Armchair Explorer: The Search for Pequea’s Subterranean Lake

About a year ago, I received a message from a reader asking me if I knew anything about a subterranean lake rumored to exist in Pequea Township. I didn’t, but he definitely piqued my curiosity! Images of Gollum’s Cave hidden deep beneath an Amish farm immediately flashed into my mind.

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Gollum’s Cave

Unfortunately, life gets busy, and thoughts of locating the underground cavern faded as more immediate and pressing concerns emerged. Fast forward to March 2020, and COVID-19 had canceled a majority of my obligations for the foreseeable future. Left with more time to explore and research thoughts of finding the subterranean lake resurfaced.

Riddles in the Dark

The earliest mention of this mysterious body of water occurs in the May 17, 1870 edition of The Daily Evening Express newspaper. The article stated the underground lake was in a cave “formerly known by the name of ‘Bosler’s Hole.’” It was said to contain fish “devoid of eyes” and that the depth of the “water had never been fathomed.” Now I was definitely picturing Gollum’s Cave and participating in my very own game of Riddles in the Dark should I find it.

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Riddles in the Dark – What have I got in my pocket?

I was also hugely skeptical. It was in this same year that another local paper, The Columbia Spy, had reported that a small fortune in gold was hidden in the hills surrounding Safe Harbor. Further straining credibility was the fact that the treasure was guarded by a seven-foot-tall Native American ghost who moved it nightly. Don’t believe me? Click here to read the full story.

Subterranean Lake 

Here’s what The Daily Evening Express reported:

About eight miles south of Lancaster city, near Pequea valley, on the farm of Jacob Good, in Pequea Township, is a cave which was formerly known by the name of “Bosler’s Hole.”

This place has been frequently visited by persons who described it as one of great interest and curiosity, not alone for its geological features, but also for a subterranean lake of clear sparkling water having neither inlet nor outlet, imbedded in the solid limestone rock, which it was said to contain. It was also said that in the lake were fishes devoid of eyes and that the depth of this body of water had never been fathomed, being beyond the reach of the sounding line.

On Saturday last a party from Willow Street headed by M. W. Harnish, Jr., left early in the morning for the cave, taking with them torches, tar-poles, ropes, hatchets, etc., fully resolved to make a careful investigation of its contents, which had not long before been accomplished. After approaching the place, the party examined the adjacent grounds and the hill in which the cavern is situated in order to find a stream or subterraneous passage of water that might possibly communicate with, or have access to the lake, existing within the cave.

After a prolonged and diligent search, the party did not succeed in finding one. They now went to the cave, which opens at the top of a hill. The hole being funnel-shaped, or similar to the crater of a volcano. Ladders were suspended to the bottom by the aid of ropes.

The first distance from the surface of the ground to where the limestone rock commences is thirty feet, where the cavity contracts and assumes the figure of a parallelogram, being about two feet wide and eight feet long. From this point to the first offset in the cave is twenty feet more, or a perpendicular descent of fifty feet from the surface to the first offset. From here to the surface of the water is twenty more, in a gradual descent.

Moving back about twenty feet, you come to the edge of the lake, which is forty feet wide to sixty to seventy feet in length. Material was procured and a flat constructed to explore the lake and sound its greatest depth, which was thirty-five feet. The water is cold, clear, and sparkling, a sample of which was taken to the city for analysis. The water is perfectly quiet and has apparently no inlet nor outlet.

There are some kinds of fishes or animals in the lake, but the party was not prepared to secure any of them, and hence were obliged to postpone it till some future day. The cave is from seventy to seventy-five feet long, fifty to sixty wife, and from forty to fifty in height. There is a firm arch of solid limestone overhead as well as on all sides, and it appears as if it had been shaped and fashioned by some plastic hand.

Bosler’s Hole

Knowing the cave’s name, I started searching for “Bosler’s Hole.” A mineralogy book from 1922 mentions the location of Bosler’s Hole being “on a hill just beyond the railroad bridge over Pequa Creek southeast of Herrville.”

It didn’t take long to find Herrville. A quick Google search put it east of Route 272 between Smithville and Willow Street.


Now for locating a now nonexistent railroad bridge. Satellite photos showed no railroads in the immediate area. Eventually, I was able to identify the railway in question, which was known as the “Quarryville Branch.” The line started operation in 1875 as the Lancaster and Quarryville Railroad. Originally planned to be a narrow gauge route under the name Lancaster and Reading Narrow Gauge Railroad in 1871, the decision to make it standard gauge was decided shortly before construction began in 1874. As with most railroads in rural Pennsylvania at the time, it carried both passengers and freight.

Passenger service along the line ceased in 1909. Soon later, the L&Q merged with the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1915. Finally, Hurricane Agnes in 1972 severely damaged the railroad road, and it was abandoned soon after.

