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History of Crystal Cave

1871 DISCOVERY

On Sunday, November 12, 1871, William Merkel and his assistant, John Gehret, were blasting for limestone on a farm owned by Merkel’s parents. At the time, crushed limestone was a valuable resource widely used by farmers to increase the fertility of soil.

To their astonishment, they noticed a dark, narrow hole in the side of the steep hill, eighty feet from Gideon Merkel’s farmhouse. They pulled away the surrounding dirt to reveal an opening large enough to penetrate. Once inside, darkness precluded further exploration.

The news of the potential cave discovery created much excitement in the small rural Kutztown community. Plans to explore this natural curiosity were made that same evening at a local tavern called Lesher’s Bar. Several adventurous neighbors, including John Gehret, went back a few days later equipped with ropes, ladders, coal oil lanterns, and torches. Their suspicions were confirmed. A good sized and well-decorated cave did exist on Gideon Merkel’s farm. Through word of mouth, nature’s silent development in the mountainside suddenly became big news.

A few weeks later, a group of 12 men organized an exploration of Crystal Cave. Once inside the cave, four of the men exited back outside and remained above ground. The rest of the group climbed through the cave for the next 1 ½ hours. They remarked about the sparkling diamond-like crystals that adorned the walls of the cave. As a result, the cavern immediately became known as Crystal Cave.

A local jeweler examined the small sparkling formations and determined they were not diamonds. Early explorers were disappointed by the jeweler’s assessment, however, their disappointment was soon replaced by joy when they realized the considerable dimension of the cave cavity and the abundance of ornate formations.

For the next two months, numerous curiosity seekers entered the open cave at their discretion. Fearful of vandalism and broken formations a neighboring farmer with a passionate hobby for collecting Indian relics and geologic specimens, leased the cave from Gideon Merkel in February 1872. Samuel D. F. Kohler, leesee, immediately erected a rudimentary wooden door to protect the cave from trespassers who could potentially damage the cave. A few years later a more appealing stout door replaced the wooden planks that were initially nailed to the side of the hillside.

Stout door to Crystal Cave, courtesy Nevin Hill Collection
Stout Door (Nevin Hill Collection)

No one was allowed inside the cave unless Kohler accompanied them. The next month, 31-year old Samuel Kohler purchased the 47-acre farm, including Crystal Cave, for $5000, and became Pennsylvania’s first full time cave operator. The formal deed of conveyance was recorded in the Recorder of Deeds Office of the Berks County Courthouse on April 1, 1873, more than a year after execution of the sale. (Deed Book Volume 492, P. 621-623.)

1872 EARLY DEVELOPMENT

Interest in Crystal Cave was so great that as soon as Kohler leased the property he received word that a committee of men from a newly formed association of scientists, academic professionals, and enthusiasts of natural history were planning to study and report on the recently discovered cave in Richmond Township. They called themselves The Reading Society of Natural Sciences. For years Kohler reprinted their marvelous testimonial about Crystal Cave in various marketing promotions. In anticipation of his grand opening, Kohler labored fastidiously to remove unnecessary breakdown to create a suitable pathway inside the cave. He laid boardwalks and built wooden stairs and railings for safe passage.

Crystal Cave entrance steps inside the cave

Early Crystal Cave Post Card

He created a cave tour by identifying and naming familiar shapes of animals and other representations typical of the romantic landscape aesthetic movement of the mid-Victorian Era. Initial illumination to emphasize visual scenery came from using kerosene to ignite the walls of the cave and torches made by soaking rages in kerosene. Tallow candles and coal oil lanterns were additional sources of light.

Accessibility up the steep 80-foot incline to the cave entrance was facilitated by a grated path and a vertical series of rock steps. By late May 1872, Kohler announced the Grand Illumination of the Crystal Cave was to be held Saturday, May 25, 1872. Admission would be $.25.

Grand Illumination of Crystal Cave, original handbill advertisement

Grand Illumination Billboard

greenwich cornet band

Greenwich Cornet Band

MAY 23, 1872 ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE GRAND ILLUMINATION

Samuel Kohler advertised the Grand Illumination of the Crystal Cave on the front page of the Reading Times and Dispatch Newspaper on May 23, 1872 and also on page 4 the following day. Printed billboards posted at various business establishments also provided notice that the public was invited to the grand opening and illumination of the beautiful Cave and that The Greenwich Cornet Band would provide entertainment. There is no record of attendance that day. This is inconsequential, however, due to the historic nature of the event.

It was not unusual to find limestone caves in this region as Berks County has a disproportionate share of them. What was unusual was the promotion of a natural wonder for profit. Operating a cave for public pleasure in Pennsylvania was a novel concept and was unprecedented at that time. Crystal Cave not only was the first show cave to operate in Pennsylvania but was one of the first tourist attractions in the state.

newspaper ad, crystal cave grand illunination 1879

Reading Times and Dispatch Newspaper Ad

Kohler continued to focus on relevant marketing details of the day to advertise Crystal Cave. Common forms of advertising in the 1870’s were word of mouth, newspaper advertising, and ephemera such as trade cards, printed billboards and broadsides, and postcards. Trade cards were a cheap, colorful and common form of Victorian advertising. Typical trade cards had a picture on one side and an ad on the other and were considered to be the TV commercials of the day.

