Jenolan Caves

Those Bold Imperial Cave Explorers (Or Daring, Discovery and Dirty Deeds)

September 4, 2020

Cave exploration is difficult and dangerous. In the world of caving, as in any field of exploration, it’s important for people to receive credit for their discoveries – at Jenolan even more so, because it contains many caves, each discovered by different explorers.  But with the passage of time, confusion surrounds the discovery of at least one of Jenolan’s caves – the Imperial. 

At Jenolan, we always attribute the discovery of the Imperial Cave and its many branches, to Jeremiah Wilson, ‘Keeper of the Caves’ and avid cave explorer.  The importance of his work to explore and protect the caves, and make them accessible to the public, cannot be overstated.

The fact that Wilson explored this massive new cave is not in question. However there is evidence that someone else had already been into the cave, up to a year before, and hardly anyone knew – possibly not even Wilson.

The Grand Arch at Jenolan Caves, before 1897 when the road was built.Just to set the scene, at Jenolan the Grand Arch and the Devil’s Coach House caves were found in 1837.  The Nettle, Arch and Elder Caves were discovered in the 1840s and the Lucas was found in 1860. But then, no major caves were discovered until the Imperial Cave was stumbled-upon.

In early 1878, Henry Cambridge, started surveying a road into the Jenolan Valley. He was in charge, and Lamont Young, geological surveyor, also worked on the project. This road became known as the Cambridge Zig-Zag.  These days, if you visit Jenolan via Edith, you will experience its several tight hairpin bends. Imagine Henry and Lamont engineering this road over impossibly steep and rugged terrain. In 1878, this road was regarded as “the grandest of its kind in the colonies.[i]

Example of a fossil in the Elder Cave at Jenolan Caves.When they had the chance, Cambridge and Lamont also explored the caves. In his book, ‘Men of Jenolan’, Basil Ralston stated that on June 6, 1878, the Geological Surveyor in Charge, Charles Smith Wilkinson had asked the Mines Department for permission for Cambridge to dig in the Elder Cave, for fossils.[ii] He must have been successful, because shortly after, Cambridge wrote to Wilkinson, describing how, in search of fossils, he was lowered 50 feet down a hole from the Elder Cave into a previously unknown cave. Wilson may have known nothing about this.

Cambridge wrote, “At the place marked ‘1’ on my plan of the Elder Cave, is a large hole, down which, at the time of my first visit by Mr Young and myself, we were unable to descend, through want of a rope. Shortly after your visit, while engaged in laying out the Zig-Zag in the mountain, I and my survey hands went down one evening to finish the survey of the Coral Cave. And after finishing this I decided to descend the hole No 1, which I and my assistant safely accomplished, by means of the surveying chain, and which, as marked on my plan, I found to be about fifty five feet deep.”[iii]

Several months later, on Feb 16, 1879, Jeremiah Wilson and 9 companions entered and explored the same cave. Later, the Sydney Morning Herald announced that Wilson had crawled down through the Elder Cave and was lowered further down by rope into an unexplored abyss. Descending 50 feet he discovered a complex of large passageways, pure white formations and a stream. He immediately asked the government for money to set up adequate protection for the newly discovered cave.[iv]

announcement of Wilson's Imperial cave discovery in Sydney Morning Herald, 2 March, 1879To find where all these men entered, visitors can walk from Caves House hotel up the hill to the dramatic Carlotta Arch, and beyond, to the Elder Cave.  Wilson definitely went into the Elder Cave and down the same hole as Cambridge and Young.  And only days after announcing Wilson’s discovery, the Sydney Morning Herald confirmed, “The existence of a new cavern at the Fish River caves…was noted last winter by Mr. Lamont Young, geological surveyor, and Mr. Cambridge, road surveyor, in their survey of the Elder Cave. Shortly afterwards, Mr. Cambridge and his assistant were lowered down by a surveying chain 50 feet into this previously unexplored cavern.”[v] But even after this reminder of the cave’s previous discovery, the names of Cambridge and Young were forgotten.

