THE EARLY YEARS
Originally in the 1870's and into the early 1900's, wooden planks were used along the pathways even though many areas remained as found by the discoverers – hard dirt and smooth calcite flooring called travertine.
In the early 1950's, a modern system of brick and concrete walkways and ramps was constructed throughout the tour route. This replaced many areas accessed by steps and drastically improved the more primitive gravel pathways of the early years, even though some floor areas of extremely wet sections had concrete.
In September of 1878, as the co-discoverers began preparation to open the caverns for visitors, Benton Stebbins insisted upon an admission charge of fifty cents per person to slow the flow of visitors and idle curiosity seekers who were asked to wait until the improvements were completed so they could see the cave at its best advantage. The first Grand Illumination took place on November 6, 1878. Two hundred people from all over the county and as far as Arlington, Virginia, came to it. From early morning until two or three o'clock, wagons, carriages and horseback riders poured into town on the way to the opening of the great caverns though only partially lighted, presented an imposing subterranean spectacle. A thousand candles illuminated the antechamber making it nearly as bright as day.
A second Illumination was set for December 27, 1878. Admission would be a dollar per adult and fifty cents for children. A band was hired with an additional twenty-five cent charge for anyone who wished to dance on the newly constructed floor in the Ball Room area of Giant's Hall. More than six hundred people paid admission making this second Illumination a great success.
- Within two years, by the fall of 1880, 4,000 people had visited the caverns.
- Visitors to the caverns for the week of August 28, 1880 numbered 756.
- In July and August of 1906, there were 100 paid admissions daily.
- 1919 was the first year there were 25,000 paid admissions.
- Total attendance surpassed 100,000 in 1921.
In the initial years, tourists arrived in Luray by wagons, carriages, horseback or the Fast Line stage coach twice a day from New Market.
The completion of the Shenandoah Valley Railroad through Luray in 1881 provided a vastly improved method of transportation. By the early 1900's the Shenandoah Valley route of the Norfolk and Western Railway provided vestibuled Pullman sleepers and coaches on all through trains.
Excursion tickets were soon on sale daily throughout the year. Rates in 1901 from New York were $15.10 and from Philadelphia $11.35. Tickets were good to return within six months. The largest excursion came on October 21, 1921 by the Philadelphia, Reading and PA railroads when 13 trainloads brought 9,470 paid admissions in one day.
By 1910, the automobile was beginning to have an impact of the method of travel to Luray. The Valley Turnpike – a toll road – from Winchester, VA to New Market, was one of the best long stretches of road, a distance of 45 miles, in the county. Driving from New Market east across the Massanutten Mountain, a 13 mile trek, was described as “most of the road is good, some of it not impossible to a good car.”
Excursions continued to be the most popular method of transportation to Luray until the late 1920's when Henry Ford's Model T, and followed by the Model A in the early 1930's, began to become the dominate method of family travel. By the mid-1920's, De Luxe Motor Bus service provided another convenient form of transportation to Luray. This service was maintained daily from any hotel in Washington.
WHERE VISITORS CAME FROM
The large amount of publicity received during the first few years following the discovery from the Smithsonian Institution and the newspapers in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore was of great interest to many residents in these densely populated regions. The area from Washington, DC and into the northeast proved to be a source of much of the early visitation.
WHAT VISITORS WORE
Travel during this period to a destination such as Luray was a very special occasion and the attire of the traveler reflected this type event. Men wore coats and ties and usually a hat, while women donned fine long dresses of the period often with a bonnet. Even into the decades of the 1950's and 60's, a more formal “Sunday best” appearance was the dress of the day.
HOW LONG THEY SPENT
Several hotels in the town of Luray became very prosperous as they hosted many hundreds of overnight visitors to the Caverns in the first few years after the discovery. Most passengers on the larger train excursions, however, spent only the day at Luray Caverns sleeping en route or disembarking at other destinations.
In 1901, Colonel T.C. Northcott leased Luray Caverns and built a sanitarium, “Limair”, the first air-conditioned home in America by installing a shaft into a cavern chamber which was connected to the house above. The shaft, five feet in diameter, was sunk into a nearby chamber and an 42 inch fan was installed. Powered by a five horsepower electric motor, this fan changed the entire air of the house every four minutes. The cool, naturally purified underground air filled every room. The bacteria-free air, ideal for those with respiratory illnesses, was filtered through limestone which removed dust and pollen. On the hottest day in summer, the interior of the house is always a cool and comfortable 70 degrees.
TOWN OF LURAY
The Luray Board of Trade commented in 1922, “Luray is the Queen City of the Page Valley, the loveliest and most picturesque portion of the Shenandoah Valley and as fertile, peaceful and law-abiding as it is beautiful. The Page Valley has an almost exclusively native-born population which is remarkable for intelligence, civic virtue and strict observance of the laws of God and man.”
In January 1922, Luray boasted:
5 Boarding Houses
2 Jewelry Stores
2 Printing Establishments
12 Drug Stores
2 Grocery Stores
1 Theatre and Moving Picture Parlor
4 Barber Shops