The Spirits of Hearst Cavern


Las Vegas! Across the country, and indeed around the world, this metropolis, nestled as it is in a valley that protects it from the worst extremes of the desert clime, has come to be called "Sin City". The appelation is a recent one, for the name of the place, in the Spanish tongue, means "the meadows"; long before this land became known as a city of vice and base pleasures, it was considered an oasis amidst the wastes. One observing this city today could be forgiven for doubting the provenance of that name, for if there ever any meadow here, it has long been effaced by the sea of concrete and neon that I espied from my lodging on the twenty-fifth floor of the Silver State Hotel and Gambling Hall, high above the street called "Glitter Gulch" where men ventured from far and wide to risk a life's earnings for a chance at greater fortune. As I gazed northward towards the mountains that lay beyond, I observed the expected flash in the evening sky - dazzling, though too distant to burn the cornea - and watched as a pillar of fire and smoke emerged above the horizon, blooming outward as it reached the stratosphere to form that familiar mushroom shape the world had come to respect and fear this past decade.

I noted the time on my watch - 7:36 PM, on the fourth of May, 1955; just as had been advertised in the newspaper I had purchased at the rail depot when I arrived in Nevada two days ago. It may be said of our military that they are reckless with the power they wield, unprepared to defend us from foreign devastation, and that they may some day debase the entire world to the same barren state as this desert in the name of national defense - but let no one say that they are not punctual! As the winds began to scatter the cloud of atomic debris northward, I drew the blinds and turned to review the room service menu set upon my desk, for I wished to eat heartily before I retired to rest for tomorrow's expedition.

It was not for recreational purposes that I had embarked from Boston's familiar avenues and rode the rails west to reach this oasis of civilization. Rather, it was my academic interests that had brought me here. Ever since I was a boy, I have been fascinated by the Indians that called this New World home long before my forebears departed for greener pastures. Many men, over many years, have viewed them as little more than savages, an opinion that I do not share, for the culture and history of those peoples is far older and far deeper than many realize. I have seen, with my own eyes, the great mounds of Cahokia, the tombs of Cumorah, the great pyramids of Mexico, and marvelled that they erected such wonders at a time when my own ancestors struggled to erect a circle of stones by which to measure the sun and moon. Had the arrival of the white man upon their shores not brought plague and conquest, bringing ruin to their great cities and decimating their numbers, I suspect they might hold their own against the European race today, or even best them. It is this line of study that has been the focus of my research since beginning my post-graduate studies at Harvard, and it was for this reason that the letter I received a month ago from a former class-mate of mine had given me cause to come west.

James and I had been dorm-mates from our freshman year, until after we both achieved our bacculaureates and I chose to continue on while he chose to make his way on Wall Street. The letter I received from him attested that he had not done well in his career; the firm with which he had been engaged had suffered greatly and he had found himself unemployed, and, having no family nor property to maintain, chose to set out for the west coast and endeavor a fresh start in California. He had found himself in Las Vegas along the way, and it was there that he had visited a place called Hearst Cavern, of which he had learned from the tourist bureau, and to which the bulk of his missive related, and the amazing discovery he had made therein (which I shall address in greater detail later).

To the Paiute who had inhabited those lands long before Las Vegas was established, the plain within which the cavern lay had been called by a name I dare not transliterate for fear of error, which I have been told means "flat land of the caves". In spite of the name, the land is not flat, it is cris-crossed by dry river beds, sharp cliffs forged where waterfalls once raged countless aeons ago, and eruptions of rock dating to the Ice Age or earlier. It was in this land in 1857 that Aaron Hearst, the third son of a South Carolinian plantation family, had come prospecting for gold. Hearst's own account of his deeds varied with the telling, but as he related it to his biographer shortly before his passing in 1896, he had come to California with the Forty-Niners and had only the thinnest of luck before an elderly Spanish aristocrat sold him a map that purported to lead to a mine which had belonged to his grandfather before the Revolution and had lain fallow since. It was on the strength of this map that he traveled eastward in search of the virgin hoard which, if the account of that octogenarian held true, would be worth a king's ransom.

