Manitou in Peril - Times Journal
Updated: Jan 28, 2019
Manitou Cave in Fort Payne was a tourist attraction for decades before shutting down in 1979. The cave, with walls lined with Cherokee inscriptions and English language graffiti dating back to the 1820s, fell derelict and became a victim to the city’s progress. “Steve Brewer re-opened the cave,” said John Dersham, president and CEO of DeKalb Tourism. “But, in its more than 100 years it’s (mostly) been open to the public… It closed in (1979), and it’s been closed to the public since then. Basically, the interstate killed traffic on Highway 11, and so the tourism business started in decline.” The cave fell victim to disrepair and vandals took to the cave’s interior to add their own graffiti.
Manitou Cave was named one of Alabama’s Places in Peril for the year 2016 as a way to draw attention to the fate that awaited this landmark if nothing was done to save it. The cave’s unique story had lain dormant for decades since its closure. That was, until a Birmingham retiree visited the cave and was drawn to its natural beauty and history. “The cave is really, really unique,” said Annette Reynolds, founder and president of Manitou Cave of Alabama. “When I went through it, I just couldn’t believe it. It was like a living natural museum. Reynolds said she purchased the cave in July 2015 from Brewer through the help of anonymous donors.
A long list of repairs, including an eco-friendly cave gate, was needed for safety and security. Reynolds said the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, of North Carolina, actually helped to secure the gate’s purchase. The cave features these large concrete steps and wooden and steel bridges inside. Leading down the steps is an expansive “ballroom,” which featured electric lights and stayed a perfect 58 degrees throughout the summer months. “Most of the people remember the Boom Days, and this was one of the first big attractions in the state of Alabama,” Reynolds said. “The top of the property had this old railroad bed, and the tourists would come in there and they had steps leading down the cave.”
After purchasing the cave, Reynolds said she sent as many as 200 visitors through the newly restored cave gates. “During 2015, I took about 200 people in there from seven different states and four different countries,” Reynolds said with a laugh. “I probably spent about 500 hours of volunteer work helping to do things for this cave. “We had 3,000 pounds of steel, and volunteers there. It took four days to build this cave gate on site.” The load of the work was lessened because of the generosity from the community, Reynolds said. “Everybody was so excited and so willing to help,” Reynolds said. “I’ve just fallen in love with the people of Fort Payne.” Ricky Harcrow, DeKalb County Commission president, said he told Reynolds the commission would do what was necessary to help promote her cause. “I remember going through it as a child before it seemingly disappeared from our landscape,” he said. “I sure hope (Reynolds) is successful in what she’s doing because I’d love to go through it again someday.”
There are still repairs left before opening the doors to the public. However, you can inquire about cave tours and visits by emailing Reynolds directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting to manitoucaveofal.org A capital campaign to restore the abandoned 1950s commercial visitor’s center is underway. Reynolds wants to repurpose it into a sustainable educational center, which will further the knowledge and insight into the cave’s history for generations to come. The cave took its Manitou moniker from an Ojibwa Indian word that translates to “spirit.” That’s what she had been desperate to reclaim. “When I went in there for the first time, something just clicked in me,” Reynolds said. “Something called out to me that this needed to be protected and preserved.”