19th Century Trade Card for Crystal Cave, courtesy National Cave Museum

19th Century Trade Card (National Cave Museum)

1874 Guidebook to Crystal Cave
1874 Guidebook to Crystal Cave

They were beautiful, plentiful, and economical. The ones that Samuel Kohler had printed relayed relevant train destination details and glowing testimonials from influential people. He used billboards or signs that were displayed on public buildings, fences, taverns and hotels.


Commencing in 1873, an advertising pamphlet, referred to as a guidebook, was printed and sold as souvenirs. This was the first show cave guidebook for a cave in Pennsylvania.

The formations in Crystal Cave were described in exaggerated and profound terms and the Cave grounds were embellished with amenities of a pleasant summer resort.

Reprinted the next year, the new guidebook proclaimed Crystal Cave as "The Greatest Natural Wonder of Pennsylvania" inviting tourists, scientists, and excursion parties to visit. In 1876 a German version of the guidebook was printed and sold.

1873 EARLY TRAVELERS

Travelers initially arrived on foot, horseback, or by stagecoach. Recognizing Crystal Cave’s remote and inaccessible location, Kohler thought that Crystal Cave needed a direct link to the railway system. The East Penn Railway Station in Kutztown was a four-mile horse drawn carriage ride from Crystal Cave. In 1876, The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad established a depot at nearby Virginville.

Train schedules were commonly published in newspapers and railroad guidebooks. In 1874, to accommodate the increasing numbers of tourists patronizing Crystal Cave, Kohler built a 35 by 35 foot 2 ½ story Victorian Italianate addition to the farmhouse that was on the property. He called it the “Cave House” or “Kohler Hotel.”

Construction of Hotel, courtesy Nevin Hill Collection

1876 Construction of Hotel (Nevin Hill Collection)

During construction Kohler erected a two-sided cornerstone where it is written “Crystal Cave discovered November 12, 1871 by Messers J. Gehret and Merkel. S.D.F. Kohler Proprietor” and “This Cornerstone is Laid in Remembrance of the Greatest Natural Curiosity of Pennsylvania.”

cornerstone, Crystal Cave

smaller cornerstone, Crystal Cave Inn

J. Gehret’s name is clearly identified on the cornerstone as being one the discoverers of Crystal Cave. The first name of Merkel, however, was not etched into the cornerstone leading to confusion as to which Merkel co-discovered Crystal Cave. For many years, Gideon Merkel, owner of the property, was referenced and credited for accidentally discovering Crystal Cave as Ticnor Brooks, author of the first Crystal Cave guidebook stated. Other reference materials including an article written by William J. Dietrich and read before the Historical Society of Berks County on December 11, 1906, mention William’s name for the fascinating find. A handwritten note in the Berks County Historical Society signed by David Kohler, son of Samuel D.F. Kohler, clearly states that William Merkel was the co-discoverer of Crystal Cave.

The German drop siding, trim, window headers, and cornice brackets from the original "Hotel" can still be seen today. The shutters on the front façade had been removed in the 1920’s, stored, and forgotten for seventy years. In 1997, they were found, repaired, repainted, hung and fitted with the original iron strap hinges.

When there was no vacancy at the Inn, Kohler rented rooms in his private residence. He also provided meals and entertainment in the form of dances and hoe-downs featuring live entertainment in the “cool” cave on warm summer evenings. A small wooden enclosure in the Crystal Ballroom, the largest room in the cave, served as a refreshment stand where beverages were sold. Guests were also invited to relax on the open porches of the Inn to enjoy the beautiful scenery.

Traveling to Crystal Cave was slow and time consuming. To accommodate tourists Kohler owned three stagecoaches that transported travelers from both nearby railway stations to Crystal Cave.

Stagecoach for Crystal Cave,  Opera Bus

1891 Stage Coach

These stagecoaches were used until 1912 when cars became the popular mode of transportation. One two-horse drawn stagecoach, commonly referred to as an “Opera Bus”, remains on display at the Crystal Cave Museum. This stagecoach, manufactured in 1891 by Healy & Co. in New York, narrowly escaped ruin when a fire destroyed the Company barn on December 16, 1976, where the coach had been stored for fifty years. Fortuitously, this particular stagecoach was on loan to a local high school theater department when the barn unexpectedly burned to the ground destroying all contents including an Amish Buggy. In addition to providing the means for sparing the stagecoach from certain destruction, the local actors cleaned and removed approximately 50 pounds of walnuts that squirrels had store inside and cleaned and refinished the outside.

David Kohler and Mrs. Kohler at Crystal Cave entrance, 1913
Mr. & Mrs. David Kohler at Cave Entrance

1886 – DAVID KOHLER

Samuel’s son David was twelve years old when he became a tour guide and driver of the stagecoach that transported tourists. On November 2, 1886, at the young age of 21, David purchased the tract of land known as “Crystal Cave” from his father for a sum of $4300.00. (Deed Book Volume 170, page 394.)

