LURAY — On the day that marked the 141st anniversary of the limestone cave’s discovery, Luray Caverns celebrated its latest milestone ― a new looping covered walkway leading to the underground wonder.
Since the new, no-stairs entrance officially opened on May 20, 2,235 wheeled carts, walkers, scooters and wheelchairs have made their way through the natural landmark, according to President of the Luray Caverns Corp. John Graves.
“A new entrance begins a new journey for our guests,” Graves said Tuesday during an invitation-only dedication event that drew a crowd of more than 200, including Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, and Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Mount Jackson.
The day not only marked the Caverns’ 141st Day of Discovery, but the day in 1928 that the attraction’s main entrance was dedicated.
Graves touted the fruition of a decades-long goal to eliminate stairs, set in motion by his father, the late Henry T.N. “Ted” Graves, as well as efforts by his brother, the late Henry T.N. “Harry” Graves.
The 141-year-old landmark began removing steps and improving walkways with brick, concrete and ramps throughout the caverns in 1954. The 21-year endeavor was completed in 1975, according to the Caverns’ Director of Marketing and Sales John Shaffer, but removing the final steps leading to and from the cave “remained elusive due to uncertain methods and cost.”
In 2017, John Graves and his younger brother and Caverns’ Vice President Rod Graves officially picked up the family’s efforts when project plans to excavate a new entrance for the tour route got underway.
The brothers acknowledged their father’s “60-year vision,” as well as paid tribute to their late mother, Rebecca Beall Jackson Graves, during a special plaque dedication.
Rod recounted one of his mother’s favorite adages ― “The most important thing you can do is create a happy family memory.”
For more than a century, said Rod, the Caverns strived to provide families with just that.
Reflecting on his father, Rod noted a word of advice that he counts as his personal mantra ― “Keep reminding them you’re here, and when they get there ― remind them again.”
Thanks to a new 164-foot tunnel into a hillside adjacent to the Caverns’ main building, the attraction aims to accommodate even bigger crowds. Before World War II, noted John Graves, Luray Caverns saw about 80,000 visitors a year before growing to nearly 500,000 in the 1970s ― an annual turnout consistently seen by the landmark until surpassing it “in recent years.”
“This Shenandoah Valley landmark is now one of the few underground wonders in the world providing tours on all-paved, well lighted walkways with step free entry making the attraction more accessible to visitors today and into the future,” Shaffer said.
Before a ribbon-cutting ceremony in front of the new entrance, President and CEO of the Virginia Tourism Corp. Rita D. McClenny took to the podium to encourage visitors to return to the Caverns on Saturday, when it will celebrate its 141st Day of Discovery with a Grand Illumination Tour before a finale of fireworks and recital by Jess RatCliffe from the Luray Singing Tower.
“This historic place is an icon, it’s a crown jewel in this Commonwealth and it’s the finest example of tourism in the state of Virginia,” McClenny said. “It is recognized not only by tourists, but also as a natural asset in this country.”