On this date in 1887, two North Dakotans announced a surprising discovery. Isaac Clark and Isaac Ross were taking a leisurely drive when they spotted a cave. The entrance measured ten feet high and six feet wide and it was about one hundred feet deep. This was notable in a state not known for having a cave system.
The United States has many famous caves, like Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico and Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. North Dakota doesn’t have famous caves, but there are a few interesting underground locations.
First, there’s the Ice Caves in north Billings County. The caves got the name because the water that drips in from rain and melting snow freezes in winter, and that ice can be found in the caves as late as July. In the 1920s, a rancher placed butchered beef in the cave where it stayed fresh through the summer. The plan was not foolproof, as wild animals often helped themselves. Throughout the early 1900s the caves were a popular tourist destination. People even went there for picnics. A highlight of the trip was making ice cream from the ice in the caves.
A cave known as Medicine Hole is located near Killdeer Mountain. The site overlooks the abandoned town of Oakdale. A rugged trail runs from a park to the cave opening. The cavern runs from five feet to thirty feet high. The deepest part is about seventy feet below the surface. Native Americans were familiar with the place. One version of Native American folklore identifies Medicine Hole as the place where the first buffalo emerged into the world. The Medicine Hole was also a popular tourist destination in the early 1900s.
A few other underground curiosities are Keller Cave near Strasburg and Bear Cave along the northeastern edge of Rainy Butte. Other caves, like Lion’s Cave and Hideout Cave in Billings County, are found in reports, but cannot be located today. Many are connected with legends of being hideouts for rustlers and other lawbreakers.
Any dedicated caving enthusiast would no doubt be disappointed in the modest size of North Dakota caves, but they are located in scenic areas and worth the visit.
Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher.
Bismarck History. “It Happened in Bismarck.” http://bismarckhistory.org/it-happened-in-bismarck/?&offset=100 Accessed 5/14/2021.
North Dakota Geographical Survey. “Caves in North Dakota.” https://www.dmr.nd.gov/ndgs/ndnotes/Caves/Caves_h.asp Accessed 5/14/2021.