A History of Hawver Cave

Hawver Cave is in El Dorado County, five miles east of Auburn and just south of the Placer County line. The main entrance of the cave is located 700 feet above the Middle Fork of the American River, and below the Cool Cave Quarry owned by Teichert Aggregates. Today, the area is run by the California Department of Parks and Recreation and looks vastly different from how it appeared upon its rediscovery in the 19th century when the ancient geological features and Ice Age fossils were explored, excavated, and mined.

J. C. Hawver

J. C. Hawver was born in Colombia Hill, California on October 4, 1854. The Hawver family moved to Nevada City in 1870, where Hawver met his future wife, Lucretia (Lutie) Bacus.

Lucretia Bacus

The two moved to Auburn where Hawver started a dental practice in the 1880s in the Jacob’s Building on Maple Street.

Hawver's Dental Office

J. C. Hawver – Full-time Dentist, Part-time Paleontologist

Placer Herald, 1907

Throughout his childhood in northern California, Hawver had lived and explored the foothills, mountains, rocks, and rivers of the state. A “self-made man, a self-made geologist,” Hawver was not only a dentist, but also a naturalist, botanist, and amateur paleontologist. With no formal education, it was his love of the outdoors and natural history that brought Hawver to the area known as the Cool-Cave Valley in 1895.

Background Photo: J. C. Hawver's office interior.

Cool-Cave Valley

The Middle Fork of the American River winds through Cool-Cave Valley, which straddles the Placer and El Dorado County lines. Both counties have rich geological resources, and quarrying activities on the south side of the river in the mid- to late-19th-century led to the discovery of several caves.

About That Cave

The report of one such cave appeared in the Placer Herald on December 29, 1906. Writing “About That Cave,” Dr. Hawver provided a detailed history of the discovery, his involvement, and the initial survey of what would become known as Hawver Cave.

In the spring of 1895, a resident of Cool visited Hawver and told him that a limestone quarry worker had discovered a cave. Finding a hole, men had dropped a rock inside and heard a deep splash. Upon further investigation, they had found a second opening and lowered themselves down into an underground lake.

That summer, Hawver visited the cave. From the surface to the water’s edge was eighty feet and the interior galleries were primarily filled with water. This did not dissuade Hawver who went back to Auburn, purchased an air mattress, and returned with his son Neil, and a friend, A.D. Fellows.

With the air mattress, the three men were able to traverse the subterranean lake. On this, and a subsequent trip, Hawver noted the presence of several more caverns, and the possibility of further openings beneath the water. However, mud and water prevented further exploration and no fossils were found at this time. Hawver returned in 1902 to take photographs. Ultimately, he hoped the water would recede in the dry season to allow a better examination.

Background Image: Entrance to Hawver Cave

Back to the Cave

“But while the scientific mind may be deeply interested in the discovery of a lot of bones…the walls were almost pure alabaster…carved statutes of most beauteous design.” San Francisco Chronicle June 23, 1907

Eleven years after the initial discovery, Hawver was contacted again. A young man, Henry Rose, and his friends found fragments of bones while exploring the cave. Hawver returned with Rose and his friends on December 5, 1906 to examine as much as the exposed rock as he could reach. He found “bones visible wherever water tricking down from above had leached the lime rock away.” It was now evident that this was a site of scientific importance and he removed several specimens.

The fossils were encased in a matrix of cave-breccia. Over thousands of years fragments of limestone, pieces of stalactites, bone, and rock had been cemented together with carbonate of lime. The resulting material was mostly fragmentary, and no complete skulls or skeletons were recovered.

Professor J. C. Merriam

Hawver contacted the University of California at Berkeley, where Professor J. C. Merriam arranged for his assistant, E. L. Furlong to come up to Auburn. Hawver, Furlong, Professor W. E. Crawford of Placer High School, and Rose returned to the cave. Furlong removed more fossils from the cave and returned to Berkeley to study and share his findings.

Professor Merriam attempted to see the cave, but rainfall blocked further exploration until the following year. However, two species were identified: an extinct puma and an extinct ground sloth.

Ground Sloth

This final survey of 1906 would be just the starting point for Hawver Cave.

Background Image: Hawver Lake

With the assistance of the University of California, Hawver was making progress in identifying the ancient remains found in the cave before local quarrying operations destroyed them.