With the location of the bridged identified, I now had a general area to focus my investigation. The map below marks the location of Herrville. I also superimposed the path of the Lancaster and Quarryville Railroad onto the image using topographic features and an old railway survey.

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The probable location of Bosler’s Hole—on the hill along the Pequea Creek just past the railroad bridge.

Unfortunately, the search area was 60 acres in size. I was close, but the exact spot eluded me. It didn’t help that the region to explore was entirely on private property. It looked like my hunt had come to an end.

However, I wasn’t quite ready to throw in the towel. If this subterranean lake did exist, there would likely be modern references to it or at least something from the previous century. Using the Pequea Creek and other location markers as reference points, I expanded my search. I thumbed through the 1932 edition of Pennsylvania Caves I had purchased while researching Wind Cave for a previous article, as online copies were often heavily redacted.

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Pennsylvania Caves by Ralph W. Stone 1932

It took some effort, but I finally came up with a promising lead: Refton Cave. 

Refton Cave 1932

WM. Hickok, the author of the chapter on Refton Cave in the 1932 edition of Pennsylvania Caves, had this to say.

Refton Cave is situated on the John Hess farm one mile northwest of Refton and along the south bank of Pequea Creek in a small clump of woods. The cave is entered by descending a rope or ladder 40 feet into a sinkhole in Ordovician marble.

Below the sinkhole lies a large pile of debris 25 to 30 feet high which partially fills the eastern end of the cave, that consists of one large, chamber 125 by 60 feet and 35 to 40 feet high which is divided nearly in two by a roof pendant extending north and south halfway between the eastern and western ends.

The southern half of the cave is filled with water composing a sizable pool the depth of which was not determined, but which seems to be in equilibrium with the water in Pequea Creek as is evidenced by simultaneous rising and falling of the water level in the cave with floods in the creek.

The floor of the cave is covered with mud and debris that have fallen in from the surface. Skeletons of several animals and birls have been found in the debris.

Again, more images of Gollum’s Cave flooded my imagination.

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Gollum’s Cave littered with bones.

Hickok continued by saying:

The cave appears to have been formed through solution of the marble lying above the schist-marble contact by water trickling down the contact. There is no dripstone in the cave; this is probably due to the fact that all the water entering the cave comes through sinkholes or along the schist-marble contact and so has little opportunity to dissolve much carbonate. The roof shows evidence of blocks having fallen off. 

Best of all, the book included a map of the cave’s interior.

Map and cross-sections of Refton Cave, 1932.
Map and cross-sections of Refton Cave, 1932.

The two descriptions seemed similar enough that I concluded that Bosler’s Hole and Refton Cave were the same and home to the mysterious subterranean lake described in 1870 by The Daily Eventing Express.

Refton Cave 1974

With the cave’s new name in hand, I began searching again. This time I located a 1974 publication entitled Caves of Southeastern Pennsylvania, which included a chapter on Refton Cave.

Here’s what author J. R. Reich, Jr. had to say about the cave in 1974:

Refton Cave is located one mile northwest of Refton, on property belonging to Howard Miller. The entrance to the cave, along Pequea Creek, is 1400 feet west of a farmhouse. 

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The gated entrance to the cave photographed in 1981. Image courtesy of York Grotto.

Investigations by John Price of Franklin and Marshall College’s North Museum in 1936 disclosed a new species of planaria found in the cave. The new species was described by Libbie Hyman in 1937 and named after the collector— Speophila pricei. A new species of isopods was also discovered by Price and described by Herbert Levi in 1949, Caecidotea pricei. Preliminary ecological investigations of the microarthropod population of the cave were performed by the author in 1961.

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Specimen of isopod, Asellidae Caecidotea pricei, from Refton Cave. The cave is noted for its vast number of speleogenic species.

The entrance to the cave is located in the bottom of a sinkhole, 30 feet in diameter and 20 feet deep. Beneath the gated entrance, a shaft 4 feet in diameter, drops 25 feet to the top of a 15 foot high mound of debris that has fallen into the entrance shaft. The owner of the cave has installed an aluminum ladder for the convenience of explorers.

Descending into Refton Cave via a long ladder.
Descending into Refton Cave in October 1981 via a ladder. Image courtesy of the York Grotto.

The cave consists of one large chamber 85 feet long and 40 to 70 feet wide. The ceiling of this room soars as much as 30 feet from the floor. A small opening off the southwest corner of the chamber was excavated by Bruce Herr in 1959. His diggings revealed a small cell, 10 feet in diameter and 4 feet high. A large pond of water, up to 10 feet deep, occupies the northern half of the chamber. Scuba divers, in 1966, discovered two small underwater pockets on the north wall.

