By Zachary Schudrowitz
Robber Baron Cave twists and turns unguided souls until they are dizzy and lost. This reputation extends beyond the cave walls into Robber Baron’s history. Primarily, the San Antonio Light and Express reported on it under several names, fanciful tales, and confusing locations. Adventurous boys and authorities lost their way multiple times, but all were rescued. The cave’s owners cut through this labyrinth of darkness with commercial aims. Unfortunately, Robber Baron fell into a deplorable state, but the Texas Cave Management Association (TCMA) once again deciphered the twists and turns.
It is certain that individuals knew of Robber Baron well before the San Antonio Express or San Antonio Light newspaper accounts, but few distinguished it easily from hundreds of other caves in northern Bexar County. In 1911 the San Antonio Light reported on an ominous though captivating Cave of the Quebrantahuesos or cave of the bone breakers. The article fancifully speculated at a supposed colorful past as a lair of highwaymen. The long dead bandits did not fend off the owner George Saur as he discovered a man made wall. Was there “treasure stowed there by the warrior chieftain of the Gente del Camino?” Nor did they object when Saur tore down the wall. Anticlimactically, Saur discovered no treasure, but he pressed on to commercialize the cave for guano mining and tourism. No matter the results of the treasure hunt seeds of stories sprouted.
Multiple stories, names, roads, and caves bewildered any avid reader of newspapers. This “Cave of the Quebrantahuesos, on the Wetmore road, six miles from San Antonio” gave a relatively accurate position of Robber Baron. The Light’s coverage later that year debunked notions of underground passages between San Antonio missions, subterranean store rooms, and local caves. Quarry excavation fueled these legends and possible connections with local caves. The article mentioned a cave on the Wetmore road and the unconnected acequias. Ten years on and the Light gave the cave a consistent name. “The North Loop cave is the best known in San Antonio. This cave is located on the Wetmore road seven miles from the city.” The same article reviewed other caves and introduced Robber’s Cave. To the west of San Antonio, the article reported Robber’s Cave near the intersection of Babcock and Hausman roads on the bank of Leon Creek. Robber’s Cave also had tales of “bold train robbers and . . . famous desperadoes.” Local folklore may have freely mixed one cave’s stories with other caves. The San Antonio Express followed its own naming criteria as the “Alamo Heights cave one of the largest in this section is on the Nacogdoches road, 300 yards from the North Loop Store.” Even the Dallas Morning News positioned “one of the most interesting caves in the State. . . about eight miles north of San Antonio and within less than fifty feet of the King’s Highway . . . This immense underground chamber is known as the Robber Baron’s cave...” A traveler may have felt their way using newspapers. At least a reader knew a cave lay a half dozen miles north of San Antonio, but a 1913 Bexar county map provided better direction and clarification.
If examined to the north of San Antonio the map revealed three key thoroughfares. Road names changed slightly over time, but the International Great Northern Rail Road stood out. The traveler’s eye rode the rails southwest and passed by the sleepy town of Wetmore. Within a few miles the railroad intersected Twenty Mile Loop and the passenger disembarked. By walking south the traveler arrived at the characteristic “Y” crossroads of Twenty Mile Loop road and Bulverde Road. This intersection corresponds with modern maps as Broadway’s name replaced Twenty Mile Loop, and Nacogdoches replaced Bulverde Road. The traveler hooked northeast on Bulverde Road paralleling the railroad and headed back to Wetmore. Before the left turn towards Wetmore the eye noticed a branching road called Nacogdoches. The roadmap explained the names North Loop and Alamo Heights caves and any directions associated with Wetmore and Nacogdoches roads. However, even if a traveler located and entered Robber Baron that did not mean they could get out.
No simple fiction perpetuated Robber Baron’s reputation as a maze. Several groups of adventurous boys entered it for Tom Sawyer like expeditions. In 1922, a mother from Kenedy wired detective Captain Sam Street concerned about her boys and their friends. Captain Street launched a search and rescue. Only after hours of crawling in the cave were the boys found standing outside. Other boys were not as lucky, but were rescued nonetheless. In 1948, deputies Bob Beckman and Sam Sanders rescued Martin Pais and Lozano Vincent after hours of searching. Law enforcement officials themselves lost their way. On July 21 1925 “Dry Agents” raided Robber Baron after receiving multiple tips that bootleggers used the cave. This is the only reference to Robber Baron’s reputation as a speakeasy. The agents found no contraband “not even the way out.” Intelligently, the agents stationed a man outside, and he grew concerned enough after 3 ½ hours to go in and find them. To alleviate these concerns AJ Harp made the cave “doubly safe” during its commercial period.
