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Sligo Grotto of the NSS
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Sligo Grotto History
by John Powers, NSS 14315,
edited by Jim McConkey, NSS 27574FE


Sligo Grotto arose out of the ashes of the American University Student Grotto when abolishment of the school's geology department killed student interest. Many of the surviving members, including Jim McCloud, Larry Jack and Nathan Gurevich, lived in the Sligo Creek area of Silver Spring, MD. They decided to challenge fate by forming a new grotto. One attraction was three colleges within a ten mile radius from which to draw new members. Many area cavers felt that the D.C. Grotto was too large, too impersonal, or held its meetings on inconvenient nights. Sligo offered a close group, less formality, and by meeting on Sunday nights, appealed to those cavers who worked or attended school on week nights. Within one year, Sligo grew from less than ten members to over twenty. Meetings were held at the Sligo Creek Recreation Cabin in Sligo Creek Park, in the northern outskirts of Washington, D.C. Jim McCloud was elected as the first chairman. On December 2, 1970, the National Speleological Society granted a charter recognizing Sligo as an official grotto of the NSS. This may have set a precedent for allowing more than one grotto in the same geographic area. Relations with neighboring D.C. Grotto were strained for the first few years. The little grotto was looked down upon, but the grotto's pride in itself was unshaken.


Membership surged in the summer of 1971 after a spelunking article appeared in the POTOMAC MAGAZINE of the WASHINGTON POST. The listing of area grottos brought in many previously unaffiliated cavers including John and Myrna Powers and Barbara Belshaw. Projects included training of the many new novices and mapping of Helsley's Cave. The SUBTERRANEAN SUN under the editorship of Richard Nantell appeared quarterly with excellent articles.


In 1973 Sligo Grotto moved to the campus of Montgomery Junior College in Tacoma Park, MD when the Park Service ended its free use policy of the cabin on Sligo Creek. Eventually, this fiscal tightening curse would compel us to move several more times. Membership grew slowly. The newsletter appeared on rare occasions. Caving centered around Pendleton County, WV. Highlights of this period were a disastrous twelve hour vertical trip to 90-foot Floyd Waggles Cave and a comic rescue of a Philadelphia caver from 300-foot deep Sites Cave when his long tresses became entangled in his carabiner while on rappel. Old timers like John Burns and Mike Kedda joined and contributed their talents. Grotto projects included renovating Battlefield Crystal Caverns, near Strasburg, VA, for reopening and numerous cleanup trips to such caves as Sites and Helsley's.


1975 was a banner year! A grotto store was started, the SUBTERRANEAN SUN was published on a regular basis, and membership grew. The grotto store, under the superb management of John Burns accumulated capital through member investments and stocked a variety of caving equipment with discount prices. The newsletter, guided by Editor Barbara Belshaw, was published practically every month. An antique printing press was purchased from the Potomac Speleological Club. (Rather, they sold us the cabinet and supplies for ten bucks and threw in the mimeograph!) It was a crotchety contraption with only two settings: bad and terrible, but it worked!


Barbara Belshaw became the grotto's first female chairman in 1976. Building construction at Montgomery Junior College during that year forced us to move to the Rockville campus. The SUBTERRANEAN SUN was taken over by John Powers, who expanded and improved it; since then it has been published every month. John Burns expanded the grotto store to include Gibbs ascenders, webbing and other vertical equipment. Carbide was purchased in 100-pound drums at phenomenal savings and distributed free to members.

Budget restrictions made us homeless for several dismal months; we met at the Powers' home until new members, Geary Shindel and Dave Gambrell secured a hopefully permanent home at the Maryland Park and Planning Commission's Environmental Work Center on Muncaster Mill Road in Rockville. The newsletter grew and expanded in circulation as did the store with electric lamp parts. Jim McCloud, seeing that the mine he worked for, was closing down, bought all their electric Wheat lights and chargers. He cut up the charging banks into individual units, and sold the lights and chargers to grotto members at considerable savings. Wheat lights were just appearing on the caving scene and Sligo Grotto rapidly joined the movement.


