“COMPELLING, RIVETING. I DIDN’T WANT TO PUT IT DOWN!” — Denise T. Cobleskill

Anybody ever die down there?”

World-famous since the mid-1800s, Howe’s Cave had been modernized for visitors in 1927-29 with an elevator entrance, clean paths, and electric lights.  A grand reopening on Decoration Day, 1929 made Howe Caverns, Inc. one of upstate New York’s most popular tourist destinations.

As a college-age tour guide during the Seventies, author Dana Cudmore faced this question often enough during the hundreds of tours he conducted through the famous caverns.  Unknown to most, the answer is yes.  The Cave Electrician’s Widow delves into that tragic story and the courtroom battle that sought to redress the deaths.

Less than a year after the cave was reopened, two of the new corporation’s employees died in the cave under baffling circumstances in the early morning hours of April 24, 1930. They collapsed near the postcard-worthy formation, The Bell of Moscow.

When the two men failed to return that morning, a third was sent into the cave to find why.  This 25-year-old tour guide returned alone minutes later, warning of “poisonous gases,” and then collapsed, later recovering in an Albany hospital.

At 5 a.m. that same morning, 7½ tons of dynamite knocked 60,000 tons of limestone from the hillside at the old cement quarry, just southeast of the cave. Had fumes from the blast found their way through the maze of caverns’ passages and killed the men more than a mile away? Or had it loosened dangerous gases lurking in the cave for eons?

The Cave Electrician’s Widow: The Tragedy at Howe Caverns & Courtroom Battle for Justice is part David vs. Goliath; part mystery, part courtroom drama, part travelogue through the fascinating underground realm of the caverns, and much more. YOU’LL BE KEPT GUESSING UNTIL THE JURY’S VERDICT IS READ.

From Purple Mountain Press/NYSbooks.com.

This is the untold story of that tragedy: the rescue attempts, the investigation and coroner’s report, and finally, the legal recourse sought by the widows of the two men. Much of the story is told in vivid, first-hand accounts taken from court records of one of the cases.  The testimony—by rescuers, cave experts, quarrymen, explosives engineers, doctors, and chemists under the dueling questioning of the widow’s attorney and his adversary —unravels the mystery of who was responsible and illuminates unfamiliar avenues of the dark, remarkable cave. YOU’LL BE KEPT GUESSING UNTIL THE VERDICT IS READ.

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An article appearing in The Albany Argus on August 29, 1881, offers an unusual, albeit unlikely, account of Lester Howe’s discovery and subsequent sale of the cave some 30 years later to the Howes Cave Association.

The author, apparently thinking he is quite clever, writes:

On the 22nd of May. 1842. Mr. Lester Howe, while on a morning bunt for foxes, fell into a hole some fifty feet deep. Ordinarily this could not be called good luck, and probably at first Mr. Howe was not favorably impressed by his descent or bis surroundings, but discovering a passageway near at hand be explored it to an extent which satisfied him that his fall was to a rise.

Like Darius Green1, “He kept his secret from all the rest, safely buttoned within his vest” and soon arranged for the purchase of the land, which he presumed covered the main portion of the cave.

 After thorough and extensive exploration, it was opened to the public, and subsequently was traded by Mr. Howe for a large pile of “rocks” of a different sort, to the Howe’s Cave Association. The entire property, including the cave. Cave House, and the stone, piaster, lime, and cement works, is now owned by Hon. J. H. Ramsey, of Albany. Mr. Howe still enjoys excellent health and resides in a quiet manner on one of the most beautiful farms in the opposite valley.

1 From the poem, Darius Green and his Flying Machine, by J. T. Trowbridge March 1869