Maybe the answer is that Cambridge explored one section and Wilson explored a different section of the same cave. Their cave descriptions were quite different. This is how Wilson described what he saw after descending 50 foot from the Elder Cave, “a large cave which surpasses, in extent and grandeur ,anything which has yet been seen in this wonderful group of caves”, where the flowstone floor glittered in the light of his candle, “as from millions of diamonds”, and an underground stream of pure water flowed.  Wilson explored the cave for 8 hours, as far down as the underground river.

But when Cambridge descended 50 feet from the Elder Cave, looking for fossils, he wrote, “At the bottom I found openings which led into a series of caves very similar to the formation of the Coral Caves.  I found on examination a great deal of drift, similar to that found further up, which owing to the dripping of the lime water, was extremely hard and brilliantly white.” There was no mention of a stream. Cambridge meant to return later for a more thorough investigation. He and his assistant, Lamont Young, then found a way out of their newly discovered cave, by following “a great draught” which kept blowing out their candles. “My assistant and myself searched about for some considerable time, and after a great deal of trouble I found a small passage through which both of us managed to crawl, with great difficulty, for some considerable distance, till we reached a somewhat larger passage”. At this point they encountered wallabies, which they hoped was a sign they were nearing an exit into the grand Arch. Then he said, “after about half an hour of further searching, we emerged into a place where we could see the stars above us...” 

Evening News 14 Oct 1880 - Disappearance of Lamont Young

Another possible reason why Cambridge and Young are not remembered could simply be because they immediately left Jenolan for greener pastures. Cambridge intended to return for a more thorough fossil search, but he was unexpectedly transferred to Hay, “to take charge of the water supply of Riverina.”[vi] If any reader knows what became of Henry Cambridge, please let us know.

As for Lamont Young, unfortunately he died in 1880, in very mysterious circumstances.   After working on the road into Jenolan, he was appointed Geological Surveyor, for the NSW Department of Mines, an extremely busy role.  For the next 2 years and 4 months he travelled all over NSW, inspecting and assessing mineral deposits.  Newspapers of the times report his findings, in detail, on silver, gold, antimony, copper and more, in Boorook, Cootamundra, Wombeyan, Macleay, Nambucca, Parkes, Cobar, Temora and Mt. Werong. [vii]  [viii] [ix]  [x] [xi] [xii]

Finally, he arrived in the Bermagui gold fields. “On Sunday, the 10th October, he embarked between seven and eight a.m., it is believed in a boat with his assistant Mr. Carl Maximilian Waldemar Schneider, also of the Government Mines Department, and three boatmen, all well known respectable and married men, with the intention of crossing the bay to Corunna Point, a distance of nine miles, and since that time they have never been heard of nor seen, nor have any traces or signs indicative of their fate been discovered.”[xiii] Never had a tragedy been so widely publicised. Large rewards were offered, but after several years, the authorities concluded that the 5 men met with foul play. Their bodies were never known.

Jeremiah Wilson and family outside the original accommodation that he built.But, we do know what became of Jeremiah Wilson.  Born in Ireland, he was the Keeper of the Caves until 1896, when he became known as Official Explorer until his retirement in 1900[xiv]. He devoted his life to conserving the caves, a fact of which we are very proud.  He built the first guest accommodation at Jenolan, which he ran with his wife, Lucinda, until it was destroyed by fire in 1896. Think of his achievements, as you relax in Jeremiah’s Bar, upstairs in Caves House hotel, sipping a Guinness or single-malt whiskey before dinner.

Ponder the mystery of what happened to Henry Cambridge and to Jeremiah’s caving companions: Alfred Whalan, Thomas A. Gread, Jeremiah F. Cashin, Joseph Read, Nicholas Delaney, Ralph T. Wilson, Thomas Pearson, Heinrich Neilset and William Read[xv]. If you know, please contact us.

When the pandemic is over, cave tours reopen, and you can once again do our Plughole Adventure tour in the Elder Cave and visit the fascinating Imperial Cave, try to imagine the courage of those men, exploring the unknown, in total darkness, helped only by the feeble light of candles that kept going out.





[ii] Men of Jenolan by Basil Ralston, page 29, Sydney Speleological Society, 2010

[iii] Men of Jenolan by Basil Ralston, page 29, Sydney Speleological Society, 2010

[xv] Men of Jenolan by Basil Ralston, page 30, Sydney Speleological Society, 2010 

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