Excavations Continue

After the final survey of 1906, interest in Hawver Cave continued with reports, lectures, and studies. Tourists and locals visited the cave, lowered by rope into the cave before they traversed the slick limestone caverns where animal and human bones were still visible. These trips were reported in the newspaper as fun afternoon picnics or daring adventures to a strange underworld.

“We slipped down the final steep incline, one by one, to the narrow margin of the lake. Its black depths glowed below and gnarled fingers clutched at us from above…We were now seventy-five feet below the serve of the hill. It was very still and terrible…What bond of sympathy may there be between the granite of the daylight and the limestone of the Stygian darkness?” San Francisco Chronicle, October 2, 1910

Background Photo: Hawver's office

Soon, Hawver took high-schooler and fellow cave explorer, Rose, on as his assistant. The University provided some economic support, but the excavation of vertebrate fossils, human remains, and artifacts was primarily due to Hawver’s tireless efforts.

Even after a near fatal accident in 1907, where Hawver lost his left thumb and fore finger due to an explosion of photography equipment, he continued.

Excavations were limited to the dry season, and Hawver was not the only person accessing the cave. The nearby 19th-century quarry works only increased into the first decade of the 1900s.

The Mountain Quarries Company opened in 1910 and in 1912, a railroad was built to accommodate the large-scale operation. By that point, much of the original cave features were heavily damaged.

Mountain Quarry Bridge Under Construction

Hawver continued corresponding with Professor Merriam and sending fossils. However, the contemporaneous find at Rancho La Brea (the La Brea Tar pits in Southern California) took up much of Merriam’s attention.

La Brea Tar Pits

Tragedy struck in 1914. On May 15, Dr. J. C. Hawver died suddenly of heart disease at the age of 60. It was a loss to his family and the community. While Hawver was known for dentistry and paleontology, he was also dedicated to children’s education in Auburn and served as a trustee to the Auburn Grammar School. His collection of artifacts and photos, which has since been lost, was donated to the school.

Three years later, the first major scientific findings were completed on the cave by Chester Stock, a graduate student of Merriam. Stock’s thesis, The Pleistocene Fauna of Hawver Cave, was later issued in the April 1918 Bulletin of the Department of Geology and remains the most comprehensive study of the fossilized remains found at Hawver Cave.

The fossils found at Hawver Cave do not represent the largest, or most extensive collection of Ice Age fauna discovered to date, but they are an important addition to the scientific study of Pleistocene fauna in Northern California.

While the cave’s limestone foundation formed 250 million years ago, the mammal fossils date to the Pleistocene Epoch. This era started 2.6 million years ago and ended 11,700 years ago and is commonly referred to as the last Ice Age. Humans evolved and became widespread across the planet in this epoch.

Ultimately, 24 mammal species, 12 bird species, human remains, and stone and bone artifacts were originally discovered. Identification was completed by a comparative analysis of the fragments found in Hawver Cave and those found at other Pleistocene sites. Further study today, or more extensive excavation and recovery of fossils may further confirm or change Stock’s findings.

11 species were identified and still exist today: bear, coyote, racoon, skunk, mole, deer mouse, woodrat, vole, gopher, ground squirrel, deer.

13 species were identified as extinct, many representing stereotypical Ice Age mammals. These include dire wolves, bison, sabretooth cat, and western horses. One fragment of mastodon tooth was also recorded.

Two extinct species were posthumously named after Hawver – Felis hawveri and Nothrotherium shastense hawveri. One, the second subspecies of puma identified at the cave, and the other, a subspecies of the Shasta ground sloth (Nothrotheriops shastensis). The Shasta ground sloth could grow up to nine feet from nose to tail tip and weigh over 500 lbs.

Nothrotherium shastense hawveri

Many of these fossils are now housed at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, and are available to researchers.

Mountain Quarries 1930

Over time, shafts were tunneled through and around the natural cavern, and a rail line was added to remove ore. Operations continued through the second World War, and by the 1950s, it was reported that the cave’s original features had been destroyed by the mining operations.

In the 1960s, the Bureau of Reclamation used Eminent Domain to take possession of the cave and extended mining tunnels for the Auburn Dam development. After the project fell through, the California State Parks took over management of the property in 1977.

Over the years, the cave remained a popular spot for vandals, visitors, and adventurers. To prevent further damage and preserve the remaining geological and paleontological features, the entrances were sealed and remain so until this day.

Local volunteer groups like the Canyon Keepers, are working to re-open this amazing site for visitors.

To see stalactites and casts from fossils found inside Hawver Cave, visit Placer County Museum at the Historic Courthouse in Auburn.