The longest and most profitable expedition (in new species, if not subscribers) of Alexander Wilson (1766–1813), the Scottish-born poet and author of American Ornithology 9 vols. (1808–1814), began with a solo journey on horseback across Pennsylvania in February 1810, from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. About 15 miles to the west of Harrisburg, Wilson visited the small town of Carlisle, where the locals pointed him toward a remarkable cave, wherein he
“… [indulged] in a train of solemn and melancholy contemplations, that forc’d themselves on [his] mind in [that] gloomy & silent recess” (in Hunter 1983: 322)
Soldiers are apt to pray before they go to battle. Conodoguinet Cave, named after the creek that flows past its entrance, was Wilson’s sanctuary for this purpose in 1810. Conodoguinet is a Lenape name that means “A Long Way with Many Bends”. When Wilson visited the cave, he was preparing to face many dangers on the long journey ahead. Traveling alone, he would navigate approximately 720 miles (as he estimated) of the Ohio river in a small boat (The Ornithologist) and proceed thereafter by foot and horseback, eventually to New Orleans, where he could catch a steamer back to Philadelphia.
Notably, he did not write explicitly about his visit to the cave in his published works. The story only survived in a private letter to Alexander Lawson, the principal engraver of most of the plates for American Ornithology.
Wilson wrote to Lawson on February 22, 1810:
“During my stay [in Carlisle], which was two days, I examined a remarkable Cave about a mile from the town. About 300 yards from the spot is a farm house, where I halted to procure a candle and with that, and a brand of fire, I arrived at the mouth of the cave, which is at the bottom of a perpendicular cliff of limestone rocks of 40 or 50 feet in height. The entrance is about 9 feet high & rather more in breadth—the roof nearly horizontal, the floor, dry and smooth, was studded with numerous transparent pillars of ice from three to 4 feet high, & 6 or 8 inches in diameter, occasioned by the droppings from above.”
Wilson continued in his letter to Lawson:
“Twas early in the morning. One solitary Winter Wren [Troglodytes hiemalis] had taken possession of the place, who with some reluctance gave way to me. I lighted the candle and with that in one hand and the firebrand in the other, I began slowly to explore the confines of this silent and gloomy cavern.”
“In some places the roof rose to the height of 20 feet; in others it was so low that I was forced to stoop. I was obliged to thrust my lights into every crevice to observe its appearance. In this manner I advanced, sometimes winding, once or twice turning at right angles, for upwards of 300 yards till I came to a place where the cave seemed to separate into several paths. the walls were wet and miry and at my feet were several springs of water perfectly clear, standing in little hollows, but not running ones. Here I struck down my lights and sat down on a shelving part of the bottom to indulge in a train of solemn and melancholy contemplations, that forc’d themselves on my mind in this gloomy & silent recess.”
Wilson continued, in his letter to Lawson:
“On my return I picked up several Bats that hung in a seeming torpid state from the sides of the cave, and wrapping them in my handkerchief put them in my pocket. On reaching the tavern I was relating to several people in the barroom, my mornings expedition, when two of the Bats, feeling influence of the stove, had disengaged themselves from my handkerchief, & were flying round the room to the surprise of the company.”
Wilson illustrated one of the bats, which Lawson engraved, and embedded a brief description of the creature in his account of the Barn Owl (Tyto alba) in American Ornithology vol. 6 (1812). Compared to his unpublished letter to Lawson, however, his published remarks about the cave were brief:
“In a cave, not far from Carlisle in Pennsylvania, I found a number of these bats in the depth of winter, in very severe weather; they were lying on the projecting shelves of the rocks, and when the brand of fire was held near them, wrinkled up their mouths shewing their teeth; when held in the hand for a short time, they became active, and after being carried into a stove room flew about as lively as ever.” (Wilson 1812: 61)
Several recent articles have discussed the history of the cave and mentioned notable individuals who visited (e.g., Speece 2013, Schmid 2015), but Wilson’s visit to the cave has not been discussed in literature, to my knowledge.
I visited Conodoguinet Cave on January 23, 2021. The cave was extremely muddy and I ventured inside with an LED flashlight. In the two centuries since Wilson’s visit, had anyone else entered this cave knowing that he had been there? I would be surprised because the only source for the story is Wilson’s 1810 letter to Lawson, an obscure reference transcribed in only one modern book (Hunter 1983). When I eventually arrived at the “place where the cave seemed to separate into several paths”, where Wilson stopped and sat down to meditate in the darkness, I found a semi-dry spot on the floor and did the same. (but less melancholy)
After about 30 minutes, when I emerged from the cave, shielding my eyes from the bright glare, it was not the Winter Wren that greeted me. An exuberant male House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus), a species that Wilson never knew, was perched up high along the bank of the Conodoguinet Creek. His rambling song went something like this:
Ah, when to the heart of manin Robert Frost, “Reluctance”
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?
Hunter, C. 1983. The Life and Letters of Alexander Wilson. American Philosophical Society. 456 pp.
Schmid, K. W. 2015. Conodoguinet Cave, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Geology 45(3): 3–11.
Speece, J. 2013. Conodoguinet Cave, Carlisle, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. The Journal of Spelean History 47(1): 13–21.
Wilson, A. 1812. American Ornithology, vol. 6. Bradford and Inskeep, Philadelphia, PA. 102 pp.