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(NOTE: This is a reprint of an article published in the Ocala Star Banner in 1991. Many caves have been closed in Ocala over the years. This article recounts an old timers caving days around Ocala.)

SEARCH FOR LOST CITIES IN AN "OLD" OCALA AN EXCITING PURSUIT
Franklin Greene
Ocala Star Banner, Oct. 30, 1991

Underground Ocala? You mean like Atlanta or the subways of New York? Or the raunchy juke joints of the 30’s?

None of the above. We’re talking a real underground here, the web of caverns and subterranean rivers in the limerock base of much of Florida. They’re the conduits that distribute ground water throughout much the state: The aquifer network.

In the mid-30’s, when Ocala’s Irregular Historians were rookie teen-agers undistracted by television and other trivia, we sought adventure. One opportunity was our discovery of various mysterious entrances to these caverns. Naturally, without advising our parents, sisters or girlfriends, we proceeded to explore them.

Mind you, this was decades before spelunking became a recognized sport. We had no experience to guide us, no equipment, no maps, rarely even a flashlight. There was only the challenge of the unknown depths of the earth, the lure of maybe finding a lost city down there.

Most of these openings were in fact sinkholes, caused by a collapse of the ground above the cave. It’s a phenomena still very much with us as many Floridians discover when their homes are swallowed up.

The most exciting cave entrance in those days was a sinkhole called the “Devils Pit,” located in a cow pasture just east of where Forrest High School is today. There was good reason for the name. Looking down from the rim of the 30’ deep, 20’ wide pit, the view presented a hellish jumble of horns and bleached bones of cattle and other animals that had fallen in, entwined with vines and snake-hiding brush. The walls of the pit were nearly vertical, offering no handholds for climbers.

Wynn Whidden (OHS class of ‘30) recalls: “As we ‘rappelled’ down one wall, the grisly scene was enhanced by the deep shade from a clump of trees surrounding the pit. Once at the bottom, in company with the bones and dank atmosphere, the sense of high adventure seemed very real indeed.”

Using torches fashioned from cattails soaked in kerosene, we crawled cautiously into a low tunnel that led to a cavern some 15 feet high. It’s floor was pure white sand rippled by a flow of water at some earlier time. No footprints of man or beast were to be seen. The silence was menacing, totally isolating us from the world of sunshine above. The cavern branched off into a number of smaller caves which seemed to go on forever. The rough limerock ceiling cast eerie shadows from our torches.

Another cave the three of us explored was at the bottom of the Meffert limerock mine, then and now a quarter mile or so south of Maricamp Road (SE 17th Street). Only recently abandoned, the mine’s walls were naked rock, rising precipitously some 35 feet from the bottom. The cave’s mouth, exposed by mining operations, was at the bottom near the south wall.

By that time we’d learned a thing or two from our Devil’s Pit experience and brought along balls of string. We trailed the string behind us to mark the return route through the maze of tunnels and caves. Even if our single flashlight konked out, we’d be able to follow the string out of the blackness back to the daylight.

My most vivid recollection of those escapades is stepping carefully behind the flashlight down a sloping tunnel and suddenly finding myself knee-deep in a pool of ice water. It was so clear as to be almost invisible. Again, there were no signs of living things, not even bats, in the caverns. And, most disappointing, no lost city…

A third cave the Irregulars recall exploring was located on a Mr. Waldo’s farm, then contiguous with today’s Route 200, south of Day’s Inn. A popular sport for adventurous young Ocalans, Waldo cave was said to be an extensive web of confusing, interlocking tunnels.

One who remembers it with acuity is Abe Shashy (OHS ‘39) whose group, typically, ventured in without parental permission. He recalls lighting the way with fat pine torches fashioned from old fence posts. “We had to crawl through a low tunnel, probably 100 feet, to reach a large cavern which had more tunnels branching off it. In no time, it seemed, the smoke from the torches filled the room and smothered the lights. As they dimmed out I remember this sense of imminent doom. In total blackness it occurred to me that maybe we couldn’t find our way out, that nobody knew where we were. I don’t remember how long it took, an hour maybe, to feel our way along the wall until we found the entrance, and with cries of joy, (if you’ll pardon the expression) saw light at the end of the tunnel. That was the end of it for me too.”

The intervening years, like much else, have closed off these doorways to adventure. Mr. Waldo, no doubt in self defense, sealed the entrance to his cave with concrete. At the south end , noted Ocala architect Hal Reid erected an office building. It’s all planed for the public under the County’s “Pennies for Parks” program. As for the “Devils Pit” , it is today surrounded by the property of the First Christian Church. In the shadow of three massive crosses, the pit has been closed over. Should any devil have abided there, no doubt he has long been exorcised.