New Tour Exhibit Showcases Civil War History
STANTON, MO — May 16, 2012 — Talk about a blast from the past! Meramec Caverns, the venerable natural attraction along Route 66, has a new exhibit on view during the 80-minute guided tours of the cave. Visitors now see replicas of two wooden leaching vats used in the production of gunpowder during the Civil War and hear how Confederate troops destroyed the Union-run munitions operation at Meramec Caverns.
Vats similar to those now on view were in place at Meramec Caverns and worked by Union troops to manufacture ammunition from 1862 through 1864. The munitions production came to an abrupt end when General Sterling Price and his Confederate troops marched into Franklin County on September 30, 1864 and destroyed the operation within the caverns.
Meramec Caverns’ role as a munitions plant pre-dates the Civil War. As early as 1720, the limestone caves along the Meramec River were mined for saltpeter, a key ingredient in the manufacture of gunpowder. Meramec Caverns, then known as Saltpeter Cave, was the largest of the region’s mining caves. It is said that Peter Stanton, for whom the city of Stanton, Missouri was named, operated a powder mill in the caverns prior to the Civil War.
Judy Turilli, vice president of Meramec Caverns, had the idea to incorporate the cave’s salt peter mining history in the cave tours. “Mining was such an important part of the cavern’s and the Stanton region’s history,” says Turilli. “With the nation commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War during the next few years, the mining display is an appropriate and unusual way to interpret Meramec Caverns’ Civil War connections.”
Turilli did extensive research on saltpeter mining. She found detailed plans on how leaching vats were designed and engaged carpenters from nearby Steelville, Missouri to build them to spec. The vats are created from barn wood that is more than 100 years old.
The V-shaped wooden hoppers hold hundreds of pounds of a raw saltpeter and dirt mixture. Saltpeter, or potassium nitrate, is a natural alkaline substance found in limestone rock. Fresh water is poured into the vats to extract the saltpeter from the dirt. Wood ash is added to the newly mined saltpeter and boiled to create purified saltpeter crystals.
Also on display is a replica of an 1861 Springfield musket with bayonet which was the type of weapon used by many Civil War-era soldiers. Turilli sought the advice of Walter Kleinigger of Stanton, Missouri to find the firearm for display. Kleinigger is an expert on this model of Springfield musket which used the type of gunpowder produced at Meremac Caverns prior to and during the Civil War years.
Meramec Caverns is well-known as a hideout for one of the Confederacy’s most infamous veterans – the outlaw Jesse James. James, from the staunchly Confederate-leaning Little Dixie area of northwest Missouri, rode with Southern raiders during and after the Civil War.
Meramec Caverns is part of the Gray Ghosts Trail, a driving tour to significant Civil War sites throughout Missouri. The tour was created by Missouri’s Civil War Heritage Foundation. The detailed driving map is available at www.mocivilwar.org/travel_tours.html
Meramec Caverns is open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Guided-walking tours depart every 20-30 minutes starting at 9:00 a.m. Cavern tours take one hour and twenty minutes to complete, covering 1 ¼ miles round trip. For more information, click on www.americascave.com or call 800-676-6105.Email this Article