Dunbar Cave State Natural Area

Dunbar Cave State Natural Area is in Clarksville, TN.  I was born and raised in Clarksville, and as a kid spent a good bit of time there since at that time it was a privately owned recreation area.

The cave itself was inhabited by prehistoric people, but beginning about 1930 the area was developed as a recreation area.  It was purchased by Roy Acuff in the 1940’s and developed even further.  There were tours of the cave, there was an area for concerts, performances, and dancing.  There was a concession stand and swimming pool, and there was Swan Lake golf course.  The area was purchased sometime during the 1960’s by Mr. H. McKay King who attempted to renovate the area but by that time the days of small recreation areas was in decline.  Mr. King spent a great deal of time and effort developing Swan Lake golf course, I worked for an engineering company that he owned at the time and recall it clearly.  Upon his death in 1970 the area went to his widow who eventually sold it to the State of Tennessee in 1973.  There is more about the history of Dunbar Cave on This Page on Wikipedia.

What I remember most vividly about Dunbar Cave was the cool.  We spent many weekends there back in the 50’s and at that time most homes, ours included, did not have central air conditioning.  Dunbar Cave always had wonderfully cool air blowing out of the cave and the coldest swimming pool I have ever been in.

Today Dunbar Cave is a State Natural Area.  Unlike some I could mention there are no extensive lists of rules and regulations, no large signs dictating what one cannot do there, nor are there any rangers walking around just waiting for someone to step off the pathways.  There are signs instructing visitors not to pick the flowers and others warning of the penalties for disturbing the nesting birds, but other than that people can walk where they want to, fish in the lake, and just enjoy the area.  That’s rather unusal for this area where most places like this are effectively “Owned” by the “Friends Of” associations.

April 4, 2009

I rode one of my motorcycles to Clarksville and just tooled around town for a little while today.  After some breakfast at the neighborhood Waffle House I stopped at Dunbar Cave and walked around the lake for a while.  I was last there in July, 2007 and it hasn’t changed much.  It’s a nice place with not nearly as many foolish rules as most of the “Natural Areas” around Nashville.  At Radnor Lake in Nashville, for example, daring to wander off the designated trail is grounds for a $196.50 fine!  Daring to fish in the lake would probably land one in jail for a few years.  Dunbar Cave has none of that nonsense.  People fish in the lake and people walk off the trails if they so desire.

When I lived in Clarksville I spent a lot of time at Dunbar Cave photographing the waterfowl there.  We also spent a lot of time there when we were children because at that time Dunbar Cave was more than just a natural area, it was a resort of sorts.  There was a swimming pool, there were dances on the weekends, there was a golf course (which is still there), there were tours of the cave itself, and it was a fun place to visit.  These days all of that has ended and the only loud sounds come from the geese and swans on the lake.

July 14, 2007

After a day ride to Fort Donelson today I came back through Clarksville and stopped at Dunbar Cave State Natural Area.  This park has special meaning for me for a couple of reasons.  First, when we were children my mother used to take my sister and I there regularly to swim in the pool and to visit the cave.  It was a lively place on weekends with an atmosphere more like an amusement park than anything else.  A friend of my mother worked in the concession stand and she would always give us something free when we visited.  Secondly, the first job I had with an engineering company was with King Engineers in Clarksville.  The owner of the company, H. McKay King owned Swan Lake Country Club as well as Dunbar Cave at the time.

Dunbar Cave was also one of the “Coolest” places I recall as a kid to.  This was before virtually every home and building had central air conditioning, the best we could hope for was window air conditioners, and I remember the “Cool” of Dunbar Cave.  All caves are about 68° inside but Dunbar Cave blew air out.  The area around the concession stand (the area with my helmet in the photograph) and the pavillion was always cool, even on the hottest days.  The swimming pool was apparently spring-fed or fed with water from the cave, and it was always freezing cold.

I also remember this silly machine that was outside the concession area.  It would produce coin-shaped medallions with your name on them.  They were about 1½” in diameter with spokes, kind of like an old wagon wheel.  We could “Type” out our name be selecting the letters with a big wheel and then pulling a lever to stamp the letter into the aluminum of the medallion.  Every single time I went out there I had to make one of those, and I must have had a hundred of them scattered around the house.

I used to go there frequently back in the 70’s to take photographs of ducks, geese, and sunrises over the lake.  Over the years the area has been taken over by the State of Tennessee and designated a State Natural Area.  Much like Radnor Lake in Nashville I think this primarily means it is an area that they really don’t know what else to do with.  In the summer months the water in the lake warms up and gets covered with algae that nobody cleans out.  This really makes the entire place look nasty.  The geese are still there but now they swim in a mass of algae instead of water.  The cave area itself is no longer as well-maintained and could really use some cleaning up, but I guess they are afraid they might offend a bug or something.

There is a photograph below that shows a view of the lake through an archway.  At the bottom of the archway is a steel railing with vertical bars spaced about 6″ apart.  My sister will strangle me for putting this on my web site, but when we were kids she poked her head between two of those bars and got it stuck.  My mother was frantic, my sister was screaming, and I was laughing my head off.  Luckily there were several people around and two men pulled the bars apart enough for her to get her head out.  If they hadn’t been there I guess we’d have been feeding her through the bars for a while!