In November 1977, a deluxe A.B. Dick electric mimeograph was purchased from a bankrupt toy store owner, complete with a large supply of stencils, spare parts and ink. Much of the money used was raised by our first raffle held at the 1977 Old Timers Reunion. Thereafter the SUBTERRANEAN SUN greatly improved in quality. The old press was even sold for a profit! Combined with donations, the press was paid for very quickly. The year's end was capped with the purchase of a large stock of paper through John Burn's Explorers group.


1978 was our best year yet! One member, Dolph Hatfield, became the oldest man to bottom 1096-foot deep Sotano de las Golondrinas in Mexico. The grotto allied with Frederick Grotto in securing the passage of the Maryland Cave Protection Act. It passed on the first try and protects the state's caves from vandalism and forbids sale of speleothems. That summer saw a great influx of new members following a series of newspaper articles in which many Sligo Grotto members participated. In the Fall of 1978, grotto members saved Silers Cave from being re-closed; a project is currently underway to map and gate the cave. It is expected to be the largest mapped cave in the West Virginia panhandle.


1979 brought the meetings of Sligo Grotto to the home of John & Althea Burns. Members Art Dodds, Bob Gulden, and John & Myrna Powers starred in TV's "PM Magazine". They spent 17 hours underground in Whitings Neck Cave filming the10 minute show.


1981 saw Lisa Green as Chairman and soon to wed Vice Chairman Phil Snyder. The Subterranean Sun zoomed with the editorship of Greg Pearce and the assistance of the ever-present Art Dodds in computers and copying.


1982, Russ Kennedy came into power and with our short time editor, Dave Thorpe, The Subterranean Sun had super covers and a little pizzazz ! (One of the editions by Dave won an award at the 1984 NSS Convention for a 1983 cover). In July 1982, Sligo had to move its meeting place to Long Branch Library in Takoma Park when the Burn's home went into renovation mode.


1983 & 1984 had Lynn (Wayshner) Ott as Chairman bringing more family events to the grotto and involving people in regional and safety events. With the suggestion and coordination of Russ Kennedy, Sligo hosted the first joint VAR/MAR at Friar's Hole over the Columbus Day weekend October 1984. It was a great success.


1884 saw many Sligo members taking a first aid course. Art Dodds became an EMT. Many took tours under the Linclon Memorial. Our April 1984 issue fooled some with its map of a new discovery section in Silers Cave which when held up to a mirror spelled "April Fool". A lot of us saw the Rocky's, Bighorns, Badlands, Yellowstone before attending the NSS Convention in Wyoming. OTR Attendance increased to over 1400. Sligo membership remained fairly constant at 40-50 people with many new newsletter exchanges. The grotto store under the management of Lynn Ott phased out vertical gear and maintained only a few carbide lamp parts as well as electric lamp parts. Carbide was still free to members and $100 was charged for rental of grotto helmets or lamps. The big event of the year went to John Powers and Elliot Greeenwald during the Thanksgiving Weekend for discovering Cricket Maze Cave in Berkley County, WV. Lots of hustle and bustle. The cave was named by John for the large number of crickets and the maze of passages.


1985 still had Lynn Ott as Chairman. People were coming and going from the area. Janet and Wes Thorne moved to Wyoming, Roger Cole to Washington, Josh Lepman to New Jersey, Tom & Joan Reinbold to England, and new members from Pennsylvania, Colorado, and DC. Still growing - 63 members!

Thanks to some quick work and fancy talking, under the direction of Sam Fruits, the Cricket Maze Cave Association (CMCA)was formed and the beautiful cave was purchased to protect its many speleothems and fossils. Cricket Maze was gated (both entrances) in March. This discovery added new life to the grotto - A PURPOSE AND NEW INTEREST IN THE PANHANDLE AREA. Baltimore Grotto became closer to Sligo as several CMCA members joined Sligo. Baltimore Grotto had also discovered a large cave system, Scott Hollow Cave, which meant lots of mapping and exploration to be done. Public conservation awareness grew through our participation in seminars and with the passage of West Virginia Cave Protection Act. Grotto members help install signs in 5 area caves. Mount Aetna Cave in Maryland was opened briefly. A number of members got to explore this ex-commercial cave before it was re-closed. The 3rd Annual Thanksgiving Party was held and the 1st annual grotto awards were presented.