Tests have shown the water level in the cave pond to be roughly correspondent to the level of the nearby Pequea Creek. The rising and falling of water levels in the cave lags a day or two behind the corresponding rise and fall of water levels in Pequea Creek. Obviously, no opening of any size exists between the cave and the creek, water is traveling back and forth through very small fissures and pores in the rock.

Refton Cave contains, within the pond, isopods, amphipods, and planaria. The air-bound portions of the cave abound in all varieties of the Arthropod phylum: spiders, mosquitoes, and select species of the Collembola family can be found by the hundreds.

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Interior of Refton Cave, October 1981. Image courtesy of the York Grotto.

Refton Cave is developed along a fault zone in the anticlinorium formed north of the Martic Line. The fault traverses east-west through the entrance area; the downthrown side of the fault is to the north, toward the main cave area. The cave was excavated in dolomite of the Vintage Formation, primarily by water entering the fault zone and moving downward to the contact between the Vintage dolomite and Antietam schist.
The downward movement of water was stopped by the relatively impermeable schist and was forced along the schist-dolomite contact to form the cave. Southward development of the cave was prevented by the insoluble upthrust schist.

Major development of the cave has taken place under the water table, i.e., in the phreatic zone. Cave development is still occurring in the area of the pond, the surface of which represents the free-surface local water table. Vadose modification of the cave took place mostly along the fault zone, enlarging primitive phreatic fissures into the entrance shaft and the chimney or dome 30 feet to the east.

The best part was this 1974 publication included the longitude, latitude, and elevation of the cave’s entrance. Jackpot! 🎰 I finally had the exact location of the cave.

Fact vs. Fiction

So 150 years later, how did the original claims concerning the cave hold up? For starters, there really is a subterranean lake (or, more precisely, an underground pond). As for the lake’s depth being unfathomable, that appears to be slightly exaggerated. Depending on the source, the body of water is said to range between 10 and 35 feet deep. However, since the lake is in equilibrium with the Pequea Creek, it’s depth would vary depending on the creek’s water level, so both measurements could be correct.

Unfortunately, there don’t appear to be any fish “devoid of eyes” inside. Although several rare cave invertebrates that possibly fit that description do. In fact, in the past ninety years, at least two new species have been discovered inside the cave.

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Interior of Refton Cave, October 1981. Image courtesy of the York Grotto.

One of the most recent documentation of Refton Cave comes from the 2008 Natural Heritage Inventory of Lancaster County. The publication describes Refton Cave as “a limestone solutional cave with large underground pools of water. The cave is near a bend in Pequea Creek which is joined by Big Beaver Creek and Little Beaver Creek. Several nearby sinkholes likely also lead into the cave system. The surrounding land is primarily agricultural with a mixture of woodlots and newer residential lots. The cave is home to several invertebrate cave species of concern, one of which, Refton Cave Planarian, is currently considered globally imperiled due to the very few known populations of this species in the world.”

In that same year as part of their comprehensive plan, Providence Township made the following recommendation concerning Refton Cave.

Caves offer very little recreational opportunities due to their relatively small sizes and lack of accessibility. As a result, caves should not be promoted for general recreational use. Furthermore, the environmentally sensitive habitat of the Refton Cave would not fare well if the cave was accessible to the general public. The Township should protect unique natural habitats and features by preventing development from getting too close. 

Please Note Well

Refton Cave is on private property. The cave’s entrance is gated, so even if you were to risk trespassing charges, you would be unable to enter.

Caves can be dangerous, Refton Cave especially. According to a relative of the property owner, the cave was gated “a while ago due to some girls going into the cave and being unable to get out.” Keep in mind, it’s a 25-foot drop straight down from the cavern’s entrance. Without proper equipment, it’s a one-way, possibly even deadly, trip.

Finally, there is a fragile ecosystem inside. Untrained people traveling in and out of the cave would do nothing but harm the endangered species that live there.

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The entrance to Refton Cave before the installation of the gate. Image courtesy of the York Grotto.

Armchair Explorer

I hope you enjoyed this first installment of the Armchair ExplorerIn the coming weeks, I hope to research other locations that we can all explore from the safety of our own homes. Next up is Safe Harbor’s ancient Native American petroglyphs. I’m also open to suggestions if you have any. You can email them to me here.

Moreover, if you have images of Refton Caves, especially its interior, I would love to include them in the article. Thanks!

Resources

3 thoughts on “Armchair Explorer: The Search for Pequea’s Subterranean Lake

  1. Great article. I grew up near Refton and heard about the Refton sinkhole but never had a chance to explore it.

  2. Excellent article!!!!!. And I cant believe i did not know about this since Ive lived the last 25 years in what used to be called Herrville. I have tubed/canoed down the Pequea and climbed that railroad bridge dozens of times. Ive done a lot of exploring and research in this area and this cave never got mentioned once. Im still in shock. Great job on the research!!!!

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