Caves can be pretty strange places... spooky, mysterious and downright scary sometimes. If the stories are to be believed, there are also a lot of caves in America that area haunted. But as any "caver" knows, there is all sorts of natural phenomena that can be attributed to the stories of ghosts.
But what about when those stories can't be so easily explained? And what about when all of those strange stories have a basis in fact?
When the settlers and the explorers first came to Nebraska, it was the home of the Pawnee Indians. High of the summit of a place called Pahuk Bluff was where the nation met in high council. The bluff was considered to be a sacred place but despite this, the white settlers decided that it would be the perfect place to build the Nebraska capital and the Pawnee were removed to reservations in the south. Their villages were burned and they were driven out.... but some say that they left a little bit of their magic behind.
Beneath Pahuk Bluff was a place that the Pawnee held in awe, a cave system where young men were initiated into the spirit world and taught their animal powers and the healing virtues of plants and roots. You see, beneath the bluff is the underground Nebraska, caves of porous sandstone where for centuries, water has carved out an elaborate system that runs for miles. These caves were used for many years by the Pawnee and it was said that the sounds of drums and chanting could often be heard here.
One of these portions of the spirit caves would later be called "Robber's Cave" and for many years was a popular site to visit in Lincoln, especially for teenagers and curiosity seekers. It was said to be haunted by sounds from the past. Visitors had long been reporting the sounds of unexplained voices, cries, screams, and unintelligible laughing and talking. Were these the spirits of the forgotten Pawnee or the ghosts of the cave's later inhabitants? In this cave, there were many former inhabitants to choose from!
Robber's Cave is about 500 feet long and plunges to a depth of about 60 feet, not including the old well that was created by a seepage of ground water. This massive hole disappeared down into total darkness. According to legend, this cave had seen many uses over the years, including as a way station for slaves who escaped from the south via the Underground Railroad. In 1863, the original entrance was destroyed in a quarrying operation, only to be purchased a few years later in 1869 by brewers from Wisconsin. They hired local laborers to dig out the tunnels and renovate them for use in storing beer.
The brewery failed in 1873 and from that time, the cave became a meeting place for gamblers, outlaws and horse thieves. The most famous outlaw alleged to have visited Robber's Cave was Jesse James, who supposedly hid out here after a robbery in 1876. One room in the cave is associated with the outlaws and you can find it by climbing up about five feet along the cave wall. A narrow passage then leads into a vast hidden chamber. One one side is a fire pit with a natural stone chimney above it and beyond that is a stone wall that has been filled in with bricks. It is said that if you listen carefully, you can hear the sounds of the ghosts of Robber's Cave behind this wall.
What many people didn't realize was that the cave actually continued on for several miles beyond that brick wall. In fact, the tunnel beyond it once met passages that connected the penitentiary and the State Hospital for the Insane. One story claims that this tunnel was used as an escape route for some prisoners before it was finally sealed off.
In 1906, a story spread about a treasure box that was found in the cave. This tale brought so many visitors that its present life as a tourist attraction was born. Brave tourists and sightseers visited the cave for years, braving slick path, ghost stories and scores of bats... so many bats that reports sometimes say the ceiling looked like a "seething mass of fur and fluttering wings".
In the early 1970's, the cave was closed to the public because of the dangerous conditions, but it was re-opened in 1985 and but then closed down again a few years later. Today, the cave is no longer in existence in any form. The site has been filled and a business was constructed on top of what was the cave entrance. According to sources, the location is only known to those who once visited the cave because of a familiar landmark (and grain elevator co-op) that is located nearby.
And while the cave is now gone and only exists as a memory, one has to wonder if perhaps those lost passages -- located far beyond that brick wall -- still exist. If they are still down there, forgotten by the passage of years, do the sounds from the past still echo in the corridors and tunnels? Does the laughter and groans of the gamblers or the eerie chants of the Indians still drift down the through the cavern? It's likely that we will never know....
(C) Copyright 2000 by Troy Taylor, All Rights Reserved