1986 saw members caving internationally; Josh Lepman exploring Mount Soddom Cave in Isreal, and Tom & Joan Reinbold visiting England's Chislehurst Caves. Closer to home, The Trout Cave controversy raged. Cricket Maze Cave became a "miler" when John Harah discovered "the New Section". The grotto almost lost John & Joyce Powers to a flash flood at the New Mexico NSS Convention. Members attending an NCRC Rescue Seminar got unexpected real life training in the McClung Cave rescue. A month later, a rescue at Moler's Cave scuttled the grotto's Thanksgiving dinner party. Silers Cave was re-gated.


1987 opened with a January weekend at Chris Harnage's cabin near Aqua Campground. 147 years of combined caving experience didn't prevent a Sligo/SVG group from getting temporarily lost in Crossroads Cave. John Powers installs a survival kit in Cricket Maze Cave. Mark Seddon erects an outhouse on the CMCA property. Bob Gulden, Tim Rose, Sam Fruits, Jim McConkey, John Kane and others continue to survey in Cricket Maze Cave. Sligo Grotto joins other cavers in a US House of Representatives hearing in support of the Federal Cave Protection Act, which passed in Fall, 1988.


In 1988, Sligo and DC Grottos co-host a booth at the National Parks Day on the Mall in DC. The cover of the Subterranean Sun, vol 17 #4 by Chris & Ken Harnage, won honorable mention at the 1988 NSS Convention Graphic Arts Salon. The grotto suffered its first caving injury in years when John Powers fell while climbing the back pit in Whitings Neck Cave and broke his wrist. After bouncing the 45 ft pit, the increasing pain convinced him that the wrist was indeed broken and they exited the cave.

CMCA members constructed the foundation and floor platform for the cabin on the CMCA property. Final completion of the cabin took place during the warm months of the next few years. Most of the labor involved hauling all the materials up the steep trail to the building site, about 60 yards from the Cricket Maze Cave entrance. Lynn Ott barely escapes being fried by lightning at the South Dakota NSS Convention. The Sligo Team, including Lynn Ott and Jim McConkey, takes 3rd place at the Speleo-Rodeo at convention. Sligo Grotto co-hosts the Fall MAR/VAR with Frederick and Tri-State Glengary, WV. Lynn Ott steps down as Grotto chairman after several years of dedicated service. Jeff Maddox is the new chairman. Paul Underwood, our resident scuba instructor, hosts "Scuba Night" for grotto members at an area pool.

Cricket Maze Cave approaches 8000 ft in length. After a protracted debate, CMCA becomes self-perpetuating with membership ending upon sale or death rather than being considered personal property to be passed by family. It was feared that within 2 decades, the cave would be owned by non-cavers. A waiting list of active cavers is maintained to perpetuate the membership.

We are still meeting at the Long Brach Library and currently have over 80 members.


1989 opened with a grotto trip to the gold mines at Great Falls, MD, led by Jim McConkey. Lynn Ott moved to Utah to become deputy manager of Dixie National Forest. Grotto attendance begins to fall off; partly due to the absence of Lynn's dedication to the grotto and partly due to general aging of the membership and growing disinterest. Many of the members still retain their membership but have gotten involved with other activities such as canoeing, backpacking, and scuba diving. Many of the grotto's most active members shifted their focus to running Cricket Maze Cave Assoc. to the detriment of Sligo Grotto. Despite the changing currents, a number of members attended the 1989 NSS Convention held at Sewanee, Tenn. A highlight (moonlight) of the activities was a nude volleyball game in the lake following a raucous evening of much beer and dancing. The year was capped by the first of a grotto tradition: a holiday Christmas party hosted by Sam & Liz Fruits.


1990 opened with a strong showing at Thompson's Motel (over 35 people) for the annual Sligo Franklin caving weekend over Washington's birthday. June 1990 saw the beginning of another grotto tradition; the annual Sligo Grotto SOGGY weekend hosted by Ken & Chris Harnage, the highlight was a speleo-tubing trip thru Sinks of Gandy cave. Jim McConkey becomes president. Grotto attendance still falling; only 4 or 5 at meetings. Eventually, members voted to cease having regular monthly meetings but schedule them during the numerous social and caving events throughout the year.


