DC Grotto History

It is not known when this was written or who wrote it.

The District of Columbia Grotto can rightfully claim to be the birthplace of today's organized caving in the United States. Due in considerable measure to the vision of the late William J. Stephenson of the U.S. Patent Office, what began as a small local group in 1939 has grown to be the National Speleological Society, with nearly two hundred local grottos (chapters) across the country and over ten thousand individual members.

It all started when a feature story in the Washington Star in 1939 about Mammoth Cave and Carlsbad Caverns caught the eye of Stephenson and his wife Merle of Washington, D.C. For some years they had been exploring caves in northern Virginia with various colleagues and other friends. This activity had begun when Stephenson, who was the leader of a hiking group connected with his church, decided one day to take a trip to a cave. After that, cave exploring became the principal focus of the group. What caught Stephenson's eye in the Star article was the sentence: "In England there is a national organization devoted to caving." Stephenson immediately recognized the many advantages such an organization could have for the United States and he set himself the task of establishing one.

On May 6, 1939, the Speleological Society of the District of Columbia became a reality. Within a year, a significant proportion of the members were found to come from outside the Washington area. As a result, the officers of the D.C. group drafted a constitution for a proposed National Speleological Society in the fall of 1940. By January of 1941 the new national organization had been established. The Society soon had two chapters, the New England Grotto and the District of Columbia Grotto.

Establishing the age of the D.C. Grotto, however, would be difficult. In the fall of 1942, with the United States at war, the caving group in the nation's capital became temporarily inactive. The more active individuals were employed by the U.S. Patent Office, which was transferred to Richmond, Virginia, where they continued their interest in cave exploration during the war years. The chapter in Washington was not revived until 1946, when it took the name "Grotto," as is customary for most NSS chapters. Even more confusing for a historian is the cover of the October 1949 grotto newsletter, identified as Vol. III, No. 10, but featuring a birthday cake and the caption, "Our First Anniversary." With so much uncertainty surrounding a determination of age, the D.C. Grotto must be a female! Is her age to be dated from the foundation of the Speleological Society of the District of Columbia in 1939, assuming that the uninterrupted activities of her founding members in Richmond entitle one to count the war years? Or does the age start from the formal revival of the chapter in 1946 (which agrees with the volume numbering of the October 1949 newsletter)? Or is she even younger, judging by the birthday cake caption?

The District of Columbia Grotto was incorporated in the District of Columbia in 1979. In 1992 it was reincorporated in the State of Maryland. It has also qualified with the Internal Revenue Service as eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions as a scientific organization under Section 501(C)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.

DC Grotto Celebrating 70 Years of Organized Caving in DC

by Ed Devine, November 2009

DC Grotto is celebrating more than 70 years of organized caving in DC.  We are now more than 70 years old!  Well, … sort of …  It gets complicated …

To celebrate, we will soon be selling a 70th Anniversary of Organized Caving in DC tee shirt currently being designed by Keely Owens and Dusty Gulden.

Our roots apparently go back as early as 1930, when our founder (and NSS founder), Bill Stephenson became active with a young people’s Sunday afternoon hiking group at All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington DC1.  During their hikes, they found and explored a few easy caves using flashlights and candles and thus got the caving bug.  Inspired, in part, by a 1939 illustrated Washington Star article on commercial caves and documented descriptions of organized caving in Europe, Stephenson and others advertised in the Washington newspapers for interested members to form the DC Speleological Society, which was shortly thereafter formally renamed the Speleological Society of DC (SSDC)2.  This group is essentially our founding organization.

DC Grotto is the sole surviving co-founding Grotto of the NSS, which Bill Stephenson and others founded in 1941.  There were only two founding groups – DC Grotto and the now-defunct New England Grotto, so we are clearly the oldest existing Grotto (followed in 1943 by VPI Grotto and Richmond Grotto, and in 1945 by Cleveland Grotto … the NSS Grotto count now exceeds 450!).  Stephenson and Clay Perry, in Massachusetts, struck up a deal at the NSS founding – New England Grotto would get to be Grotto No. 1, but the DC cavers would get the lowest NSS numbers.  It seems apparent from the old documentation that the NSS founding was more a push by the DC group rather than a joint DC-Massachusetts effort, and the earliest NSS office (Stevenson’s house) and administration remained in the DC area.

