Article By: Paul Long
The Eastern Panhandle, it has been said, has something for everybody. Close proximity to major interstates, rail service to Washington, D.C., and its picturesque location adjacent to the Blue Ridge Mountains are just some of the benefits enjoyed by Panhandle residents.
Many of those residents might not know that the Eastern Panhandle also boasts many caves, some of which have only recently been discovered. And it is home to Tri-State Grotto, a group of caving enthusiasts that has discovered and explored several of those caves.
Tri-State Grotto was formed in 1986. By its 20th anniversary in 2006, the group had reached 100 members. Today, its membership stands at about 130 people, according to chairman John DiCarlo.
Of those, he said, roughly 18 to 20 members routinely attend the group’s monthly meetings, and the vast majority of members have been in a cave within the past year.
According to the group’s website, www.tristategrotto.net, Tri-State Grotto originated with two men, Bob Bennett and Chuck Stanley, who decided to explore a cave known as the Sinks of Gandy, located in Randolph County, during a family camping trip to that area.
After returning home, the men placed newspaper advertisements seeking interested cavers, and Tri-State Grotto was formally chartered on January 24, 1986, with 16 original members. The fi st newsletter was also published that month.
In recent years, Tri-State Grotto members have worked on several projects in the Eastern Panhandle and the surrounding area. They are still actively working on a tunnel dig at the historic Adam Stephen house in Martinsburg. DiCarlo said the house was originally built on top of a cave system so its owners could escape in the event of attacks by Native Americans.
Through the years, local children found the tunnels and often played in them, so they were eventually sealed up for security reasons.
Tri-State Grotto has been working to reopen the passages, and group members return three or four times a year to work on the project. One project that is now on hold indefinitely is a dig underneath the Apollo Theater in Martinsburg.
According to DiCarlo, his group was contacted by the president of the theater’s board of directors, who was interested in seeing what might be underneath the facility. But, after drilling down, Tri-State Grotto members didn’t find anything.
Another project, known as the Atha Dig, took place in the Whitings Neck area of Berkeley County; that project is also on hold.
More recently, Tri-State Grotto worked on a project in Greenbrier County. The group was called in to look at a sinkhole that was full of trash and had no openings until last year’s devastating floods that impacted southern West Virginia. The group rented a dumpster and removed two tons of metal trash from the site.
DiCarlo said he and some other members hope to return soon and clean up the remaining trash.
The Greenbrier project wasn’t unusual for Tri-State Grotto. DiCarlo said people often contact them with leads about possible caves. The group is still finding caves in the Eastern Panhandle, mostly in Berkeley and Jefferson counties. The area has plenty of limestone where caves often form.
DiCarlo’s interest in caves dates back to his childhood, when his parents took him to commercial caves in Tennessee. He joined a caving club while he was still in high school.
DiCarlo came to the Eastern Panhandle in 1979 for a job working with a telephone company and settled in the area. He joined Tri-State Grotto in 1988, two years after the club was formed. He is currently retired, which affords him more time to pursue his passion for caving.
Other officers of the club include vice chair Bob Bennett from Inwood and his wife Paulette, who serves as club secretary, and Jerry Bowen of Hagerstown, who serves as treasurer.
Other active members include Tom Griffin of Falling Waters, Tim Jordan of Inwood, Doc Phillips of Amissville, Va., and J.C. and Judy Fisher of Berkeley Springs.
More than three decades after it was formed, Tri-State Grotto is still looking to bring new members on board. As part of its community outreach, the club holds occasional “Wednesday Night Caving” events which are open to the public. These events are publicized on the group’s Facebook page. DiCarlo said about 15 people attended a Wednesday Night Caving event in December.
The group has an ambitious agenda for the coming months. Nearly five years ago, its members completed a project at Crystal Grottoes near Boonsboro, Md., which is now known as the Tri-State Grotto Passage.
DiCarlo said he would like to return there soon. Meanwhile, Tri-State Grotto will continue its work on the Adam Stephen project, which has been a gradual process. And another trip to Greenbrier County for trash removal has been discussed.
“With volunteers, you only have so much time to do stuff,” said DiCarlo.
Tri-State Grotto is open to anyone from experienced cavers to those who have never set foot in a cave before. To help newcomers settle in, the group offers a monthly training session with various types of climbing equipment.
New members start out with horizontal caving, and, according to DiCarlo, as they become more experienced, they can be taught vertical caving techniques.
Tri-State Grotto is a tightly knit group, and, DiCarlo said, the camaraderie with fellow cavers has been the most rewarding aspect of his involvement. Sharing unique experiences only adds to the enjoyment.
“It’s always nice to see things that other people usually don’t see,” he said. “And finding new caves is always fun.”
Just within the past year, DiCarlo added, Tri-State Grotto has discovered 10 new caves. And the group is still looking for more.
Because many caves can be found in unusual locations, learning the ethics of caving is an important part of being a Tri-State Grotto member. For example, DiCarlo said, some novices might trek across farmers’ fields in their quest to find a cave. Tri-State Grotto works with landowners before exploring the sites it visits. Tri-State Grotto is an affiliate of the National Speleological Society, an organization that has approximately 10,000 members and 250 grottos nationwide.
Founded in 1941, the National Speleological Society(NSS) bills itself as “the largest organization in the world working every day to further the exploration, study and protection of caves and their environments, and foster fellowship among cavers,” according to its website, caves.org. The site currently lists a dozen clubs, or grottoes, in West Virginia, as well as 13 grottoes based in Virginia and three that are based in Maryland.
The NSS offers safety training and a wide variety of seminars and special events. Its 2017 convention will be held June 19- 23 in Rio Rancho, N.M. Tri-State Grotto meets at 7 p.m. on the second Wednesday of each month in the basement of the Triple Brick Museum, 309 E. John St., Martinsburg.
(Wednesday Night Caving events typically begin at 6 p.m.) The museum is located next to the historic Adam Stephen House. Membership costs $12 per year and includes a subscription to the group’s monthly newsletter.
For more information, contact John DiCarlo at 304-263-0311. Interested individuals are welcome to show up at a meeting.