1991 opened with a Washington Post article about a trip thru Cricket Maze Cave with John Powers. Lynn Ott goes international by exploring caves in China and Japan. Large turnout at Ken & Chris's Thelma Dare cabin. Trips to Crossroads, Breathing, Marshalls, and Aqua Caves.Also huge attendance for second SOGGY weekend at Sinks of Gandy (over 50 people !). 1991 marked the 50th anniversary of the NSS. A special National Convention was held in Cobleskill NY. Many of Sligo attended. Lynn Ott, Art Dodds, Jim,Jason, & John Powers, John Kane, Jim McConkey, Gary Moss, and others. Trips included Howe Caverns (what a rip!!) and Mystery Cave. The Subterranean Sun is still being published regularly under Editorial staff Gloria Briggs, Dena Trail, Jim McConkey & Lisa Conners. Sligo sponsors a cleanup of Silers Cave led by Jim McConkey. Numerous break-in attempts forces replacement of the Silers entrance gate & lock and repairs by Art Dodds.


1992 opens with a return to Silers Cave for another cleanup led by Jim McConkey. Previous days of rain discourages attendance at the June SOGGY weekend but those (20) who did come had a great time brown-water surfing the rain-swollen Sinks of Gandy Cave; allowing cavers to tube most of its length. In previous years, the creek was too low in places. Dave West joint canoe / mountain-biking trip on the Greenbriar River led by Ken & Chris Harnage. Many old and/or former members turned for a fun filled but slow (especially for 30 year-old rubber rafts!) trip down the river. The Friday night party was too rowdy for the led a cleanup trip by 25 cavers in March 92 to Cave Mountain Cave in WV. Sligo & Shennendoah Valley Grottos host a July 92 the state campground - attendees were threatened with fines and eviction. Alas, need to fine a new party-place. John Powers hosts annual picnic in Frederick; brother Jim flies out from Colorado the week before, to surprise everyone, unaware that the party had date had been moved back 1 week because of the grotto canoe/bike trip. Old Timers Reunion peaks at 2000+ with a mini-OTR in the reunion of 9 members from the early 1970's: Lynn Ott, Jim McCloud, Paul Underwood & ex-wife Denise, John & Jim Powers, Paula Casale, Barbara Belshaw ,and Kurt Johnson. Many other Sligo members , less ancient, also attend.

Sligo assists member Josh Lepman in haunting the Baltimore Trolley Car Museum at Halloween. Big party up at Cricket Maze cabin with SVG celebrating 3 events: 8th anniversary of discovery of Cricket Maze Cave, John Powers' 45th birthday and John Powers & Kurt Johnson's (SVG President & ex-Sligo member) 23rd anniversary of their first caving trip. Grotto attends exciting Christmas party at Sam Fruits new house. The blinding light show gets bigger every year!


1993 was an uneventful year. A number of members still caving, and meetings held at the various events through the year including President's Day at Thompson's Motel in Franklin, Spring & Fall VAR's , SOGGY weekend in June, grotto summer picnic, OTR, and Christmas party. A number of members still competing in Baltimore Grottos annual Halloween Pumpkin Hunt at Thorn Creek Camp, WV.


1994 shows the Sub Sun joining the 21st century under desk-top publishing and computer guru Lisa Conners. It's now done on computer. The Subterranean Sun even has its own Internet address! (Actually Gloria Briggs) Articles can now be transmitted at the speed of light along the information highway in cyberspace thru the Golden Galaxy, WHOA! Getting a little carried away. Anyhow, we've come a long ways since the Sub Sun was cranked off on PSC's 1940 vintage mimeograph! Sligo arranged to keep Silers Cave open all weekend for the Fall VAR held nearby.


President's Day 1995 has a large number of Sligo-ites doing their annual trip thru Sinnett Cave. But mismanagement of available keys has cave overcrowded with numerous groups. In June 1995, Art Dodds, who has been long active as a cave rescue trainer helps coordinate rigging of World's Longest High Line (1798 ft) in Canada. Barb Belshaw, Gary Moss, Nancy Hafkin, and Jim McConkey have been active in production (under Lee & Paul Stevens) of the cave videos "Search for Christmas", "The End of Endless Caverns" and a yet unnamed rescue video in Bowdens Cave (ed. the video is called "A Call for Help", and was awarded Best of Show at the NSS Convention!).

