Historic Murphy’s Cave Ground Zero for New Mapping Project

It’s a tight squeeze for cavers who are the first to enter Murphy’s Cave in 53 years.

The historic Murphy’s Cave in Hannibal, MO., the site of the 1967 search for three lost boys, as documented in my books Lost Boys of Hannibal and Souls Speak, is the focus of a new effort to better map the maze cave network. Nearly two miles of the complex cave passages were first mapped between 1959 and 1967, and that map was very helpful during the 67 search. Now this new effort, with new technology, promises to provide a much more accurate snapshot of this most complex maze cave. The effort began earlier this month by a team of cavers led by Kirsten Alvey-Mudd. Here is her first report!

“It’s not often one gets the opportunity to be the first person in over 50 years to enter a legendary cave in their own hometown. Especially one with as infamous a history as Murphy’s Cave in Hannibal, Mo. There’s few who grew up in Hannibal of recent decades not familiar with the Lost Boys who disappeared on May 10, 1967 and were suspected to be lost or buried in Murphy’s Cave passage while blasting of bluff for the construction of Highway 79 was being conducted. The largest cave rescue in US history unfolded involving cave rescuers from all over the nation, but no evidence of the boys or their bodies were ever found within the cave. After thorough search and the completion of a cave map, respect and concerns resulted in it’s entrance being blasted, filled shut and seemingly sealed forever.

Fast forward 50+ years to October 2, 2020. The new landowners of the Old Quarry House property (along the edge of where inaccessible cave passage lay silent beneath the hills) is removing a woodchuck den and building a retaining wall when they accidentally backhoe into passage just 5ft inside the hillsides edge. Cold air is blasting from the hole.Hannibal being the childhood home of MoBat Executive Director Kirsten Alvey-Mudd, she made contact with the landowner to discuss permitted access to assess stability for exploration. She and Mark Twain Grotto alum Dave Mahan assessed safety and tried to estimate where this new entrance might lie on the existing 1967-69 cave map on file. Dave conducted a surface survey and took measurements from where the original barrel entrance once existed.On October 3, a remote control car with camera was used to explore passage conditions. We began assembling an exploration team.October 22, Kirsten came ahead to set logistics with the landowner and pre-dug the entrance for better access into the first 3ft pocket not far inside.

On October 24, a 4 man team of MoBat volunteers Quintin Heaton, Desarae Garcia, Jim Mudd, Kirsten and the owner were the first humans to enter the cave in 50+ years. Much digging using small hand trowels and hoes was needed to make both entry and passage feasible. The route is small, requiring mostly belly crawling at approximately 2ft wide and most between 6 inches and 1.5 ft tall with a few small areas about 3ft tall. 56 2gal size buckets (5gal won’t fit in the passage!) of clay were removed to facilitate exploration far enough to see that we could indeed access main passages and were not in an area collapsed off by the blasting.

We dug for 4 hours to make 43ft of belly crawling passage navigable. Dead end side passages totaling another 46ft were measured along the route for attempting to locate the exact area on the existing map. We stopped at a T junction with a 90° angle turn which will require additional digging of the 8 inch high passage to reach more comfortable 3ft tall passage that can be seen approximately 10ft away. She’s blowing hard and going.Not unlike Mark Twain and Cameron Caves, Murphy’s is a complex maze cave of fissures in the limestone characterized by numerous intersections. Murphy’s passages are MUCH smaller, the majority of them being no more then 2 feet wide and 1-2ft high. Progress will be slow going as there is little room to work in or dump dug debris. All dug clay must be removed all the way back to the entrance and dumped outside to keep from blocking the passage behind us. We are still unsure how much of the originally mapped passage can be accessed since the blasting which sealed the original entrance and additional blasting which created highway 79.This project and it’s potential re-mapping will NOT be open to the public as it will require skilled and experienced cavers.

Caver Kirsten Alvey-Mudd.

The owner asks that individuals please respect the on-going construction and restoration of the Old Quarry House on the property and NOT stop by to disturb work crews, take photos or ask questions. There is little to see. A board covers the entrance until a proper angle iron cave gate can be constructed in the near future. This is a highly dangerous site.NO human remains or evidence of the missing Lost Boys was seen. Only a few small animal bones and an old spike were found in the passage. Cave crickets, several species of spiders, armadillidiidae and small isopods were the only living creatures seen.We will keep the public updated after each future expedition.” Thanks to Kirsten Alvey-Mudd

It will take several months to remap Murphy’s Cave. The maze network was first mapped between 1959 and 1967 when nearly two miles of passages were explored.