Eric Standridge is a freelance writer with an interest in history. His main focus is writing about Oklahoma.
Caves in Oklahoma: Alabaster Caverns
Oklahoma is full of both man-made and natural wonders. From the Price Tower in Bartlesville to the Roaming Sand Dunes in Waynoka, there are some truly breathtaking destinations across the state.
One of the most fascinating, and most beautiful, is the Alabaster Caverns just a few miles outside of Freedom, Oklahoma. While the Alabaster Caverns State Park is a beautiful place to visit, the history behind the park is just as fascinating.
Prehistoric Seas Over Oklahoma: Birth of the Alabaster Caverns
200 million years ago, a vast sea stretched across America from the Rocky Mountains in the west to the Appalachians in the east. Small mountain ranges dotted this great sea, studded with rain forests typical of those found in equatorial regions. This shallow sea, called the Western Interior Seaway, slowly began to recede during the Late Cretaceous period (65–55 million years ago), leaving behind thick marine deposits and a relatively flat terrain where the shallow seaway once existed.
As the Western Interior Seaway slowly evaporated, large deposits of gypsum and other minerals were left behind. Around 60 million years ago, a great upheaval of the earth (called the Laramide orogeny) raised the gypsum bed close to the surface, and over time, water streams tunneled caverns through the formation.
It was during this great upheaval that the Prehistoric Alabaster Caverns in Northwest Oklahoma were born.
Modern History of the Alabaster Caverns State Park
No official record of the first discovery of Alabaster Caverns has surfaced to date; however, the records that do exist show that the caverns once served as safe haven for outlaws.
Undisputed evidence suggests that the first known exploration of the caves occurred in 1898 when Hugh Litton homesteaded the area during the Cherokee Outlet Run of 1893. From the early 1900s until 1939, limited touring of the locally known “Bat Caves” was offered for a nominal fee. In 1939, Charles Grass bought the land comprising Alabaster Caverns and opened the land for public tours. Grass spent many years developing the area around the caverns for just this reason. Charles Grass first called the area “Alabaster Caverns.”
In late 1952, five businessmen from Freedom and members of the Waynoka Railroad Labor League spearheaded a movement for the State of Oklahoma to purchase the cavern land. Charles Grass had numerous health problems and could not continue to maintain the area, so he readily agreed to the sale. On September 1, 1953, Oklahoma purchased the two hundred acres from Grass for $34,000, at which time the caverns came under the jurisdiction of the Oklahoma Planning and Resources Board. After a few additions to the property, the state reclassified the area as an Oklahoma State Park in 1956.
The Alabaster Caverns Today
A massive cliff overhangs the entrance of the main cavern, appearing as if it could suddenly topple in at any moment. Dense vegetation surrounds the mouth of the cave, and if it weren’t for the steps leading up to it, the entrance would be nearly invisible.
Once inside the Alabaster Caverns, one feels as if they have entered into another world. Cocooned inside the water swept cavern the temperature suddenly drops to a chilly 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Light slowly diminishes as one moves deeper into the caverns. With a maximum height of 50 feet, and a width of 60 feet, the walls seem to sparkle like stars at night. Violet formations of selenite crystals peek out from small crevices in the cavern walls as the trickle of a small stream echoes through the chambers.
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Walking through the caverns, one may come across uniquely named boulder formations, such as "Ship's Prow," and into chambers called "Devil's Kitchen" or "Crystal Vault." During certain times of the year, one may also encounter many unique species of bat, including the western big-eared bat, eastern pipistrelle, western big brown bat, and Mexican free-tailed bat.
The Alabaster Caverns State Park runs amidst a series of deep, rugged canyons, and is the largest natural gypsum cave system in the world. The many caverns in this park contain an abundance of several types of gypsum, mostly in the form of alabaster; white gypsum, pink gypsum, and the extremely rare black alabaster. Black alabaster can be found in only three veins in the world, one in the Oklahoma State Park, one in Italy, and one in China. Among the massive formations of alabaster, large, beautifully sculpted selenite crystal formations run the length of the cavern.
The main cavern runs is nearly a mile long, framing a slow-moving perennial stream that flows through the length of the cave. In prehistoric times, this small stream was once a mighty river, as evidenced by the obviously water-sculpted gypsum formations. According to geologists, this underground river was once capable of completely filling the 2,256-foot-long caverns.
The Alabaster Caverns provide shelter to five species of bats. With the bat population fluctuating up to ten thousand, tourists can encounter several species of bat, including the cave myotis, western big-eared bat, eastern pipistrelle, western big brown bat, and Mexican free-tailed bat throughout the year. While some of these species of bats are solitary, others are colonial, living in large numbers in places such as Alabaster Caverns. Roosting sites provide daytime shelter from the sun, and a place for those bats not migrating to hibernate during the winter months. The Mexican Free-tailed Bat migrates to Alabaster Caverns in the spring from Mexico to bear their young, and then returns to Mexico in the fall.
Visiting the Caverns
The park is located at 217036 State Highway 50A just outside Freedom, Oklahoma. Staff provides guided tours of the caverns, however, for safety reasons, groups are limited to 40 people at a time. For those interested in spelunking, the park offers four caves for this purpose. They are open from April through October. Prices vary, so it is recommended to contact the state park before visiting. When visiting, be sure to wear proper attire and good shoes. In areas, the floor can become slippery.
The park also features RV and primitive campgrounds, as well as hiking trails and picnic areas.
© 2010 Eric Standridge