History of the Alabama Cave Survey

By Bill Varnedoe

April 2008

The Alabama Cave survey, of a sort, had a beginning with Special Reports 8 and 9 by Henry McCalley, published by the Geological Survey of Alabama in 1896. In this publication he describes 26 caves. However, his locations were very crude and many landmarks have now disappeared. He had no cave maps, and many of these caves are unidentifiable by modern names or coordinates. More to the point, he did not follow up with additions nor make it a project.

In 1930 the Geological Survey of Alabama (AGS) published Special Report No. 16, titled, Ground Waters of North Alabama, by W. D. Johnston. In this report, 22 caves are described with maps and coordinates. The chapter on caves with these reports was authored by Dr. Walter B. Jones. Dr. Jones was an active caver and held NSS number 108. We do not know when he entered and cataloged Bat Cave, AL1, but this was the true beginning of the Alabama Cave Survey, sometime shortly before 1930.

He continued to catalogue Alabama’s caves, formalizing the data, assigning a number to each cave starting with those in Special Report 16. This numbering system continues to this day. He mapped, at least to sketch level, every cave he described. Dr. Jones later became the State Geologist, but continued with his cave survey, adding caves up to number 170 by 1955. That year, the Huntsville Grotto (HG) of the NSS was chartered and began to collect cave information for its own use. Dr. Jones recognized the Grotto as a help with his cave survey and enlisted them in adding to the Alabama Cave Survey (ACS) which now acquired this title under the leadership of the Alabama Geological Survey (AGS.) The survey forms used were those Dr. Jones used.

As the Huntsville Grotto Secretary, Bill Varnedoe kept the HG cave records part of Dr. Jones’ ACS. As time passed, with new grotto officers, no one else wanted that task, and this job became permanent with Bill after 1956.

Dr. Jones became occupied with many geological tasks at the State level, so he assigned two of his assistants, Bo Daniels and Earl L. Hastings to manage the ACS. Bo had the most interest and became the sole custodian of the ACS by 1960. By this time there were four Alabama grottos. Blocks of numbers were assigned to each. This led to gaps in the numbering of the caves. Dr. Jones retired as State Geologist in 1965. Bo Daniels received other assignments from the new State Geologist and he left the ACS totally in Bill Varnedoe’s hands, although officially still part of the AGS. As time passed Bo gradually let go and the ACS became Bill’s independent organization. There was no fixed date when this happened but it was generally recognized as Bill’s alone by everyone. It was during this time that the ACS became a Section of the NSS.

As soon as Bo let Bill take control, Bill eliminated the blocks of numbers and required all entries, by whomever, to funnel through him and he would assign the cave number. In a short time the gaps in the cave numbers created by the old block system were filled in by new entries. Sequential numbers in order of addition, as before, have prevailed ever since. Bill also established some standards. He created the “50 foot” rule to qualify as a “cave,” and required cave maps to have at least four things: 1. A North arrow, 2. A scale, preferably a bar scale, 3. To identify the entrance and 4. the accuracy (or type) of survey. He later deleted any reference to locations on the cave map itself, since they might get published in public news media at some time. As the ACS dictator, he felt free to modify submitted cave maps to comply to the ACS standards and to add cave survey parts added by later trips. Cavers had to understand this when they submitted maps. Although some cavers grumbled at the defacing of their art work, The ACS could boast that 70% of the ACS caves had maps!! A higher number than any other State Cave Survey!

Dr. Jones had originally located caves to within 1,340 feet. Bill upped the requirement to be within 40 feet to get added to the ACS. [Today, GPS makes this seem quaint!]

Richard R. Anderson had invented a computerized system to record the NSS Cave Files in about 1964. Bill adapted this system to the ACS. To the current level of technology at that time, the data were kept on IBM punched cards. This system only allowed 80 bits of information per cave. Even with this reduced level of information per cave, the computerization offered many benefits. The files could be alphabetized or sorted by all sorts of information to compile statistics. Yet to squeeze the maximum amount of information onto the cards, a code system was devised. Modified, it is still in use. This early punched card version has led to some strange seeming information. For instance, since exact cave lengths would not fit on the cards, a logarithmic scale of codes for lengths was used. Later, when the technology allowed more information, and these codes were translated to numerical lengths, they made it seem that many caves that had been entered earlier, had the exact same length!

While all this was going on, nothing had been published since Ground Water 16 in 1930. Bill wanted to make the mass of cave information being gathered available to cavers and researchers by publishing it. The publication to make the information available and permanent was, funded by the HG in a book, containing the cave codes and their maps. It was Alabama Caves and Caverns which was authored by Bill Varnedoe and Terry Tarkington. It came out in 1965, available to NSS members only. The coded information and coded location coordinates partially concealed cave information from the general public, since it takes an effort to read the data. This has become known as The Red Book, and carried the ACS caves up through number 617.

At this time the ACS was a dictatorship, run by Bill. In 1973, at Bills insistence, it became organized along more democratic lines, with a charter, formal organization and officers. As Bill’s last official act, he published another book, Alabama Caves, the ACS as of 1973, which listed the caves up to number 1421, with several cross indices by location and name. This was “The Blue Book. The reorganized ACS was required to republish every 5 years and has done so. However, newer technology allows electronic publications to preempt paper editions.

Other nearby State surveys had also adopted their own coded, computerized systems based on the pioneering ACS system. At one time, Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia (TAG) met to, at least partially; standardize the codes and computer fields, so that regional statistics could be compiled. This idea was Richard Anderson’s original aim in computerizing the NSS Cave Files. Unfortunately, there is no longer a USA Cave Survey.

Parallel to all this, even after retiring, Dr. Jones wanted the AGS to publish collected cave data. His plan was to publish more Special Reports, county by county of the caves in that county. Working with Bill Varnedoe, the first was Circular 52, The Caves of Madison Co., published by the AGS in 1968. The next was Bulletin 112 The Caves of Morgan Co., published by the AGS in 1980. The AGS lost interest with Dr. Jones death in 1977, and although The Caves of Jackson County was being compiled and drafted, no further county cave books have been published.

In short, the ACS began with Dr. Walter B. Jones, NSS 108, in 1930. It became computerized with Bill Varnedoe, NSS 3160, in 1962, developed a formal organization in 1973 and continues today as a Section of the NSS.