Located near Custer, South Dakota, Jewel Cave is recognized as the second longest recorded cave system in the nation – 181 miles – behind only the appropriately named Mammoth Cave, at 405 miles, in Kentucky. Jewel Cave is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful caves in the Black Hills.
As with many caves, this one was discovered quite by accident. Frank Michaud and his brother Albert were returning to the family’s homestead west of Custer after prospecting in Montana and Alaska. In route, their horses were spooked by a strange sound and cold air exiting a small hole on a hillside. The men returned to the site later with some tools and dynamite to enlarge the opening. What they discovered were narrow passages and rooms coated with beautiful calcite crystals sparkling like “jewels” in the light of their lanterns.
The Michauds and friend Charles Bush filed the “Jewel Tunnel Lode” claim in Custer on October 31, 1900. With no commercial value for calcite crystal, the brothers hoped to develop the natural wonder into a tourist attraction. During the following decade they constructed a trail within the cave, built a lodge up on the rim of Hell Canyon, and even organized a “Jewel Cave Dancing Club” in 1902 in hopes of attracting tourists to visit their cave. However, no graded roads to the cave and the scarcity of automobiles made the tourist venture anything but a financial success at that time.
Frank Michaud bought out Charles Bush’s share of the cave in 1905. For a while, Frank continued to work at the cave, exploring and keeping up the annual assessment work.
Eventually the notoriety of Jewel Cave did spread. By 1907, word of Jewel Cave reached beyond the Black Hills to Washington, DC, where it caught the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt. On February 7, 1908, he declared Jewel Cave a National Monument. The Michaud brothers moved away and their family sold the claim to the government for about $500.