Jenolan Caves

The History of Jenolan Caves

Jenolan Caves has an enthusiastic historical society (Jenolan Caves Historical & Preservation Society). See their informative website.

Aboriginal Beginnings

Jenolan Caves were known to the local Aboriginal population for many thousands of years as Binoomea, "Dark places".  To find out what we know about the Aboriginal history of Jenolan Caves, see our Aboriginal Culture section.

European Exploration

European involvement in the area began in 1838, with the first recorded discovery by a local pastoralist, James Whalan. However, according to legend, Whalan was not the first European to set eyes on the caves.  That honour goes to James McKeown, an ex-convict and possibly an outlaw, reputed to have been using the caves as a hideout.

Over the succeeding years, James Whalan and his brother Charles discovered several openings.  The Elder cave was discovered in 1848.  It was the first "dark cave" explored.

In 1860, the Lucas cave, largest of the current show caves, was discovered by Nicholas Irwin and George Whiting.

It was not until 1866 that the caves were brought under direct government control.

In 1867, Jeremiah Wilson was appointed as 'Keeper' of the 'Binda', or 'Fish River' Caves.  The Aboriginal word 'Jenolan' (high mountain) was not adopted until 1884.

Government Protection

Despite government control, the caves initially enjoyed little protection. In the early years, visitors were free to break formations and take souvenirs from the caves.  Damage is visible today, in caves including the 'Elder' and the 'Lucas'.

It was not until 1872 that this practice became illegal, thanks largely to the efforts of John Lucas, the local member of Parliament. The Lucas Cave bears his name, to commemorate his part in the preservation of this fragile and irreplaceable environment.

Tourism & More Discoveries

In the 1880s, Jenolan began to emerge as a genuine tourist destination. Jeremiah Wilson, an extraordinary caver, had explored to the end of the Elder Cave.  In 1879 he had descended a shaft and rockpile to discover the 'Imperial Cave'. This was soon followed by the discovery of the 'Left Imperial' cave in 1880.  This cave was renamed the Chifley Cave in 1952, after Prime Minister J.B. Chifley.

Development began within the caves, including pathways and the protection of formations.  An accommodation house was constructed.  In 1887, permanent electric lighting was installed.

Wilson continued his exploration, discovering the 'Jersey Cave' in 1891 and the glorious 'Jubilee Cave' in 1893.

The present day Caves House was constructed in 1898' after fire partially destroyed the original buildings.

By the turn of the century, Jenolan was a well established and thriving tourist destination.  However, some of the greatest discoveries were yet to come.

In 1903, James Carvosso Wiburd was appointed Superintendent of Caves, initiating one of the most sustained and successful periods of exploration. Wilson had concentrated his efforts in the northern limestone.  Wiburd, along with Jack Edwards and Robert Bailey, pushed ever deeper into the caves, south of the Grand Arch.

The 'River' and 'Pool of Cerberus' Caves were discovered in 1903. In 1904, the 'Temple of Baal', 'Orient' and 'Ribbon' Caves were discovered.

The time and energy involved in these discoveries cannot be overstated.  All exploration was done by candlelight. The discoveries made by Wiburd truly elevated Jenolan to the status of a world class cave system, with the opening of the River (1904), Temple of Baal (1909) and Orient (1917) as show caves.

The history of Jenolan and the exploration of the caves is, of course, far from complete. The guiding staff continued to push beyond the known boundaries of the cave system.  For example, guides Ron Newbould and John Culley discovered the Barralong Cave in 1963.

In more recent years, registered speleological societies have explored the caves, and made discoveries, including the discovery of the Spider Cave in 1975, by Bruce Welch.

The often asked question, "How many caves have not yet been discovered?", is as unanswerable as ever. But the potential for further exploration is enormous.

Today, Jenolan is the most popular tourist destination in country NSW, with over 230,000 visitors annually, enjoying the wonders of the eleven show caves, and an ever increasing number entering into the world of adventure caving.

Work at the caves continues, with major upgrading of the show cave system and the visitor precinct.

Over 160 years since the first Europeans stumbled upon the vast openings of the Grand Arch and the Devil's Coach House cave,  the magic of Jenolan is still leaving its mark on visitors.  Jenolan is as timeless as it is unforgettable.

Jeremiah Wilson, Jenolan's first official cave guide - "The Keeper of the Caves"

mid 1800s image of people standing by the waterfall along the Jenolan River

Wiburd & Edwards demonstrating the caving techniques employed to explore the River Cave and its branches.

image of the original, extremely modest, Caves House

women cavers from early 1900s

Wiburd with visitors in the Bone Cave of the Lucas.


 Jenolan Caves staff from the 1890s

4655 Jenolan Caves Road, Jenolan Caves, Blue Mountains NSW. Ph: 1300 76 33 11 or +61 2 6359 3911

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