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 him a message at: john.vidumsky[at]gmail[dot]com



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
A Monumental Shift At Dilworth Park

A Monumental Shift At Dilworth Park

October 24, 2014  |  Vantage

Olin's design for Dilworth Park gives Philadelphia what it has long struggled for: a suitably grand approach to the monumental City Hall, says Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin. Here's his review of the park, now essentially complete > more

Kenney To Hist Commission: Put Buildings On Register, Get More Funding

Kenney To Hist Commission: Put Buildings On Register, Get More Funding

October 24, 2014  |  Morning Blend

Firm would simply recoup money through ads, Councilman Kenney wants to bolster Historical Commission, Councilman Henon undaunted by Planning Commission’s non-recommendation for Mayfair overlay, and Guinn hard at work on latest mural > more

Bill Seeks To Preempt Tragedy With Better Data For Firefighters

Bill Seeks To Preempt Tragedy With Better Data For Firefighters

October 23, 2014  |  Morning Blend

Blueprint reconnaissance for firefighter safety, improvements to the Burk Mansion, City Council considers beautification of vacant land by former convicts, and more inaction on PGW sale > more

Why The Flying Saucer Deserves Your LOVE

Why The Flying Saucer Deserves Your LOVE

October 22, 2014  |  Morning Blend

Preservation Alliance calls iconic LOVE Park building a “place to save,” zoning changes introduced for parts of North Philly, another firm for the Navy Yard, and a sinking pharmacy in South Philly > more

The Missing Namesake Of North Philly's Lost Necropolis

The Missing Namesake Of North Philly’s Lost Necropolis

October 21, 2014  |  Harry K's Encyclopedia

Next up in our Halloween cemetery series: Harry K hits the tomes looking for the missing obelisk of Monument Cemetery. Is it sitting in a gravestone dumping ground at the foot of the Betsy Ross Bridge? Its fate may be forever unknown > more

Of Birds And Drinking Water

Of Birds And Drinking Water

October 21, 2014  |  Morning Blend

Inside the East Park Reservoir, Temple students adopting blocks, UCD to start early on 40th Street plaza, and Jewish life gets a boost at Penn > more