Durham Cave in Pennsylvania

How did Durham Cave in Pennsylvania get it’s name? This page provides a brief history about Durham Cave in Pennsylvania, the people who settled on it, and the industry rising around it.

Between Bougher’s Hill on the northwestern boundary of Bucks County and Durham iron mountains on the most southern of the gneissic exposures in Durham Township lies a fertile valley of limestone, skirted in numerous places by exposures of potsdam sandstone. This belt occupies the valley of Durham Creek as far southwest as Springtown in Springfield Township. Along the river Delaware it is about two miles in width. The rocks are well exposed at numerous quarries throughout the belt. Between the furnace and Durham Creek they exhibit a regular anticlinal flexure. This is the locality of the well-known Durham Cave. It is geologically situated in the limestone No. 2 of Rogers. Durham Cave was well known to the Lenape Indians. Naturally it must have been quite well known to the very earliest adventurers in the Delaware Valley. Probably to white men the earliest known Pennylvania cave, it certainly is the first to have a printed record. William Scull names it on his map of the Province of Pennsylvania, 1770. In an “Abridgement of the American Geography,” published by Jedidah Morse, A. M., and printed in Boston in 1790, this cave is mentioned as one of the “three remarkable grottos or caves of the State.” Hazard’s “Register of Pennsylvania,” Vol. I, p. 132, 1828, has the first extended printed description. On the Thomas G. Kennedy manuscript map of Bucks County, 1817, it is marked Devils Hole, and that was apparently a popular early name in general use. The late Martin Coryell, of Lambertville, N. J., told a story1 about John Godley, of Godleys Mills, N. J., earlier called Helltown, about eight miles east of Durham. Young Godley in the year 1835 attended a dance in the neighborhood and being a stranger to almost everybody there, he was introduced all around as “Mr. John Godley, from Helltown, N. J., and near Devils Hole, Bucks County, Pa.” As little remains today of Durham Cave except a depression in the ground and a hole in the hillside, a short description as it appeared about 1830, when it was still intact, should be of interest. The entrance was about 100 yards from the river. The height of the hill enclosing the cavern was from 200 to 250 feet above adjoining land. The pathway at the entrance was more than go feet below the overhanging rock, but the passageway, being partly obstructed by rock, not more than three persons could enter abreast. The interior was lofty and comprised three large rooms. Some idea of their size can be formed from the following measurements:

First apartment, average90 ft33 ft20 ft
Second apartment, average96 ft90 ft20 ft
Third apartment, average93 ft16 ft17 ft
Length of whole cave to water’s edge at bottom279 ft
Breadth of water20 ft

It was estimated the descent of the cavern in a right line formed an angle of about 90°. The first apartment was entered by a descent of about 30 feet. The floor of the second room was lower than the first and that of the third still lower. One of the apartments, the most attractive of the three, was known as Queen Esther’s Drawing Room. This chamber, tradition says, was once inhabited by “Queen Esther,” whose real name was Catherine Montour, and some of her Indian followers. At the bottom of the third or lowest apartment was a basin of excellent water, 20 feet in width, bounded by a wall, through which a conduit ran farther into the earth. This pool was supposed to communicate with the creek and river as the surface of the water rose and fell with the creek and river levels. A freshet in the river would nearly fill the lower chamber, the water subsiding as the freshet abated. At the partition between the first and second apartments a lateral branch extended eastwardly, 32 feet in length and wide enough to permit the passage of two persons.

Durham Cave. Showing seats and platform, as arranged for meeting of the Bucks County Historical Society, July 28, 1885. The stairs led up to "Queen Esther's Drawing-Room." The American Institute of Mining Engineers held a session in this cave May 20, 1886, using the same seats and platform.
Durham Cave. Showing seats and platform, as arranged for meeting of the Bucks County Historical Society, July 28, 1885. The stairs led up to “Queen Esther’s Drawing-Room.” The American Institute of Mining Engineers held a session in this cave May 20, 1886, using the same seats and platform.

