The Bygone Caves of Mounds State Park

Posted on: Friday, May 19, 2017 at 9:00:00 am The Bygone Caves of Mounds State Park

Mounds Park officially became a state park on October 7, 1930. Since then, its 256 acres of woods, trails, waterways, and ancient mounds have been enjoyed by people far and wide. However, for 32 years (1897-1929), Mounds Park was an amusement park owned by the Union Traction Company with a roller coaster, balloon ascensions, a boat house, a skating rink, a shooting gallery, a dance pavilion, and concession stands. In addition to its amusements and mounds, the park’s most curious attraction was its caves, as pictured in this postcard from the early 1900s.

The ten mounds (artificial hills of earth) of Mounds State Park have long been a mystery in regard to their creation and purpose. They are believed to have been built around 250 BC by the Hopewell Indians, who were descendants of the Adena Indians, who were known as the “Mound Builders.” The four components of each mound are the embankment (around its perimeter), the ditch (circular in shape), the platform (in the center and encircled by the ditch), and the gateway (the entrance to the platform). Many theories exist as to why the Hopewell Indians built these mounds. Ranging from astronomical observation to burial, most of the theories have a ceremonial purpose. For example, the Great Mound has dips marking the winter and summer solstices and the spring and fall equinoxes, the gateway of the Circle Mound aligns with the sunrise during the spring and fall equinoxes, the Fomalhaut Mound/Earthwork B aligns with the rise of the Fomalhaut star during the fall equinox, and the Woodland Mound/Earthwork D aligns with the sunset during the winter solstice. These astronomical alignments may have correlated with religious ceremonies. However, the discovery of three tombs within the Great Mound indicates that it may have been used for burial ceremonies. Furthermore, after artifacts were found in the Fiddleback Mound, it was theorized that it may have been used as a trash heap!

While the mounds have always been historical and cultural curiosities, as an amusement park, Mounds Park’s most popular attraction was its caves. Located in the soft conglomerate rock of the bluffs along the White River, these caves sparked numerous legends, such as being filled with artifacts or running under the mounds, thus attracting many explorers. This almost led to tragedy in the 1920s, when an 11-year-old girl, whose mother ran a concession stand at the amusement park, chose to explore one of the caves on her own. Taking some matches, she crawled into the dark, narrow cave and finally reached a cavern containing the precipice of a seemingly bottomless pit. The oxygen was so thin, all of her matches burned out and she became lost in the darkness, unable to find her way out. A search party was formed and by following her trail of matches and her cries for help, they found her 18 hours later with an Indian arrowhead in her hands. This close call proved how dangerous these caves were, so they were subsequently dynamited and filled in. This action, as well as the closing of the amusement park in 1929 due to the stock market crash and ensuing Great Depression, diverted visitors’ curiosity to the mounds, and the park became Mounds State Park soon afterward. Although the park’s mysterious caves are long gone, the legends surrounding them live on.

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