DeSoto Caverns is a privately owned outdoor park complex located near the town of Childersburg in Talladega County. The site's main feature is the cavern's huge central room, called the Great Onyx Cathedral, which is approximately 120 feet high and larger in area than a football field. In addition to the caverns, the site also features aboveground attractions such as a maze, amusement park rides, and a light and sound show. It has become a popular tourist destination and hosts 80,000 to 100,000 visitors per year.
The cave has a long and fascinating history. It was known to Native Americans during the Woodland Period; and in 1965 archeologists from the University of Alabama discovered a 2,000-year-old Native American burial site there that held the remains of five individuals. In 1723, an Indian trader from South Carolina named I. W. Wright spent a few nights resting in the cave during his travels through the area. During his stay, he carved "I. W. Wright 1723" into a rock wall in the cave, and these are the oldest graffiti to be found in any U.S. cave.
DeSoto Caverns formed in Cambrian-Ordovician dolomitic limestone deposited about 500 million years ago; the cave itself is only about 3 million years old. In addition to the central room, a number of small natural tunnels lead off into the substrata for short distances but there is no vast network of caves. Natural formations in the cave include stalagmites and stalactites, rock curtains and draperies, columns, flowstones, and onyx formations. A natural waterfall once flowed in the cave, but it was replaced with an artificial waterfall after the original dried up.
During the Civil War, the caverns (then known as Kymulga Cave) became an important source of saltpeter (calcium nitrate), which was used in the manufacture of gunpowder by the Confederacy. A well dug by Confederate soldiers to facilitate the saltpeter mining is still visible in the cave. In 1912, a group of investors purchased the caverns with the intent of mining an abundant vein of onyx that had been discovered in the cave. The project proved unsuccessful owing to a number of reasons, including the poor quality of the onyx, and the enterprise was abandoned.
In the early 1920s, after the 18th Amendment to the Constitution prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcohol, illicit outlets for buying and consuming alcohol (known as speakeasies) proliferated throughout the United States. These sites were often located in isolated areas to avoid detection by authorities. DeSoto Caverns was an ideal location—remote but close to the city of Birmingham—and it was operated as a speakeasy that included gambling and dancing. It quickly gained a bad reputation after repeated shootings and fights and became known as "The Bloody Bucket." There are still bullet holes evident in the rock formations. Its reputation finally proved its undoing when federal agents raided it and closed it.
In the mid-1920s, Allen W. Mathis, son of one of the original onyx mine investors bought sole interest in the property and opened the cave to amateur explorers. During the next four decades, Mathis kept the cave largely in its natural state. In 1965, he leased the cave to Fred Layton, who built steps inside the cave to improve access, added electric lights and officially opened the cave to the public as Kymulga Onyx Cave. Unfortunately, with the opening of Interstate 75 during this period, tourist traffic through the area evaporated and the venture was never successful. In 1975, Mathis' son and grandson, Allen W. Mathis, Jr. and Allen W. Mathis III, took over the cavern operations, and the following year they renamed the site DeSoto Caverns in honor of Hernando de Soto, the Spanish explorer who travelled through central Alabama in 1540. In 1976, DeSoto Caverns was listed on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage.
The next few years saw rapid commercialization of the attraction. The Mathises opened up additional areas of the cave, added pedestrian-friendly walkways, and installed upgraded lighting to highlight the stalagmites, stalactites, and other natural formations in the cave. A laser light and sound show was developed in the Great Onyx Cathedral. This show is now called the Creation Light Show and is based on the Bible's "Book of Genesis."
Expansion of facilities in the aboveground area around the cave has also been a central feature of the commercialization, with the initial addition of a playground, gift shop, restaurant, and camping facilities in the late 1970s. Over the next 30 years, near continuous expansions and additions of tourist attractions have greatly increased the offerings at the site. Today, the park features 25 major attractions, including a Dinosaur Dig, a climbing wall, gemstone panning, a 3/4-mile maze, miniature golf, bumper cars, pedal go-carts, a petting zoo, and a seasonal butterfly house. Additional park facilities include 16 RV and tent camping sites with free Wi-Fi and shower facilities, an expanded gift store, picnic areas, pavilions and playgrounds.
Hour-long guided cavern tours are offered for a fee and overnight packages for groups of 25 or more are available with reservations. The tours are 1/3-mile long and are wheelchair and stroller accessible. The park offers a number of annual events, including an Easter Light Show, a Christmas Light Show, and a Valentine's Light Show. DeSoto Caverns are open year round.