Indian Echo Caverns
Indian Echo Caverns is pretty good, as commercial cave tours go. It's no fault of theirs that our visit is on the busiest Monday of the summer. A little drizzle outside, and SUV-loads of families destined for nearby Hersheypark detour to here. Business is booming -- the cave is crammed.
Before our trip, we pulled an old brochure from the Roadside Archival Vault.
"Come See Indian Echo Caverns" it implored. Photos visualized an experience to remember: beehive doo-ed ladies admiring crystalline cascades, a happy bride and groom at their underground wedding, guides wearing Indian headdresses leading groups through an entrance with an atomic fallout shelter sign. The cave's cartoon mascot, "Chief Kumsee," was everywhere.
Thirty years later, and the cartoon brave still sends up smoke signals in the brochure. A plywood Chief Kumsee lurks in the parking lot. Families buy tickets in the gift shop, kill time panning for gemstones and petting farm animals, then queue when their tour number is called over the PA system. A guide (no longer wearing a headdress) walks each group down a series of stairs to the cave entrance.
Indian Echo Caverns was a hangout for the Susquehannock Indians who lived and hunted in the area; the cave has been visited by the White Man since 1783. The entrance today is a large stonework facade with heavy wooden doors, the letters "I.E.C." chiseled above.
Descending into the cave, which is a pleasant year-round 52 degrees Fahrenheit, we notice the guides are in regular radio contact with each other. Exiting tour groups sidle by every few minutes. A small sign reminds us that "Tipping is Appreciated," and today they are going to earn that extra cash.
On the 45-minute tour, the guide fills our heads with details about each room, passageway and formation. We hear the sad tale of William Wilson, the hermit who lived on a ledge for 19 years, after the tragic death by hanging of his only sister in 1785.
We reach the main chamber, from where all other passages emanate -- the Indian Ballroom. Four tour groups stand in different parts of the room -- four guides simultaneously shouting their stories in high, sing-songy tour guide cadence. With the echo, it's hard to understand any of it, but it's a neat effect. The group guide next to ours tells a joke our guide skips -- something about the Elephant formation having 16 legs because of the cave's proximity to the Three Mile Island nuke plant. Our guide hurries us on to one of the side passages...
It's time for the Moment of Partial Darkness, when our guide turns off the lights. On a less crowded day, it might be the Moment of Total Darkness, but today they can't keep enough distance between the lit zones to make it work so well.
We pop back out into the din of the Ballroom, where even more groups have crowded in. Between spiels, our guide skillfully avoids gridlock and coordinates with other units: "Meredith's in the Wedding Chapel, Heather's in Crystal Lake...."
We're on our way back to the Wedding Chapel, where the passage gets tight and the occasionally passing groups suffer a mishap or two. We hear a yowl of pain ahead, and a women walks by rubbing her scalp. The low ceiling and sharp outcropping in front of us has visible human hair stuck to it.
The Wedding Chapel is narrow, spread along a wooden walkway adjacent to the glistening Wedding Cake formation. At last count, forty weddings had been performed, the last in October 1997.
We exit back towards the Ballroom, carefully ducking and surviving our crowded cave adventure unscathed. Remember -- on a rainy day, you may be in for a treat.