Mr. Saur owned the property and Mr. Harp managed and commercialized Robber Baron during the 1920s, and for a time light showed the way. Harp initially let tourists go in unattended, but after several groups lost their way Harp guided all the tours. Harp may have further corralled visitors by blasting shut side passages. Later, he strung lights in the cave for interest, effect, and guidance. Attendees came from far and wide and included Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, the San Antonio Archery Club, the YMCA, and social clubs such as the Zippers. Harp regaled visitors with stories of the cave’s past and freely mixed local legends and lore. He may have even borrowed stories from the Robber’s Cave across town. Robber’s Cave actually held the plunder of the Pitts and Yeager gang. Unfortunately, no amount of storytelling prevented the Depression burdening everyone and interest in Robber Baron waned. By 1933 Robber Baron entertained approximately 300,000 people, but the business it supported closed. George Saur sold his estate with the cave in 1950, and with that Robber Baron resided in the dark for decades.
Decades passed and Robber Baron was abused, but caves have a certain attraction. People dumped garbage into the sinkhole, and vandals tagged the passages with signatures and beguiling arrows. The San Antonio Grotto, a caving club, cleaned the cave starting in the 1970s. In 1995, the TCMA stepped in, acquired Robber Baron Cave, and then enacted a two-phase restoration plan which installed a more environmentally friendly gate, cleaned up garbage, re-landscaped the surface, and made educational use of the cave. The massive project logged more than 275 volunteers and over 3700 hours. At times neighbors expressed distress, but a finished Robber Baron property became a pleasant park.
TCMA celebrated and hosted an open house for the community. They expected modest interest, but were slightly and surprisingly overwhelmed by 450 visitors. Volunteers once again deciphered Robber Baron’s passages, and young children, parents, and older folks enjoyed the free tours. Older folks recollected the passages reaching farther than currently explored, which gave incentive to the cavers. Robber Baron showed itself to be an interesting, educational, and valuable asset to the community. Its published history began as a nefarious mystery maze. Yet, with volunteer effort Robber Baron opened its secrets to become a different treasure.
[Editor’s Note: Joe Mitchell, TCMA Preserve Manager, and Geary Schindel, Chief Technical Officer, Edwards Aquifer Authority contributed to this article.]
“Mystery of Wonder Cave is to be Solved,” San Antonio Light 3 26 1911; George Veni, The Caves of Bexar County Second Edition, Speleological Monographs, 2 (Austin: Texas Memorial Museum, The University of Texas, 1988) 199-215.
“Mystery of Wonder Cave is to be Solved,” SA Light 3 26 1911; “Subterranean Passages Shown to be Fiction,” SA Light 10 08 1911; “Officers Find Boys Believed Lost in Cave,” San Antonio Express 10 6 1922; “Exploring Caves Where Robbers Walked,” Dallas Morning News 6 23 1929.
http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/WW/hlw28.html, San Antonio Public Library, Texana Room, 1913 County Map accessed 11/1/2009.
“’Lost’ Explorers Emerge From North Loop Cave as Rescue Party Underground,” SA Light 10 6 1922; “2 Weary Explorers Rescued From Cave by Sheriff’s Men,” SA Light 12 7 1948; “Dry Agents Are Lost 3 ½ Hours in S. A. Cave,” SA Light 7 21 1925; “Cave Here Made Doubly Safe,” SA Express 2 19 1925.
“Gonzales Boy Scouts Tour Robbers’ Cave,” SA Express 8 14 1926; “Girl Scouts Explore Robber Baron’s Cave,” SA Express 10 12 1925; “Caves ‘Last Frontier’ for Man to Conquer,” SA Light 9 22 1957; “Social Notes,” SA Express 12 2 1924; “Archers Prepare for Sunday Shoot,” SA Light 4 5 1934; “Y.M.C.A. Slates Christmas Party,” SA Light 12 22 1943; “Saur Estate Sells North Side Tract,” SA Light 5 28 1950, “Store Sites, Duplexes To Be Built,” SA Express 5 28 1950; George Veni, “Robber Baron Cave,” The Caves and Karst of Texas: 1994 NSS Convention Guidebook, (Huntsville, Alabama: National Speleological Society, 1994) 156-157.
Joseph Mitchell, “Robber Baron: Restoring an Urban Cave Preserve,” 15th International Congress of Speleology Proceedings, 2 (2009) 1191 – 1196.