Oregon's Marble Caves and Historic Chateau

May 8, 2018Madeleine BienPartner Stories
— National Park Service

“People who visit here say ‘it’s just magical’ and people remember their visit to the caves for a lifetime.” Sue Densmore, executive director of the Friends of the Oregon Caves and Chateau (FOCC), knows better than most that some of the most exciting treasures in the National Park Service lie just below the surface.

Oregon Caves National Monument & Preserve sits deep within the Siskiyou Mountains and includes nearly 4,070 acres of unique ecosystems both above and below ground.

Cliff Nature Vista looking over the evergreen forest at Oregon Caves National Monument & Preserve
National Park Service

Originally designated as a national monument in 1909, Congress expanded the protection to include a national preserve in 2014 to protect the unique biology and geology of the cave system and watershed. It encompasses the river Styx, the first and only subterranean national wild and scenic river, 15 miles of free-flowing and undeveloped watercourses, and the surrounding wetlands.

The magic of this park is also found underground in the caves themselves.

The “Marble Caves of Oregon” were formed when acidic rainwater fell on the mountainous forests and dissolved the marble rock below the surface. To experience the caves today is to explore a part of the world preserved from the time of its first discovery in the late 19th century.

Elijah Davidson, the first known person to enter the caves in 1874, wrote that, “Everything seemed to be leading me to the cave.” Today, following the lead of trained cave guides, visitors to the park can walk in Davidson’s same path.

The Ghost Room cave underground at Oregon Caves National Park & Preserve

Ghost Room

National Park Service

As visitors became less inclined to camp by the early 20th century, the six-story Oregon Caves Chateau was built in 1933, for those looking to explore the famous caves. Today, the chateau is on PBS’ list of the National Park Service’s great lodges and was designated as a national historic landmark in 1987. Visitors to the Oregon Caves can still visit and stay at this architecturally unique building.

The chateau is also home to one of the largest collections of Monterey furniture, an artifact of the California Spanish revival architectural period. Original to the chateau when it was built, many of the finest pieces are still in use, while others are worn from decades of use and need to be restored. FOCC plans to fully restore all existing pieces in the collection, as well as to add to it in hopes of eventually housing the largest public collection of Monterey furniture in the country.

Since 2008, FOCC has worked in partnership with the National Park Service to complete projects that follow best practices for restoring the lodge to its 1930s-era splendor. Working closely with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and with the State Historic Preservation offices, FOCC helps oversee the restoration of the lodge to ensure that the restoration exceeds the Secretary of Interior Standards for the treatment of historic properties.

Gilmore Oil Photo, 1943, Kramer Archives
National Park Service

FOCC’s role has been both laborious and heartfelt, having successfully raised awareness and funds to complete projects strongly backed by public support. Its current goal is to raise $3 to $5 million to “restore the historic fabric of the lodge” (with about 75% of that goal still to go), and to create an ongoing historic preservation and maintenance plan for the structure.

Between the beauty of the Siskiyou Mountains, the historic experience of staying at the chateau, and the hidden splendor of the underground caves, Oregon Caves National Monument & Preserve is a unique park full of geology, history, and architecture. FOCC excitedly looks to the future, but Densmore knows there is value in acknowledging the group’s past success.

“We are proud that we have been able to show the National Park Service the huge support for the lodge and monument from local citizens. I think that’s probably been one of our major accomplishments.”

Visit their website to learn more about the work of FOCC.


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