Thus, the SSDC became the NSS in 1941.  It is very clear that in 1941 the NSS was far too small (less than 150 members) to be Grotto-centric, as is currently the case, so the DC cavers did not apparently see much distinction between the local caving club and the “national” group.  Hence, there are few distinct DC Grotto publications or other artifacts from these early days.  In fact, the earliest copies of the NSS Newsletter  (the predecessor to the current NSS News) are mimeographed issues of a few hand-typed pages that read rather like Grotto newsletters with descriptions of trip plans and trip reports involving easy Virginia caves3.

So the early histories of DC Grotto and the NSS are too tightly entwined to be separated, and we both can claim our organized start in 1939.   But, formally, we really can’t claim that DC Grotto is older than its establishment as an NSS Grotto in 1941.

Now, to further complicate things, Cleveland Grotto currently claims on its website to be the oldest ACTIVE Grotto in the NSS.  That may be correct, because the DC cavers were largely inactive during much of World War II.  In fact, all caving groups throughout the country were tightly constrained (in terms of meetings and actual cave trips) during these years as the nation totally focused itself on conduct of the War.  Young people were away in the military, and extreme gas/tire rationing at home would have made it difficult to engage in “frivolous” travel such as cave trips or even trips to attend local cave club meetings.  Bill Stephenson, who was a patent examiner with the U.S. Patent Office, found himself transferred temporarily to Richmond (where he helped found Richmond Grotto), so cave club activity severely waned in the DC area.  However, administration of the NSS continued in DC, apparently maintained by John Petrie, and a few others, who remained in the DC area.  So caving did not completely die in DC during the War and DC cavers did again become again sometime during 1944 .  Cleveland Grotto also claims caving activity since 1944, so if they are the oldest ACTIVE NSS Grotto, its must only be by a few weeks or months …  However, DC Grotto will remain the oldest CONTINUOUS NSS Grotto.


1.  Damon, P.H., ed., 1991, Caving in America; the Story of the National Speleological Society, National Speleological Society, ISBN 0-9615093-7-6.

2.  Bulletin of the Speleological Society of the District of Columbia, Vol I, June, 1940, Speleological Society of the District of Columbia, reprinted 1955.

3.  NSS Newsletter, Vol. II, No.1, Jan, 1944, National Speleological Society.

The Early DC Cavers … Do Any Still Survive?

Shortly after its founding in 1939, the Speleological Society of the District of Columbia (SSDC) published a comprehensive Bulletin detailing its organization, its knowledge of the regional caving scene and a few fascinating trip reports*.   In addition, this pre-NSS Bulletin published its membership list, which included 66 individuals described as either active or associate members.  These SSDC members might arguably be considered the founding members of our Grotto.  The list is nearly 70 years old and it is conceivable (possibly even likely) that some of these people are still alive.   Does anyone know if any of these people still survive to interview? [Note: This list was produced in 2010 so it is now far less likely any of the early members are still alive].

