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Like other ice caves in Lave Beds, the ice in Caldwell Cave, reached through a squeeze-through chamber, has receded. [Photo by Lee Juillerat]

History abounds in and around Caldwell Ice Cave

Change isn't always a good thing at a place like Caldwell Ice Cave.

It had been more than 30 years since my previous visit to Caldwell, a backcountry cave at Lava Beds National Monument. The site above ground has remained relatively unchanged, but unfortunately the ice in the cave floor has shrunk.

The cave, with its thick platform of ice, is the main attraction, but also fascinating are the collapsed, rusted remnants of a once active ranch. The backcountry cave does not appear on park maps, but information is available at the Lava Beds visitor center.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the area near the 5,189-foot cinder butte named Caldwell Butte was the location of a small cabin that served as the home of Charles Jarvis “Charlie” Caldwell. His main employment was as a teacher, at different times in the nearby Northern California communities of Canby and Lookout, along with schools in Southern Oregon.

Along with teaching, Caldwell dabbled in the stock-raising business. Among his early purchases was Duke, reputed to be Modoc County's first Clydesdale, a breed of large draft horse developed in Scotland. It's said all of Modoc County's Clydesdales can trace their ancestry to Duke. The horses were run on the lava to toughen their hooves, then shipped to the Presidio in San Francisco, where they navigated the cobblestone streets.

Not much remains of Caldwell's ranch. A story after a 1980 visit that described the above-ground scene rings true today: “These days the winds ruffle the remains of a small log cabin that sit deserted, a tumble of hand-hewn logs and rusty iron. The winds curl around (Caldwell) butte, sometimes poking into two nearby lava tube collapses. … Few people join the wind in poking through the caves, and fewer still visit the remains of jigsaw logs.”

As the story tells, “Making camp near the butte that carries his name was no arbitrary choice. One of the nearby collapses, also named for Caldwell, dips far enough under the rocky surface that ice forms inside. The ice provided water for men and horses in the otherwise barren land.

“During his years, Caldwell hollowed out a small log trough. He also had a watering trough made of galvanized iron. It was about 20 feet long, 4 feet wide at the top, 3 feet wide at the bottom and 30 inches deep. It was used to melt cave snow and ice for horses.”

Much of the information about the cave and cabin was drawn from memories written by Ruth Wells Caldwell, Caldwell's daughter-in-law, who lived in Sacramento.

She said the Caldwell family ventured into Modoc County and the lava beds area about 1885 from Athens County, Ohio. Charlie had attended a small college and studied medicine with a brother, Ned, in Cincinnati. After a brother and sister died of tuberculosis, Charlie, then 26, moved west seeking a dry climate.

In 1882, he moved to California's Yolo County, where he taught elementary school and was later joined by brothers Ned and Frank. Frank moved to Modoc County and Charlie followed in 1885. Two other brothers, Everett and Henry, followed and bought large holdings near the Modoc County community of Canby. Charlie, Frank and Everett taught school and doubled as ranchers.

Charlie, who owned and rented several houses in Canby, originally bred and raised his Clydesdales at Lone Pine Butte under his Circle C brand.

According to Ruth Caldwell, when Charlie first ventured into the cave that was later named for him, he found an old skeleton with a gold ring on a finger. He wore the ring for years, until accidentally losing it when he washed his hands in an outside basin and tossed the water, and the ring, down a hill.

During a trip to San Francisco to sell some horses, he met Anna Lauer, described as a “rosy-cheeked school teacher” at Dry Creek School in Tehema County. Charlie, 48, was single. She was 24. When he passed through later, he carried a large diamond ring. After being married on Charlie's 49th birthday in June 1905 in Red Bluff, California, they moved to a house at Bucher Swamp near Canby.

Charlie, who seemingly was always open to new challenges, was studying law, with plans to open a practice in Woodland, California, to be near his brother Ned, a doctor in nearby Winters.

It never happened.

Within a year of his marriage, Charlie became seriously ill with Bright's disease, a chronic inflammation of the kidneys. After being treated without success, he was taken to his brother's house in May 1906. On July 4, his wife gave birth to a son, Edson. Three weeks later, Charlie was dead.

After his death, the cabin and cave were abandoned. Persistent winds off the nearby butte that now bears his name and winter snows gradually collapsed the rustic cabin.

It's about a half-mile walk from an unsigned trailhead to what remains of the cabin and the cave. Like other ice caves in the park, the ice in Caldwell, reached through a squeeze-through chamber, has receded. Fragments of the fallen cabin, along with a smattering of pieces of a wood stove and rusted tin cans, rest in place. Visitors are asked to look, but not touch.

Left intact, when people visit or revisit the site in another 30 or so years, it's hoped things will have remained unchanged.

— Reach Lee Juillerat at juilleratlee1@gmail.com or 541-880-4139.

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