Ever since their rediscovery in 1885 by gold prospector Walter J. Mercer, the Mercer Caverns have been a popular destination for the cave-curious public. The longest continually running commercial cave in the state of California, the cave has guest books signed by a hundred and twenty years of visitors.
Victorian visitors to the cave originally descended on ropes – now there are stairs – to view the three-million-year-old caves via candlelight. From a Victorian brochure: “Visitors should wear clothes which they never expect to wear to a wedding afterward. A candle is to be carried in one hand and it is prudent to have a supply of matches in one’s pocket.” What they probably weren’t told is that they had entered an ancient burial ground.
The cave was originally used by a prehistoric Indian Tribe called the Yokuts as a mortuary cave. They would bring bodies to the opening and let them roll down inside. Because such a site was sacred, no one was allowed to enter. The Yokuts were hunters and when the game was gone they moved camp. Over the years, the entrance filled with dirt, leaves and rocks and was completely lost.
When Walter J. Mercer first broke through the dirt and climbed down into the cave he found the remains of four adults, one child, and one infant, and even took a bone as a souvenir. Mercer even named the caves the New Calaveras Cave or “new skull cave” after the skeletons he found within. However, in its conversion to a show cave little was said of the Indian remains, and after a name change to the Mercer Caverns memory of the cave’s dark history was mostly forgotten.
If this left uneasy spirits behind, it seems they got their revenge. Mercer, who was working in the cave, fell thirty feet when his rope broke, and badly injured his spine, causing him great pain for the next 12 years and eventually leading to his death at the age of 46.