Lost Goldmine Of The Wissahickon

 

In a previous article, I wrote about Johanas Kelpius, the merry monk who lived as a hermit in a cave by the Wissahickon. But there is another set of caves on the Wissahickon that few have heard of, and fewer still have entered. In the steep hills of Wissahickon Park, Gorgas Creek tumbles through a thickly-wooded valley on its way to join Wissahickon Creek. Near the intersection of these two creeks, a 20 foot rock outcrop thrusts itself off the hillside like the prow of a stone ship. At its foot, a dark, low tunnel reaches back twenty feet into the rock. Further downstream, a small hole in the hillside blows cold air, hinting at still larger spaces underground.

Almost nothing about the caves is known for certain. They remain shrouded in legend, purported to be the hiding place of robbers, Indians, and patriots. What we do know is that the caves are man-made, excavated with hand-powered rock drills and black powder by the Roxborough Mining Company in 1763-1764, which means they are among the oldest mines in North America. The company, whose goal was to uncover “ores and minerals,” consisted of just seven men, several of them were German immigrants from Germantown, apparently under the leadership of Barnard Gratz. Today the rock contains nothing of value, so it is puzzling why they would have dug there at all.

Looking out from inside the mine. | Photo: John Vidumsky

Local legend says that the Roxborough miners were looking for gold and were led to dig at this spot by a dowsing rod. This is plausible, but can’t be confirmed. Dowsing is a pseudo-scientific way of finding precious metals underground with a forked stick. We know that the immigrants of Germantown believed strongly in the power of dowsing and would often dig for treasure where the hazel stick pointed. Whatever they were searching for, legend says the miners found nothing and the mines were abandoned by 1764 (Another legend says that during the Revolutionary War large amounts of grain were hidden there from pillaging Hessian mercenaries.)

The caves were rediscovered in 1854 by a young local historian named Horatio Gates Jones. One of the entrances had become silted up, and had to be dug out before Jones could crawl inside. He recounts that this tunnel forks like a “Y” and goes back 30-40 feet. Shortly after, the hole largely filled up again with dirt, as it remains today.

The other tunnel however is still open, and shows evidence of occasional habitation by a modern-day Kelpius. There is no gold to be found, but this man seems to have found riches here of another kind. He has a guestbook for his cave, which reads in part, “Please love this space as God provided, read the Good Book and see that the earth will be renewed. This is Paradise!…Please respect this beautiful home!”

Author’s Note
: special thanks to The Roxborough, Manayunk and Wissahickon Historical Society, who helped with research for this article.

Gorgas Creek, just below the caves. | Photo: John Vidumsky

About the author

John Vidumsky has been exploring abandoned spaces for as long as he can remember. He recently received an MA in history from Temple University, where he studied 20th-century Russian history. Currently, he works for Hidden City as Head of Research and Client Services. In his spare time, John plays Celtic harp, runs a drum circle and does photography.

Send a message!



2 Comments


  1. They were called the Micky Mouse Caves at one time. I dunno why.

    • That’s funny. I’ve also heard them referred to as “The Bat Cave,” “The Old Indian Cave” and “Chicken Rock.” Most often, however, they’re just called “The Caves.”

Recent Posts
The Circuit To Make Big Connections In 2016

The Circuit To Make Big Connections In 2016

May 2, 2016  |  Morning Blend

A look at the latest extensions to The Circuit, a walk-and-talk through Mt Airy, Boathouse Row to get LED lighting replaced, Divine Lorraine apartments now pre-leasing, and Penn Treaty Tower parcel up for sale > more

Crisis Of Mass Incarceration The Subject Of New Exhibit At Eastern State Penitentiary

Crisis Of Mass Incarceration The Subject Of New Exhibit At Eastern State Penitentiary

May 2, 2016  |  News

Eastern State Penitentiary takes an innovative approach to contemporary prison issues and public education with their new exhibit, “Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration” > more

Why Even The Temporary Privatization of Public Space Is Too Much

Why Even The Temporary Privatization of Public Space Is Too Much

April 29, 2016  |  Morning Blend

Preserving public space from the call of privatism, remembering the racial tensions of 1918, Independence National Historic Park sees increase in visitors and revenues, Land Bank moves its first parcels, and Councilman getting serious about Open Streets > more

More Time Needed For Zoning Board Consideration Of Blatstein’s Broad & Washington Proposal

More Time Needed For Zoning Board Consideration Of Blatstein’s Broad & Washington Proposal

April 28, 2016  |  Morning Blend

ZBA asks for two weeks to digest project’s “excessive information,” why the 30th Street Station rail yards might be (almost) completely capped after all, Mantua residents to consider rezoning and gentrification issues, and a call for selective painted bike lanes > more

Reaction To 19th Street Baptist Demo Scare Points Up Changing Sensitivity At L&I

Reaction To 19th Street Baptist Demo Scare Points Up Changing Sensitivity At L&I

April 28, 2016  |  News

A demolition notice mistakenly placed on the doors of 19th Street Baptist Church in Point Breeze sent the preservation and planning community in hot pursuit of answers this week. Michael Bixler reports > more

DNC 2016 The Latest For

DNC 2016 The Latest For “Convention City”

April 27, 2016  |  Harry K's Encyclopedia

As the city gears up for the 2016 Democratic National Convention in July, Harry K. gives us a whirlwind tour of Philadelphia political conventions > more