Yesterday, during an adventure to the Roanoke farmers’ market, my son and I went into a shop that specializes in outdoorsy-type activities (hiking, camping, etc.). While he was checking out their hats, I found a display with maps and guides to the many hiking trails in our area, among which the most notable is the Appalachian Trail. I’m not much of a hiker myself – long out of practice and woefully out of shape – but he’s recently expressed an interest in hiking the AT someday (ah, youth!), so I picked up a National Geographic illustrated topographic map that covers our immediate area. Apart from trails, it also identifies all the different mountains and ridges around here (with elevations) as well as rivers and creeks, major, minor, and forest roads, and many of the tiny mountain communities that don’t make it on to the state maps, along with icons indicating campsites, shelters, fishing spots, and the like. While I’m not a hiker, I do love to explore, so I think this map will prove very useful. Who knows, maybe it’ll inspire me to dig my tent out of the back of the closet and go camping for the first time in ages.
As I was looking at the map last night, one feature grabbed my immediate interest: right off SR 779 on Gravelly Ridge is a place identified as “The Murder Hole.” Who could resist a detail like that? I’ve encountered the term “murder hole” before – it describes holes in a medieval castle’s upper floors or outer walls used to defend the castle against attack (n.b.: I would provide a link, but I’m not well-versed on castle design and my Google-fu is letting me down, as my search produced contradictory explanations of the difference between meurtrières and machicolations and which – if not both – “murder-hole” applies to. Unfortunately, “murder-hole” doesn’t appear in the index of Jospeh and Frances Gies’ Life in a Medieval Castle, so it’s not much help either.)
But I digress. I had to find out how a term I associate with medieval castles came to be applied to something on a remote mountaintop in southwestern Virginia, and just what that something is. (I should point out that there are actually two so-called Murder Holes identified on this map, the second one off VA 42 in Craig County. It’s the other that interest me more, since it’s closer and I drive near it a couple times a month.)
Turns out, it’s a cave. Or, rather, a system of caves that begins with a 120-130′ hole in the ground, as seen in this photo. Here’s another, from the bottom looking up. Apparently it began as a cavern whose roof collapsed in on itself. (This is limestone country, so sinkholes are very common. My grandfather used to tell stories about exploring Rockbridge County for them while a cadet at VMI.) The eponymous “murder hole” is actually the cave terminus, a 75-foot shaft reached by navigating a labrynthine series of passages with names like “Fatman’s Squeeze,” “Screw Hole,” and “Tobacco Shed.”
Of course, it’s the history and folklore behind the name that’s most intriguing, and until I get a chance to do my own digging through archives, I’ll point you to this 2002 article from the Roanoke Times: Few know this cave’s deep, dark secrets, by Zeke Barlow (be sure to listen to the .mp3 of Marian McConnell’s song as well).
One final, sad, note: portions of The Murder Hole are currently closed, as are increasing numbers of caves in the eastern US, due to the spread of White Nose Syndrome in bats.
* From “Catawba Murder Hole” by Marian McConnell
Update 3/30/14: Marian McConnell has written a book about the Catawba Murder Hole. There’s a review here.