SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – September 11, 2001, will always be remembered as one of the most tragic days in American history. But in Missouri, the day marked a date with a different kind of history. The ancient kind.
Before the twin towers were taken down by terrorists in New York City, road crews on the outskirts of Springfield were placing explosives in the ground to construct a new farm road. After the nation came under attack, U.S. Marshals halted all explosive demolition except for one project – the future site of the Riverbluff Cave system.
Crews had already placed the explosives and couldn’t leave them sitting unattended due to their highly flammable properties.
After detonation, a 20-foot-high and 40-foot-wide crack appeared in a large rock, exposing the cave and unearthing millions of years’ worth of fossils.
Local geologist Dave Coonrod reached out to fellow geologist Matt Forir to begin immediate research. Both researchers have undertaken and maintained preservation efforts ever since.
Forir told The Heartlander if more explosives had been placed before the 9/11 attacks, the cave would have been shattered and portions vaporized, eliminating the entire prehistory of Riverbluff Cave.
The science cave is off limits to the public and is the oldest known fossil cave in North America. Forir says it’s impossible to date the cave itself, but explorers have found fossils dating back as far as 1.1 million years. Deeper sediment could date to an even earlier time period.
The Greene County Historic Sites Board has now designated the location as an official historic site. Forir says the site will have a better chance of receiving grants with the new designation and will help keep development properties at bay.
“We’re helping preserve history with this designation,” Forir said.
What makes the cave especially precious? The cave has produced tens of thousands of fossils for researchers. The only known fossilized earthworms were found inside Riverbluff Cave. Forir says most of the cave’s fossils are very well preserved and complete. Researchers have uncovered fossilized turtle shells, Ice Age pig-like peccary tracks, and artifacts from the mammoth, giant wolf, horses and armadillos.
Forir is extremely knowledgeable about Ice Age creatures and says the short-faced bear was the largest land predator to roam the land during the time period.
“It was a 2,000-pound bear on average that could run probably 40 miles per hour in a straight line. It was six feet tall at the shoulder on all fours. When it stood up, it would have been 10 or 12 feet high. This was a huge bear, just a monster of an animal.”
Forir says due to the natural and immaculate preservation of Riverbluff Cave, his team has been able to efficiently piece together the short-faced bear’s life within the Ozarks cave. Claw marks, bedding and hair impressions still remain, but bones from the bear have never been discovered.
Today, locals and tourists can visit the site of Riverbluff Cave and its Missouri Institute of Natural Science Museum free of charge. Although visitors can’t explore the cave, individuals are free to collect fossils above Riverbluff Cave.
The museum is funded by the county, gift shop sales, grants and donations.
Forir says the main surface of the cave has been completely explored, but much of the sediment has yet to be excavated – possibly concealing thousands to millions more years of natural treasure.
“I’m just a caretaker for now. At some point, I’ll retire and move on. Somebody else will take over and do 5 to 10%. The idea is that this is a huge cave, and there was never a plan to excavate the whole thing in my lifetime. You excavate a little bit and build on that knowledge foundation, and then someone builds on yours. This site could be hundreds of years of work for hundreds of years of researchers.”
The Missouri Institute of Natural Science Museum is open six days a week. For hours and more information, visit the website.