The eagerly awaited social event of the season is the wedding of Barb Belshaw and Gary Moss. It was attended by seems like half the NSS! At OTR95, Chris Harnage receives Carnegie award for years of dedicated service. We still cave, but not nearly as often. We have migrated to other outdoor sports as well. Some things haven't changed; The artificial cave that Jim McCloud, Art Dodds & other Sligo members help construct in 1975 is still on view to the public at the Maryland Park & Planning Commission's Meadowside Nature Center near Rockville, MD. Cricket Maze Cave, managed by CMCA, stands as the crown jewel of the WV panhandle. & finally, our friendship & camaraderie, which has endured for all these years.

On Sat, Dec 16, 1995, Sligo Grotto celebrated its 25th anniversary at the home of long-time members Ken & Chris Harnage in Herndon, VA. Over 40 people attended bringing an incredible assortment of foods as well as old slides of past caving trips. An incredible time was had by all - with many happy reunions of old caving buddies.


Sligo and Baltimore Grottos co-host the Fall Virginia Region meeting at Friars Hole.


Sligo Grotto enters the world of cyberspace with a web site designed by Jim McConkey. Sligo ceases regular publication of the Subterranean Sun, opting to publish the newsletter on the web site. Only one issue will be sent per year, with an updated membership list. Chairman Jim McConkey is made a Fellow of the NSS at the annual NSS Convention.


On April 29, 2001 a crew of 25 cavers from all over VAR organized and led by Chair Jim McConkey hauls nearly 2 tons of steel up the hill to Silers Cave and installs a serious new gate inside the entrance. Sligo and Baltimore Grottos split the cost of the new gate and pay for it with the profits from their joint VAR which were earmarked for the new gate.

Sligo becomes a virtual grotto thanks to the grotto web site. At least 4 members join because of the web site, two from as far away as North Carolina.

Mr. Robert Wyly, owner of Silers Cave and long-time friend of Sligo is awarded the VAR Landowner Recognition Award.


The annual Sligo Grotto/SVG President's Day Weekend remains as popular as ever. Major caving trips are organized to Cave Mountain Cave and Sinnett Cave. At the Saturday evening party/meeting, John Harah, who has gotten sick of repeated pleas for new officers, makes a motion to name Jim McConkey King for Life. The motion passes unanimously.

The Fall MAR is held at the Lazy-A campground in Glengary, WV, and we take advantage of the free labor to haul a generator and welder up to nearby Silers Cave to fix part of the gate that we apparently forgot to weld during the construction of the gate. A potential crawling side lead was also blocked off.

Several members of Sligo travel to Greenville Saltpeter Cave in Monroe County, WV to help Lighting Director Jim McConkey with the lighting for an unusual philosophy video made in conjunction with Hugh Taft-Morales, a high school philosophy teacher from Washington, DC.

Sligo has its first annual (?) SLAM (Sligo Lewisburg Area Meeting) and hosts caving trips to Greenville Saltpeter Cave and Rehobeth Church Cave.


The annual Sligo Grotto/SVG President's Day Weekend is greatly curtailed because of a massive snowstorm. Most members can't make it, but the few who do have a great time.

Jim McConkey, Meredith Hall Johnson, Kelsea Johnson and other members sign on to help the VAR Grand Caverns survey projct get off to a roaring start. Grand Caverns and most of the other caves on the will will be (re)mapped.

The first annual SLAM (Sligo Lewisburg Area Meeting) was so successful we just had to do it again. This year's trips included Paxtons, Pattons and Haynes.


The annual Sligo Grotto/SVG President's Day Weekend featured trips to Mystic and Hamilton. The poker players sure seem to get younger ever year!

The VAR Grand Caverns survey projct continues throughout the year. Jim McConkey and the surface crew have several encounters with the park bear and find three new caves. The Grand Caverns map has been extended from 3100' to just shy of 4 miles!


The arrival of White Nose Syndrome (WNS) decimated caving activities. Our President's Day weekend was canceled for the first time in years.

This site is written and maintained by Jim McConkey.
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