Speleological Society of the District of Columbia Active(*) and Associate member ship list, (June 1940):
Walter S. Amos - Winchester, Va. Curator, Front Royal Caverns
Elwood A. Baker - Alexandria, Va. Washington Star photographer
Vernon Bailey - Washington, DC. Mammologist, Smithson. Inst (retd).
Dr. H. S. Barber - Washington, DC. Entomologist, U.S. Nat. Museum
Dr. R. S. Bassler* - Washington, DC. Head, Dept of Geology, GWU
Dr. Bruce Bennett* - Washington, DC. Physician
Don Bloch* - Bethesda, Md.  Bureau of Fisheries
E.E.W. Bowen - Bethesda, Md.  President, Bowen Instrument Co.
Austin B. J. Clark* - Washington, DC. Photographer
Dr. Austin H. Clark* - Washington, DC. Naturalist, U.S. National Museum
Jo Hubbard Chamberlain - New York City Author
Dr. Robert Coats* - Washington, DC. Geologist, USGS
Charles Cooke* - Washington, DC. Govt. clerk, REA
Martha Corcoran - Washington, DC. Student, UMd
Myron Dunlavy - Hamburg, NY.  President, Lincoln Caverns
E. A. (Tony) Eno* - Arlington, Va.  USDA
Jerome M. Garland* - Chevy Chase, Md. Justice Dept. lawyer
Pat Gower - Washington, DC. Telephone co. engineer
Oma Hackstaff - Takoma Park, Md. Sales clerk, Woodward & Lothrop
George J. Hall, Jr.* - Washington, DC. Engineer, Washington Airport
O.B. Harman - Petersburg, WV. Manager, Smokehole Caverns
Elmer W. Harmon* - Washington, DC. Patent examiner, US Patent Office
D.K. Harmon - Petersburg, WV. Technician, Seneca Caverns
Dr. Alfred C. Hawken - Winchester, Va. Geologist, Pot. River Flood Control
Dr. Harry H. Henderson* - Washington, DC. Physician
Paul Herbert, Jr. - Chicago, Ill.  Instructor in Geology, U. of Chicago
Dr. R. J. Holden - Blacksburg, Va. Dept. Head, Geology, VPI
Bushrod Hopkins - Washington, DC. US Merchant Marine
Franklin Hortman* - Washington, DC. Clerk, War Dept.
Joe Johnson* - Washington, DC. Engineer, Washington Airport
Carter Brooke Jones - Washington, DC. Washington Star reporter
Dr. Remingon Kellog - Washington, DC. Mammologist, Smithsonian Inst.
James I. Lavelle - Newark, NJ.  Clerk, Railroad Retirement Board
Estyl Lambert - Riverton, WV.  Manager, Seneca Caverns
Arthur C. Lembeck - Washington, DC. Biochemist, Bureau of Dairy Ind.
Al C. Lewis* - Chevy Chase, Md. Lewis Advertising Agencies
William Mahone McGill - Charlottesville, Va.  Geologist, USGS
John F. Meenehan* - Washington, DC. Clerk, Post Office Dept.
Charles E. Mohr - Philadelphia, Pa. Phila. Academy of Natural Sciences
Robert Morgan* - Washington, DC. Patent Examiner, US Patent Office
Dorothy D. Morrision* - Falls Church, Va. Housewife
Dr. Joseph P.E. Morrision* - Falls Church, Va.  Naturalist, U.S. National Museum
Eileen Neuhausel - Pittsburgh, Pa.  Stenographer
Clay Perry - Pittsfield, Ma.  Author
Thornton T. Perry, Jr.* - Charles Town, WV.  President, Front Royal Caverns
John S.”Pete” Petrie - Arlington, Va.  Patent Examiner, US Patent Office
Dr. E. R. Pohl - Horse Cave, Ky. Manager, Mammoth Onyx Caverns
Donald Reichard - Washington, DC. Draftsman, DC Government
R. H. Sargent  - Washington, DC. USGS
William J. Schlichtig - Washington, DC. Draftsman, Govt. Printing Office
Mrs. Wm. J. Schlichtig - Washington, DC. Housewife
Leon Schlossberg - Washington, DC. Social Research Analysis
Jack Shultz* - Rockville, Md. Library of Congress
Alden Snell* - Washington, DC. Accountant
Merle O. Stephenson* - Washington, DC. Housewife
William J. ”Bill” “Steve” Stephenson* - Wash., DC.  Patent Examiner, US Patent Office
Dan J. Tyrrell* - Washington, DC. Cashier, GWU
Eddie Vanderlip - Washington, DC. Auditor, FHA
Herman C. Vollmer* - Washington, DC. Engineer, Water Dept. 
Dwight H. Vorkeeper (Vorkoeper?)* -  Garrett Park, Md.    Draftsman, Census Bureau
Ruth Ellen Vorkeeper - Washington, DC. Housewife
William J. Vorkeeper - Washington, DC Service Dept. Philgas Co.
Dr. W. W. Welsh* - Rockville, Md. Physician
Jean R. Williams - Wilkinsburg, Pa. Engineer, Westinghouse Co.
John J. Wilson* - Washington, DC Secy. Long-Bell Lumber Co.
Florence I. Whitley - Arlington, Va.  Masseuse, Elizabeth Arden


*Bulletin of the Speleological Society of the District of Columbia, Vol I, June, 1940, Speleological Society of the District of Columbia, reprinted 1955.

This last updated in 2010.

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This page last updated or verified on September 26, 2023