Melrose Caverns lies on the David Harrison homestead, a small part of a pre-revolutionary land grant to the Harrison family. David, a nephew of Thomas Harrison, the founder of Harrisonburg, discovered the Caverns in 1818.
In April 1862, Union forces under the command of General Nathaniel P. Banks marched south from New Market along the Valley Pike to reinforce advance units already occupying Harrisonburg. Elements of Banks's army paused, and pitched command tents under blossoming pear trees next to the present day service station by the Valley Pike.
General Banks himself may have occupied the tents, as his dispatches indicated that by then he had arrived in the vicinity of Harrisonburg. The troops soon discovered the entrance to the Caverns and proceeded to explore the underground chambers with torches. With a regimental band playing music in the echoing grottoes, soldiers from Ohio regiments fired muskets and handguns at some of the columns and carved their names and dates, along with a Union shield and bust of President Lincoln, on various underground formations.
At other times during the conflict, confederate soldiers from Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina also recorded their presence on the Caverns walls. Due to the lack of weather underground, the ballistic impacts and other markings have remained visible and vibrant.
David Harrison's direct descendants presently own the property. The surrounding farm is one of the few remaining farms that have been owned by the same family since the late 1700's.
Booklet from Melrose Caverns circa 1940.
In 1929, Colonel Edward Brown, the developer of Endless Caverns near New Market, seeking to capitalize on the natural beauty and historical significance of the Caverns, leased it from Francis Moore Harrison and her husband, Thomas Moore Harrison, and proceeded to construct the Lodge, service station and connecting bridge.
The Caverns, along with a Civil War museum in the Lodge, opened as a commercial tourist attraction in 1932, initially under the name "Blue Grottoes, the Civil War Caverns". A short time later, the name was changed, apparently for commercial reasons, to "Virginia Caverns." Owners of other commercial caverns in the Shenandoah Valley objected to this designation, perhaps on the basis that assigning the Commonwealth's name to the attraction would designate it as having an erroneous semi-official significance. Colonel Brown eventually renamed the attraction "Melrose Caverns".
The commercial success of the Caverns was linked to the rising popularity of automobile tourism in the mid-20th century. Route 11 was regarded as an important link in the “Lee Transcontinental Highway” (the current Lee Highway signs in Virginia having originated to signify the transcontinental route) connecting Washington with San Diego. As Route 11, along with other connecting national highways, received improvements, and the Skyline Drive opened in Shenandoah National Park, the Caverns gained prominence among the other numerous tourist attractions and small motels that made the Shenandoah Valley an attractive leisure destination for the motoring public.
By 1966, however, patterns were changing. The last link of Interstate 81 near Harrisonburg would soon open, diverting traffic away from the entrance to the Caverns on Route 11. Endless Caverns made the decision to cease operations at Melrose and return use of the property to the Harrisons. Not long afterwards, the service station was closed.
Today, the property is owned by Melrose Caverns, Inc. whose sole shareholders are the sons of Elizabeth Harrison Yancey, the only daughter of the prior owner, Francis Moore Harrison. Melrose has been placed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places. We hope you make this unique venue the site for your special celebration.
Brochure from Blue Grottoes (later named Melrose Caverns) circa 1930.