History

Lost Goldmine Of The Wissahickon

July 30, 2012 | by John Vidumsky

 

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

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About the Author

John Vidumsky 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.

14 Comments:

  1. Pug says:

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

    1. John Vidumsky says:

      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.”

  2. golisterMC says:

    I can not find your e-mail subscription hyperlink or newsletter service.

    1. Michael Bixler says:

      Hi golisterMC,

      Sign up for our newsletter at the top right corner of Hidden City’s homepage: https://hiddencityphila.org

  3. Bill James says:

    I like the article and the photos. Thank you, John. But it bugs me that the city has been referring to the ‘creek’ as Gorgas Creek and, on the signs on the bridge above it, as Gorgas Run. It was Oil Mill Run. Do you know when they changed it? And why?

  4. Joseph Zajko says:

    Question? Was there any mining tools or mining carts ever found. I have found garnets near these cave over 6ct.

  5. D. Leahy says:

    I was in that cave 40years ago ,when I was a boy. Once you enter the chamber, in front of you are two separate rooms,each with a rounded or domed ceiling about 8 ft from the floor. The entire cave ,when looked at upon entering look like the silhouette of Mickey Mouse. Hence ,the name “Mickey Mouse Cave.I still know exactly where we entered that day ,although it is covered in dirt with leaves on top.

  6. D. Leahy says:

    We found many candles and old glass bottles on the floor and the temperature was very cool inside(we were in the cave on a hot summer day ).

  7. I grew up on Little Henry and the cave was just down the hill and a little walk down the trail. It was always referred to as the Mickey Mouse Cave. I refused to crawl in the second tunnel although other kids did. Hard to believe we played down there all the time with no adult supervision.

  8. Shauna Basil says:

    Are there notable workings of these mine or are they only shallow prospects? Would like to make the truck over to them however if it’s what’s being described not sure if it’s worth the trouble. I come from the desert where we have very large mines with extensive workings. Looking for anything similar in Philadelphia to explore!

  9. David Leahy says:

    In reply to the last comment,It depends on what you mean by shallow prospects.As I remember, there are two side by side chambers which are accessed by crawling,headfirst and at a slightly downward angle through the small opening/entrance.After crawling 4 to 6 feet you find that you are on a sort of rock shelf where you can sit up, turn your body so you are now feet first and then step down 3 to 4 feet to the chamber floor which is relatively level. It is here that you can see the ceiling of the cave/mine,and I remember it as quite impressive and beautiful. While viewing each chamber as a whole,the ceiling,to me,resembles the silhouette of Mickey Mouse. Now as for each chamber,they are both approximately the same size and extend 25to30feetaway from you upon entering,both in the same direction.Floor to ceiling height is7to8feethighand I would say at least 8feet wide,maybe 10 feet wide,each. You have plenty of space to easily walk around and explore inside. Myself ,I would not consider it a shallow prospect at all. If only 7 to10 men worked on it for only 1 year in the1760 ‘s as I have read,I would say they were very hard workers,and very determined.

  10. David Leahy says:

    I feel”Mickey Mouse Cave should be “rediscovered”,then thoroughly explored,measured and documented using 21st century technology. This local treasure may have more to it than previous ” explorers”were able to discover years ago.

  11. David Leahy says:

    Then the facts and findings can be released to the general public,even added to park maps so it could be easily located and accessed. This will give us facts and answers instead of myths,legends and questions.

  12. MoominPug says:

    I lived nearby for many years and believe me, there is nothing worth seeing. It is a tiny dirt “cave” with 30 feet being generous for the length of the tunnel (there is fork in it, but the second tunnel is so small it isn’t worth mentioning).

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