By Suzanne Schaeffer Bamonte
Above, a ladder inside Gardner Cave, and a woman touring at the top. The cave was named for Edward Gardner, the great-grandfather of Dena Hertel, co-publisher and head of sales of Nostalgia Magazine. Photo courtesy of Tony and Suzanne Bamonte.
Of the early Boundary Trail settlers, Edward Everett Gardner homesteaded farthest up the line, past Pee Wee Falls and the beautiful (but treacherous, before Boundary Dam was built) Z Canyon, in what is now Crawford State Park. He is credited with the discovery of Gardner Cave, a large limestone cave, located about 12 miles northwest of Metaline. (Depending on the given source, Gardner Cave is claimed to be either the largest, second or third largest limestone cave in Washington. According to information compiled in 1963 by William R. Halliday of the Mines and Geology Division of the Department of Conservation, in a circular entitled “Caves of Washington,” it is the largest, but this claim could not be otherwise definitively concluded.)
Tales abound of how Gardner discovered the cave, some quite colorful but mostly unsubstantiated, and controversy surrounds the claim that he was indeed the discoverer. The Newport Miner reported on July 13, 1903, that a Mr. Gould discovered it. In September 1908, with more information in hand, another article gave Ed Gardner credit for having discovered it “some seven or eight years ago.” Gardner allegedly showed the cave to Gould (one source said they were friends, another “bitter enemies”), swearing him to secrecy, which was honored for a while.
An article in the August 4, 1903, newspaper credited a Scandinavian named Johnson as having discovered the cave about 18 months earlier. The account is especially interesting because two men from Spokane – one a mining man and the other a fellow countryman – were told, on separate occasions, of this discovery and shown “a fine display of flashing crystals from the cave.” Both promised secrecy but, perhaps as an extra cautionary measure on Johnson’s part, neither were told the exact location. Mr. Johnson thoroughly outfitted himself with lanterns and supplies and headed north to do some serious exploration of the cave. His two acquaintances never heard from him again. They felt, as did the local settlers, that foul play was involved.
One other perspective in regards to the discovery of the cave is akin to that of Columbus “discovering” America. Long before the arrival of the white settlers, this area had been well-explored and occupied by the Kalispel and Pend Oreille Indians. In spite of the controversy, the cave was named after Ed Gardner. Both he and the cave were colorful, deserving of description. Gardner was a short, stocky man who had a reputation for being a sharp shooter and “the best bootlegger.” The Big Smoke 1986 included an article entitled “I, Too, Discovered Gardner Cave” by Merriann Kane John, in which the author relates the story of her research on the cave and Gardner. She describes Gardner as follows:
Some say Ed was quiet and intelligent; others say he was a mean, ornery man without much education. It really sounds like he just showed people what he wanted them to see, and he treated everyone according to how he liked them… [Bill Nelson] noted that Gardner didn’t usually age the shine [moonshine], and “if you was nice you got nice whiskey (from the top of the barrel) and if you was bad you got bad whiskey (from the dregs). After a fellow got drunk on that stuff it’s a wonder it didn’t kill him!”
At the age of 69 around January 3, 1937, Ed Gardner shot himself in the head. He had said he would choose his own time to die. He was sick with ulcers and, when he couldn’t stand the pain anymore, he did choose his time to die. Quoting Bill Nelson again from the same article puts a humorous twist on a tragic event, “…He shot himself, and like I said, he was an expert pistol shot. I didn’t see him, but they said that he just blew a niche out of the top of his head. Damn near missed himself!”
A description of the cave was written by another early settler whose family was drawn to the area by Ed Gardner. Edward Franke was 12 years old when his family began to settle their homestead near the cave in 1906. He described the cave’s appearance in The Big Smoke 1991:
It was a thing of great beauty when we brought lights down into it. Thousands of stalagmites growing up from the bottom to meet the stalactites growing down from the ceiling, all glistening like a million diamonds with drips of crystal clear water hanging to the tips. There were all sizes and shapes and nothing showed signs of any human having touched or broken off any of them.We wandered around and down in our examination and found different tones when the icicles of nature were lightly tapped. It was cold down there and our voices reverberated. For the most part everything was quite clean and colorful.
Unfortunately, this beautiful work of nature has been violated by those who wish to leave their mark or take souvenir of the cave, robbing future visitors the pleasure of seeing this wonder in its pristine state. Although still a wonder to behold, numerous stalactites have been broken off, and many of the snowy white calcite formations have yellowed from smoke, mud, and the oil from the touch of too many human hands.
Gardner Cave never belonged to Ed Gardner. The cave and the surrounding land became the property of William H. “Billy” Crawford through a federal land grant on July 14, 1921. Crawford was a bachelor and a prominent merchant who operated a general mercantile in Metaline, with later stores in Newport and Metaline Falls. After logging the white pine and cedar, on October 21, 1921, for a token fee of one dollar, he deeded 20 acres, which included the cave, to the State of Washington to establish a park. The land was accepted by the state on November 10, 1921, creating Crawford State Park (the only state park in Pend Oreille County). He also gave 120 acres to the Washington State Historical Society to be used for future expansion of the park if necessary.
Gardner Cave is one of Pend Oreille County’s most popular tourist attractions. Free guided tours of the cave are provided during the summer months, weather and funding permitting. When state budget cuts threatened to close the cave in 2011, volunteers stepped forward and, with funding from several county agencies, the cave has, at least for the time being, remained open to the public during the summer months. Because the cave is chilly, visitors are advised to come prepared with a sweater. A rest room and picnic facilities are located near the entrance to the cave.
After Boundary Dam was completed, its backwaters changed the face of the natural terrain in north Pend Oreille County. The wide sandy area in the Metaline valley is now like a lake, lapping the shores of “Old Metaline.” It remains one of the county’s most scenic locations.