From this there were two smaller branches, one running 22 feet north and the other 14 feet south, wide enough to admit a single person. In the cavern the temperature of the air varied from 54° to 62°, the last named reading for the outer apartment. Some parts of the vault were covered with a white crust somewhat crystallized, probably a putrefaction of calcareous matter which exuded through the rock. It was easily severed with a hammer and in some places by a finger. Over other parts of the arch there were incrustations of a dark color, which had the appearance of moss, but were as hard as the rock, water continuously trickling over them. These formations gave the cavern a startlingly beautiful appearance, even though the stalactites were of moderate size and sparingly scattered. A little to the east of the entrance to the cave, in quarrying for limestone, an opening was made into another cavern running parallel with it and of the same length, but not so wide. This abounded with white stalactite and, it was thought, communicated with the larger cavern. Durham Cave was very widely known before the Civil War and attracted crowds of visitors, many coming on horseback from distant towns and cities. An impression prevails generally that the destruction of the cave was accomplished at quite a recent date. This is incorrect. It was at least a hundred years ago that its commercial spoliation began. The Doylestown Democrat of July 9, 1850, contains the following interesting paragraph:

“Durham Cave, a resort a few years ago for all persons having business in its vicinity, is really being demolished, and its solid architecture of beautiful stone, broken up, burned and boated off to enrich parts of our own State and New Jersey. We suppose that at least one half of it is already gone and is now incorporated with the soil of thousands of the best farms of this and the adjoining States. . . . The entrance and first rooms are gone, leaving but a small one in the rear. In a few years the history of the cave can be related only by the ‘oldest inhabitant.’ We very much doubt whether the rest of mankind can then be persuaded that such a cave ever existed in Durham Township.”

9 July 1850 edition of the Doylestown Democrat

What an asset was forever lost to Bucks County in the destruction of this most beautiful cave in the State can be realized from the following extract from a recent issue of the Bulletin of the State Department of Internal Affairs: “Caves in Pennsylvania are being annually visited by thousands of motorists and sightseers. There are fourteen caves in the State open to the public and seventy known undeveloped caves for the more venturesome individuals.” Before it was entirely wrecked Durham Cave was thoroughly explored by scientists for evidences of early man and extinct animals that might have found shelter there. No traces of early man were found. Dr. Joseph Leidy,2 of the University of Pennsylvania, gives the following list of animal remains he found there:

  • Black Bear Muskrat Moose
  • Raccoon Gray Squirrel Wild Turkey
  • Gray Fox Wood Rat Box Turtle
  • Skunk Gray Rabbit Snapper
  • Woodchuck Deer Snake
  • Porcupine Elk Sturgeon
  • Beaver Catfish

Dr. Henry C. Mercer, in his exploration in the summer of 18g3, found the following animal remains on the floor of Queen Esther’s Drawing Room:3

  • Chub Snake Fox (?)
  • Catfish Grouse Black Bear
  • Frog (large) Squirrel Wild Cat
  • Frog (small) Beaver Bat
  • Tortoise Fox Peccary
  • Rattlesnake Wood Mouse Deer
  • Watersnake Rabbit Elk
  • Carnivore (undetermined)

Identifications of the above list were made by Prof. E. D. Cope; remains of two species of rats, identified by Dr. Harrison Allen; shells, eight species, identified by Dr. Harry A. Pilsbry.


MacReynolds, George. Place Names in Bucks County Pennsylvania, 2nd Edition. Doylestown, PA: The Bucks County Historical Society, 1955.

  1. Papers Read before The Bucks County Historical Society, Vol. I, p. 314. []
  2. Pennsylvania Geological Survey, 1887. []
  3. Researches upon the Antiquity of Man in the Delaware Valley and the Eastern United States. By Henry C. Mercer. Publications of the University of Pennsylvania Series in Philology Literature and Archaeology, 1897. []

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