When at last, after eighteen months of fruitless searching, he found the opening into the copper-colored cliffs that the Spaniard's map spoke of, he at first scorned his supposed benefactor's name, for he found that the mine had already been worked dry - the most promising veins long excavated, leaving only traces of precious metal yet to be recovered. As he scoured the deepest reaches of the mine, hoping to find any treasure or artifact that would justify his labor, he felt the slightest draft of cool air upon him - a seeming impossibility, as far from the mouth of the cave he was. Turning his lantern about to find the source of the disturbance, he espied a small hole, no wider than a silver dollar, from which the breeze seemed to emanate. Carefully, not knowing what might be on the other side, Hearst peered towards the hole, shuttering his lamp as to direct the flame's light thereunto - and what he there espied was far in excess of what he had been prepared to see.

Setting the lantern aside, Hearst raised his pick-axe and began to strike furiously at the aperture. Sweat ran generously over his brow, though cool was the air of the cave, as blow by blow he wore loose chips of stone. Hours passed before he was able to effect the construction of a passage wide enough through which a man might crawl, and taking his lantern in hand, he shimmied his way through to the other side, opened the shutters of his lantern wide, and beheld, for the first time in untold centuries, the tableau that laid before him.

The cavern seemed to stretch outward far beyond the ability of his lamp to illuminate - thousands of feet to each side, at least. If, as he estimated, he had followed the shaft of the mine three hundred feet underground, then the dome that roofed this place extended at least half the distance between himself and the surface. From his vantage he espied rock shelves cantilevered far downward, suggesting that the floor of this megalithic forum lay hundreds of feet further below. At the edge of his vision, he glimpsed a broad, deep river mildly burbling through a crevasse before falling off a ledge into even deeper depths.

And yet, despite the wondrous feats of Nature that had erected this vaulting chthonic depth, his eyes were drawn not to the dome above, the pillars of stone that jutted from floor to ceiling like the teeth of giants, nor the abundant moss that grew here and there in defiance of the inhospitable clime, nor even the white-fleshed, scaleless, eyeless fish that leapt and swam against the current of that distant brook. It was, instead, two other details that drew his attention, two which stood out even among this tableau of the bizarre, for they were the artifice of man - the first being the runes, letters, and pictographs which covered every wall and pillar and every inch of the rock dome, and the second being the mound that stood not fifty feet from where he had made his entrance, standing at least two dozen feet tall, made up entirely of human bones.


It seems impossible today that such a monumental discovery as Aaron Hearst made a century ago would fail to become an international spectacle, and yet, there is little mention of it in the records of journalism or academia. Hearst told no-one of his discovery until nearly twenty years later, and what accounts of it that I can find in the newspapers and scholarly journals of the time seem to regard it as little more than a humbug being perpetrated upon gullible pioneers by a man more interested in money-making than in scholarship. Hearst claimed exclusive ownership of the caverns in the aftermath of his discovery, and it is undeniable that his earliest attempts at popularizing his findings were more lurid than factual - his pamphlets detailed improbable accounts of vast subterranean cities, human sacrifice, antediluvian empires with magical powers, and all variety of other tales meant to appeal to the imaginations of the masses. It was not until after Hearst's death, and his unexpected bequethal of the caverns to the state of Nevada, that any serious attempts at ethnological study of Hearst Cavern were performed.

The survey of 1905, conducted the same year that this city of Las Vegas was founded, determined that the bones found within the cavern (those that remained, in any event, for a countless number of them had been carried away as trophies or souvenirs by Hearst's associates or other spelunkers in the intervening years) were almost certainly of Paiute origin, and that the pictographs enscribed upon the walls of the cavern were likewise characteristic of the Paiute, albeit bearing unique elements not found in other Paiute works. In 1909, the state opened the cavern to the public and advertised it as a destination for scholars and laypeople alike, eventually opening up a wider entrance from the surface suitable for railcars to pass through and laying several thousand feet of electric wire by which to illuminate the main cavern. By the end of the First World War, Hearst Cavern was said to be nearly as well-known a destination for those travelling through the southwest as was the Grand Canyon - from Las Vegas, one might take a two-hour trip by rail directly into the cavern, disembark below ground, picnic among the stalactites and paintings, and return to the city in time for dinner.

