Buying caves filled hole in his life

By Bill Lindelof
Bee Staff Writer
Published Oct. 23, 1997

Stephen Fairchild, an engineer by training, was exploring Boyden Cavern in the Kings River Canyon in 1970 when his passion for caves became his new profession.

The owner of the cavern at the time, a large man who became claustrophobic when inside the cave, was expressing frustration within earshot of Fairchild after a disagreement with a visitor.

"I hate this canyon," the owner said. "I hate tourists. For two bits I'd sell the whole thing."

Fairchild, 58, a cave-lover since childhood, took him up on it.

CA Caverns
A wall in Calaveras County's California Caverns. B.K. Thorn supposedly captured Black Bart.

"I threw the quarter at him and said, "OK, I'll take it.' "

The selling price was actually considerably more, but after Fairchild purchased Boyden he was on his way to becoming the caveman of California.

In the business of what is called "show" caves -- commercial caves where people pay to enter and tour -- nobody has as many outlets as Fairchild.

After he bought Boyden, he told his wife he was quitting his engineering job with an electronics firm in the San Fernando Valley and they were saying goodbye to suburbia.

Last week, the Amador County Board of Supervisors allowed Fairchild to open his fourth cave, the Black Chasm Cavern near the small town of Volcano, despite complaints from residents about traffic congestion.

"There is definitely going to be traffic congestion on (Volcano-Pioneer Road)," said Sara Gillick, chairwoman of the Volcano Community Services District. "Tourists don't travel there now. It is going to be new traffic."

She also lamented that a commercial enterprise would be among the beautiful oaks and pines on the hillside where the mine is.

Volcano-area residents complained the cave will draw too many tourists. A county study estimated the cave would generate an average of 22 new vehicle trips a day.

As many as 15,000 visitors a year could tour the cave. Many of those tourists might already be in the area visiting Volcano and Indian Grinding Rocks State Historic Park.

The Black Chasm Cavern, a wondrous place of crystals and pools, is Fairchild's third Mother Lode show cave. He also bought Moaning Cavern in 1976 and California Caverns in 1982 -- both in Calaveras County.

Black Chasm's entrance today is simply a hole covered with rocks and a manhole cover. In a few years, tourists will be able to walk into the cave after trails, lights and bridges are installed. A small science center is also planned.

Currently, Fairchild offers tours through Black Chasm to only the most vigorous and adventuresome spelunkers. The cave is open to spelunkers outfitted with coveralls, ropes, helmets and lights for trips that begin with a 160-foot rappel from the opening to the floor.

The cave has one large room and series of other chambers with connecting passages. Earlier this year, Fairchild bought 55 acres of land where the cave is located.

The United States has about 200 show caves, said Barbara Munson, secretary-treasurer of the National Caves Association in McMinnville, Tenn. At a Missouri cave a visitor tours in a Jeep-pulled tram; some caves use elevators.

CA Caverns
A tour guide points out the entrance to the California Caverns.

For more than 100 years people have been visiting show caves in this country, Munson said. The cave business is not booming, Munson said, but as the population increases so do visits to the caverns.

"People are interested in learning more about the world around them now," said Fairchild.

"I don't know of another person who has four show caves. Steve Fairchild is not only an astute businessman, but he is also a caver who likes to crawl in caves."

Fairchild, fired up in junior high school by a book on caves called "Darkness Beneath the Earth," said he was never swayed by the warning that you should not turn your hobby into your job.

"I still like it," he said. "The caves own me now. I can't get away."

Fairchild still is tracing the history of his latest cave. It is believed miners during the Gold Rush were the first non-Indians to discover Black Chasm.

Someone tried to develop it as a commercial cave in 1865, Fairchild said. But a mishap occurred when a platform built to view the main room collapsed and everyone on it had to cling to it for dear life.

In the years after that business venture failed, hundreds of people went into the cave by rope. Some caused damage, but Black Chasm still contained enough singular beauty for the federal government to name it a natural landmark in the early 1970s.

"There are crystals that twist and turn," he said. "They grow from the wall about 18 inches. Of course there are stalagmites and stalactites and the hall of arches with blue and orange marble.

"Small ponds in the cave are quite pretty, and during a portion of the year there are cascading waterfalls."

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