Cave offers unique outdoor adventure, indoors

SPRING MILLS — Few outdoors attractions in Pennsylvania appeal to such a wide range of interests as historic Penn’s Cave, located in the heart of Centre County.

Of course, to fully appreciate a visit one must leave the outdoors, board a boat and travel on a unique trip through the only full-water limestone cavern in America, beneath more than 1,600 acres. Above ground is a game preserve, an airfield, visitor center, picnic area, farm and the Penn’s Cave House, which became a private residence after the visitor center was built in 1980, but is used for special events and private meetings.

James Poe, a relative of the iconic American author Edgar Allen Poe, is recognized as the first owner of the cave, which was named for John Penn, who was a nephew of William Penn. Historians are unable to reach a consensus agreement how long Eastern Woodland Indians and their predecessors were visiting the cave, but in 1795 Rev. James Martin, the pastor of the earliest Presbyterian congregation in Penns Valley and recognized as the first white man to enter the cave, he found evidence several tribes had used it for shelter.

In 1860, the year before the start of the Civil War, adventures and friends Isaac Paxton and Albert Woods of Spring Mills were the first to travel the entire water course flowing through the entire cave system. Now boat tours exit the back of the cave through an opening that was created, but is not directly inline with the main cavern to prevent sunlight from creating moss on the walls.

Entrepreneur brothers Jesse and Samuel Long realized the commercial potential of the cave and in 1885 built the hotel that is now a private residence, but has maintained the third floor as it was when originally built. Prior to building the hotel the brothers had built a boat and charged admission for touring the cave.

In 1908 the property was purchased at a sheriff’s sale by brothers Dr. Henry and Robert Campbell, who eventually opened the tunnel at the rear of the cave and constructed Lake Nitanee. When exiting the rear of the cave onto Lake Nitanee to make the turn for the return trip elk are often seen roaming behind the fence of the wildlife park.

Russ Schleiden, who along with his wife Jeanne are the current owners of the cave complex, said the cave was added to the National Registry of Historical Places in 1978 and annually attracts approximately 35,000. Huge trout inhabit the water in the cave and Lake Nitanee, which flows into Penn’s Creek, travels on to the Susquehanna River and down to the Chesapeake Bay.

“Archeologists estimate the cave is more than 30 million years old, and it takes between 10,000 and 100,000 years for caves to form,” Schleiden said. “How long it takes a cave to form depends on local conditions.

“Of all the legends, the most interesting is the story of the French fur trapper Malachi Boyer who had an ill-fated love affair with the Seneca maiden Nita-nee. She was the daughter of Chief O-Ko-Cho, who instructed his seven sons to protect her and prevent her from marrying a white man.”

According to legend Boyer and Nita-nee fell in love and the two ran away from the tribe. In short time Boyer was captured by the seven sons and returned to O-Ko-Cho, who instructed them to throw Boyer into the waters of Penn’s Cave and guard the entrance to prevent his escape.

After searching fruitlessly for an alternative escape route, an exhausted and starving Boyer crawled onto one of the ledges in the cave and died. Eventually, the seven brothers found his body, weighted it with rocks and threw it into the water.

Some visitors to the cave with active imaginations say they can hear Boyer’s spirit calling “Nita-nee” echoing in the depths. As for Nita-nee, when she died and was buried it is said the Great Spirit covered her grave site and formed Mount Nittany.

While probably not known by the majority of the fans packing Beaver Stadium for Saturday football games, each victory by the Nittany Lions helps give alive the legend of a French trapper and his Indian princess.


Dietz is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association.