Jack Simms was used as an entrance to the cave but as the crowd grew, a large entrance was built. For over fifty years, visitors explored the cave with just candlelight or lantern. Cave exploration changed in 1939 when electric lights were placed along the tour areas by the Cameron family who acquired the cave in 1923. The Camerons made the cave known countrywide by advertising it as ?Mark Twain Cave?. This brought more visitors and to make the visit worthwhile, the family established several standardized tour paths.
Today there is a campground, a visitor?s center with gift shop, a candle shop and a winery in the cave. An interactive gem shop is also a favorite, especially among the kids. Visitors can also enjoy a one-man stage performance entitled ?The Life and Times of Mark Twain?, that tells the highlights of the life, humor and fame of the celebrated author.