In Kansas City, One Stubborn Cave Won’t Give Up Its Secrets

Is Roanoke Park Cave mysterious—or just boring?

In most ways, Roanoke Park, in Kansas City, Missouri, is like other urban parks. Early plans describe it as “a bit of wilderness” in the middle of a bustling neighborhood. On a given day, kids scramble over its playground, neighbors walk their dogs through its green acres, and teens meet for pick-up games on its soccer fields and volleyball courts.

Roanoke Cave. 1930s. Before the entrance was concreted over.

Posted by John Fulmer on Friday, July 31, 2015

But Roanoke Park has a secret. On its south side, just across from the tennis courts, stands a stone and concrete wall about six feet high, built into a limestone bluff. This was once the entrance to Roanoke Park Cave. At one point open to the world, the cave was blocked off sometime in the mid-20th century, and is now completely inaccessible. Interested parties, from cavers to archivists to a local homeowner’s association, are still trying to figure out what—if anything—happened there.

“What I really want to do is just bust the damn wall open,” says Jaclyn Danger, with a grin in her voice. As a member of Kansas City Area Grotto, a local cave exploration and conservation group, Danger spends plenty of time underneath her home state, spelunking through karst caverns and exploring the area’s many abandoned mines. But Roanoke Park Cave, just a few blocks from her apartment, holds a special fascination. “It’s right in the middle of the city, so everyone knows about it,” she says. “You get jazzed about it.”

The approximate location of the cave's entrance, on the south side of Roanoke Park near the tennis courts.
The approximate location of the cave’s entrance, on the south side of Roanoke Park near the tennis courts. Google Maps

Official information on the cave is slim—the State of Missouri’s geological records contain only its name and coordinates—and dedicated hobbyists haven’t been able to do much better. “The only data we have is that it’s in Roanoke Park and it’s closed,” says Jim Cooley, director of the Missouri Speleological Society, which is working on mapping all the caves in the state. “It was bricked up or blocked up by the city or the park district decades ago.”

To fill this vacuum, locals entertain a flurry of stories about the cave. “There’s a mythos to it,” says Danger. One common one holds that Jesse James, the infamous outlaw, once hid there with his horses while on the run. Others feature endangered children—a pair of young girls lost forever, or a boy who got wedged in the entrance and had to be yanked out by the fire department. Other stories—the most enticing to actual cavers—deal with the cave’s size, or supposed secret entrances. “The story I like the most is that it connects all the way to Hyde Park,” about a mile away, says Danger. “Or if there was some type of crawlshaft in the woods, or under a manhole that’s been there since the ’40s. Those would be really exciting avenues.”

Presented with these hypotheses, Cooley debunks them one by one. “Jesse James [supposedly] hid out in every cave in the state of Missouri,” he says. “It’s undoubtably true that he would ride into a cave every once in a while in the summer because it’s free air conditioning—who wouldn’t?” But besides Cleveland Cave, in St. Clair County, which features a carving of his name, “I’m not so sure he did a whole lot of hiding out in caves,” he says. There are two documented cases of children getting lost in Missouri caves, he adds, but no such records exist for Roanoke Park.

Although Cooley wishes people would focus on the many caves in his state that, in his mind, have more to offer, he’s not surprised by the gossip: “Caves are a very fecund source of imaginative embellishment,” he says. He likens cave rumors to a particularly drafty game of telephone: “What you will find is someone will whisper to their neighbor, ‘They blocked up Roanoke Park Cave to keep people safe,’ and they’ll say to their neighbor, ‘They blocked up Roanoke Park Cave because someone got lost in there.’”

“By the time it comes around the circle, the Fourth Cavalry disappeared in there during the Civil War and they’re still looking for the horses.”

Meramec Caverns, yet another Missouri cave that claims to have hosted Jesse James.
Meramec Caverns, yet another Missouri cave that claims to have hosted Jesse James. Tydence Davis/CC BY 2.0

Over the years, this particular drip of rumor has formed a stalactite of certainty: something happened here. The Roanoke Protective Homes Association, otherwise dedicated to raising awareness of local zoning laws, hosts a webpage focused on getting to the bottom of the cave mystery. It features the only known historical newspaper articles about the cave: two from the Kansas City Star (which call it “Jesse James Cave,” proving that rumors die hard), and one from the March 1946 Westport High School Crier. “Venturesome boys sometimes crawled clear through but the passage was closed years ago by cave-ins,” that article says.

The group is dedicated—they have several archivists on tap to search microfiche records, if the date range for relevant events can ever be narrowed. (“I think they love the mystique of it,” says Danger.) They’ve also posted a written history by a long-time resident, identified as “John B.,” who got to go inside once, in 1946 or ‘47, after “vandals tore down the entrance barrier.”

“As I recall, it was a large bowl-like cavern with a small opening at the rear that I assumed continued under the street above,” writes John B. He offers one convincing on-site detail: “There was considerable dampness in the cave.”

Hobbyist spelunkers in Missouri, in 1932.
Hobbyist spelunkers in Missouri, in 1932. Missouri State Archives/Public Domain

Dampness or no, Danger wants in. “A lot of people would love to have it open,” she says. “We could open it, and gate it, and it’d be a bat sanctuary right in the city, and an attraction for people to go and see.” (And, of course, she could finally figure out how far it goes.) She’s dedicated a considerable amount of time to convincing Cooley to ask the city to open it up, but he won’t budge. “Roanoke Park Cave is not awesome, nor massive, nor cool,” he says. “It’s an ex-cave, blocked up.”

Faced with both literal and human brick walls, invested parties have had to resort to more shadowy methods. “I know a guy who was going there for a couple weeks to work on it with a pickaxe at night,” says Danger. “But it’s just so laborious.”

Her pet idea involves drilling a hole and filling it with a special kind of expanding foam, used by firefighters during rescues, that can crack concrete. “You break it looser with that,” she says. “Then you pack in a bunch of explosives, and then you run like hell.” That, at least, would make a great—and true—story for the future.