David continued the pursuance established by his father of publicizing and creating interest in the increasingly renowned natural curiosity. Local artists, photographers, scientists, members of the Berks County Historical Society, and Professors of higher education were encouraged or invited to come to Crystal Cave in the anticipation of resulting free publicity.

Students from Kutztown Normal School at Crystal Cave, 1906, courtesy of Kutztown University
Keystone State Normal School Students, 1906

He was successful in this achievement. He probably remembered that on August 23, 1876, several prominent French educators partaking in the Centennial Celebration in Philadelphia visited Crystal Cave. Samuel Kohler had been given an autographic statement that said “Niagara Falls and the Crystal Cave are the greatest natural wonders we have seen in America.” Naturally, Kohler capitalized on the glowing testimonial and used it extensively in his marketing efforts.

A major economic depression occurred in 1893. Remembered as the Panic of 1893, the economy was characterized by unusually high levels of unemployment, bankruptcies, bank failures, railroad collapses, and restrictions of credit. Crystal Cave was not immune to this financial distress.

On February 25, 1893, David Kohler was forced into a receivership arrangement as a result of Sheriff Sale. Whereas David remained at the property and managed it as usual, a receiver was appointed by the Court to pay creditors. Just 6 months later, David recovered the deed to Crystal Cave and would retain ownership and successfully operate Crystal Cave for an additional thirty years.

wedding at crystal cave

October 15, 1919 Wedding of Marion Kurtz and Francis Finley

On October 15, 1919 Marion Kurtz and Francis Finley were united in marriage beside a floral decorated natural alter inside of Crystal Cave. A piano carried inside the cave provided musical accompaniment. Several hundred people arrived that day to wish the newlyweds well. It was the first time a wedding had been performed in a cave in Pennsylvania. The unusual nature of the nuptials provided a substantial amount of free publicity, as it was front-page news in both the Reading and Kutztown newspapers. For years David Kohler sold postcards of the couple on their wedding day at Crystal Cave.

1923 CRYSTAL CAVE COMPANY, INC.

In 1923, at the age of 57, David Kohler was ready to retire and sold his interest in Crystal Cave to the present owners who formed Crystal Cave Company, Inc. The Company instituted a massive revitalization effort both below and above ground with the objective of maintaining integrity of the cave. Tons of concrete were required to rebuild steps and pathways inside the cave. Railings and metal bridges were installed for safety consideration. In 1927 a massive lead cable connected to metal reflectors replaced the delco battery pack lighting system. Large dome lampshades were installed subsequently.

Other improvements to the property included building and macadamizing roads and creating parking lots, constructing a prominent stone entrance to the cave in 1935, planting several hundred thousand evergreen trees, and creating a picnic park.

Rewiring Crystal Cave with Lights

Rewiring of Crystal Cave - 1927

Automobile travel effectively closed the Hotel to overnight guests. By the time it closed in 1917 more than 20,000 visitors had spent the night at Crystal Cave. Reconfiguration of the Hotel for the increasingly prevalent day-tripper resulted in a dining area and souvenir store on the first floor and an apartment for the resident manager on the second. To further accommodate tourists several buildings were built on the cave property between 1968 and 1981. A fast food restaurant, ice cream parlor, and second gift shop operate seasonally.

In 1976 an 18-hole regulation cave oriented miniature golf course was constructed. That same year, a theater was built to provide a movie presentation about the formation of caves and a nature trail was paved through the woods. A Crystal Cave Museum containing the 1891 stagecoach, old bedroom and restaurant furnishings from the former Hotel and original postcards, brochures, promo cards, and other advertising memorabilia opened in 1982. Panning for gemstones was the most recent acquisition to Crystal Cave.

1924 Entrance to Crystal Cave

From a 1924 Guidebook

Despite the passage of time today’s tourists are intrigued in the same manner as early visitors were in the 1800’s. With the exception of easier access, illumination and slightly different names to identify formations, Crystal Cave’s appearance and description is very similar to when it was a newly discovered cave. In 1876, William H. Egle M.D. stated in his book An Illustrated History of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Civil, Political, and Military “that Crystal Cave is a remarkable curiosity and a subterranean wonder regarded with admiration by all who have examined it”.

In 2000, Earl Steinbicker, author of Daytrips Pennsylvania Dutch Country and Philadelphia wrote, “that Crystal Cave is a classic among tourists attractions. By now, millions of millions of people have taken the 45 minute guided tour marveling at this subterranean wonderland.” Interestingly, the 124-year time difference did not alter the sentiments about Crystal Cave.

Dean H. Snyder, author of The Hidden Green Diamond stated that “Crystal Cave remains as one of the premier tourist attractions in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

1920s cars in parking lot at crystal cave

1920's Cars in Parking Lot

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963 Crystal Cave Rd. Kutztown PA Berks County 19530