Cold air rushing out of a limestone sinkhole atop a big hill west of Luray, Virginia, blew out a candle held by Andrew Campbell, the town tinsmith, on the morning of August 13, 1878. So began the discovery of Luray Caverns. Campbell, three other men, and his 13-year-old nephew, Quint, were exploring the area, looking for a cave. With the help of local photographer Benton Stebbins, the men dug away loose rocks for four hours before, candle in hand, Campbell and Quint slid down a rope into the cave. They could scarcely believe what they saw. The party had discovered the largest series of caverns in the East, an eerie world of stalactites and stalagmites seen by the light of a candle.
At the time of the discovery, Sam Buracker of Luray owned the land on which the cavern entrance was found. Because of uncollected debts, a court-ordered auction of all his land was held on September 14, 1878. Andrew Campbell, William Campbell, and Benton Stebbins purchased the cave tract, keeping their discovery secret until after the sale.
Word reached the Page-Courier, and that week there was a note, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, about the sudden rise in the property values of “Cave Hill”. Editor Andrew Broaddus' account in the October third issue in the Page-Courier was a glowing acclamation with the headline full of typographical mistakes:
The article gave a lavish description of the cave, ending with the statement that the “proprietors are now at work with a good force preparing for an early illumination.”
Alexander J. Brand, Jr., a correspondent for the New York Herald, was the first travel writer to visit Luray Caverns. "It's a magnificent cave,” he told townspeople. "The most beautiful I've ever seen. Trying to compare your cave to others would be like comparing New York City to the Town of Luray." With those words, the publics interest in visiting the caverns began.
Professor Jerome J. Collins
, one of the leading journalist on the New York Herald's staff, postponed his departure on a North Pole expedition to visit the caverns.. He was preparing himself as scientific correspondent on a projected three-year journey to the North Pole. He was taking a course a the Smithsonian Institution on the use of photographic equipment to be used on the voyage. He took the train to Virginia to make a scientific report on the cave before the sailing of the expedition ship “Jeannette” from San Francisco.
The Smithsonian Institution
sent a delegation of nine scientists to examine the caverns and praised them for their ornamentation. The report of July 13 and 14, 1880 comments “... it is safe to say that there is probably no other cave in the world more completely and profusely decorated with stalactite and stalagmite ornamentation than that of Luray.”