It was in the thirties that the state of affairs changed. Las Vegas thrived even while the rest of the nation struggled with the hardships of the Depression; but the Paiutes dwelling on the reservation northwest of the city failed to share in the city's wealth, and sought to find any way to improve their lot. In 1932 with the help of a skilled attorney from Los Angeles who offered his services free of charge, the tribe brought suit against the state of Nevada, arguing that Hearst Cavern, having been an ancestral burial site of their people, was in right the property of their tribe and not of the state, despite Hearst's claim to ownership by right of discovery. The case was litigated for three years, and ultimately found its way to the Supreme Court, which declared, in a five-to-four decision, that Hearst Cavern was the property of the tribe.

The tribe took over management of the cavern almost immediately, and for several years it seemed their fortunes had been reversed. In the summer of 1940, however, matters took a different turn; after having closed for the Fourth of July weekend, and having been expected to re-open to the following Monday, those that waited for the train found that it never arrived, and those who ventured to the site by automobile found only chain-link fences and signs declaring that the cavern was closed indefinitely. None of the tribes' leadership would answer any question from the local press about the reason for the closure, nor say when a re-opening might occur. The matter remained unaddressed for the following year, and soon the outbreak of another World War meant that the press had little time for such trivial matters as a tourist attraction in the middle of the desert. Hearst Cavern quickly passed into memory - until this spring, when my colleague James, as he attested in his letter, had attended the grand re-opening of the site.

He spoke briefly in his epistle of his time spent in Las Vegas, a largely unfruitful attempt to profit at the game of blackjack which left his pockets significantly lighter than when he had begun. He had made his decision to depart the following morning when he retired to his room at the Hotel Mojave and turned on the radio, hoping to hear the results of his favorite team's latest game, only to hear instead a breaking announcement that Hearst Cavern would be re-opening to the general public, for the first time in fifteen years, that very next morning! James was never as fascinated by Indian culture as was I, but the opportunity to see what had not been seen for so long struck him as not to be missed, and he resolved to be among those to pay the site a visit the next day.

He proceeds to briefly describe the mad rush at the train depot as thousands of people sought to buy a seat aboard one of the trains heading for the site, the claustrophic experience of riding in a packed train car designed to accomodate a third of those aboard, and the experience of the train descending into a graded tunnel into darkness before arriving in the well-illuminated cavern. He writes only in brief of the chaos at the point of arrival within the cave and the extent to which it detracted from the natural beauty of the place - the Indians hawking sundries and hand-made goods from wooden stands, the electric lamps that lit the abyss as if it were a baseball stadium, the large placards pointing out the sights to be seen as if the cavern were an amusement park, the throngs of people posing for photographs in a way that seemed to disgrace the ancient place.

He speaks of how he sought to make his way away from the crowds and find a less-visited part of the cavern. He carried a flashlight with him and found himself making generous use of it as he ventured further from the well-trafficed sections of the cavern, climbing and scurrying along ridges too difficult for the unprepared tourist to reconnoiter. It was in one of those valleys, a good hour's climb from the train terminus, that he discovered the artifact which inspired him to write to me after all these years. He speculated that it may have been the discovery of this glyph, or another like it, that had lead to the long interdict against public tours of this ancient place. He had included his own sketch of the glyph, as well as a photograph which, as forbidding to photography as that dark place was, was undeniable in what it portrayed.

Though my fascination has always been with history more so than chemistry, it was clear that the drawing of a mass of white and dark globes, surrounded on seven orbits by a multitude of smaller dots, could only depict the structure of an atom. That such a drawing existed in such a remote place, and so undeniably pre-dated modern science, was in and of itself a discovery on par with the discovery of the Americas themselves, but even that could not prepare me for what I would discover when peering through the library's texts to discover what atom was depicted, for I could not find it in any of the textbooks or classical texts, or even the thesis papers of our alumni. I instead found it depicted in a newer book, detailing the previously classified history of the war effort, which in the end was won by the discovery of a new element, that same element the composition of which had been etched upon that cave wall centuries ago - plutonium.

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