Historically, Shelta Cave was one of the most diverse cave systems in the eastern United States. Long before Niemiller and other scientists came along, beetles, salamanders, shrimp, crabs, and other animals lived their lives in the dark. Many cave-dwelling species, often blind and unpigmented, live longer than their surface-dwelling relative’s thanks to slower metabolisms—a common evolutionary adaptation to subterranean life. For example, the red swamp crab, the unfortunate star of many Louisiana crayfish, can live for up to five years in the swamps and ditches it calls home. Chelsea’s southern cave crab, O. Australia lives up to 22 years, and the Shelta cave crab is thought to have a similar lifespan.
A colony of gray bats also made Shelta Cave their home. Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, these adorable, furry “micro-bats” deposit guano throughout the cave – a valuable food source for many other cave creatures, including the Shelta cave crabs. For centuries, Shelta Cave’s balanced ecosystem of bats, crabs, and other animals thrived undisturbed.
Then along came entrepreneur Henry M. Fuller. In 1888, Fuller bought the cave and named it after his daughter, according to Scott Shaw, who manages the Shelta Cave Nature Preserve. A year later, Fuller built a wooden dance floor and installed some of the city’s first electric lights in the cave, creating a popular entertainment destination. When rainwater caused the underground lakes to swell, Fuller even organized wooden boat tours for visitors. Nicknamed the cave “the eighth wonder of the world,” Fuller ran ads boasting, “All the discoveries of the ancient world pale in comparison to this greatest sight on earth or underground.” “Yes, it was a grand affair.” , says Shaw—but it wasn’t meant to last.
After 1896, Shelta changed hands several times and reportedly even became a pub during Prohibition. In 1967, the National Speleological Society (NSS), an organization that studies and protects caves, bought the cave to preserve its unique ecosystem.