Sea Lion Caves celebrates 90th year

Sea Lion Caves is a privately owned wildlife preserve and bird sanctuary that opened in 1932. The Steller sea lions use America's largest sea cave year-round, though they are not always in the cave. Winter months will usually find hundreds of sea lions in the cave. (Photos by Zac Burtt/Siuslaw News and from the Sea Lion Caves archives)

History of caves extends to past

Feb. 25, 2022 — Sea Lion Caves, arguably the most well-known tourist stop in the Florence area, is celebrating its 90th year of operation this year.

Few spots in the world can compare to spectacle that is the Sea Lion Caves. It is the longest sea cave in the United States, measuring 1,315 feet in length, and the tenth longest in the world.

Equally amazing as its size, the caves are the year-round home to the Steller sea lion. Hundreds of these large and loud pinnipeds can often be found in the caves. As the caves are not a zoo, sea lions come and go as they please. Sea lions are not always in the cave and are often found on the rookery areas (rock ledges outside the cave) where the animals warm themselves in the sun.

The caves opened as a public attraction in August 1932, but their history with humans starts long before that.

Most tellings of the discovery of Sea Lion Caves speak of retired sea captain named William Cox stumbling on the caves while on a “row about” in a small dinghy in 1880. The story states he happened upon its large western entrance one day and returned to explore the caves many times until, on one trip, waves from a storm pushed his dinghy into the rocky shoreline. This forced Cox to find shelter in the cave for days until the weather improved. While marooned, he was forced to shoot a young sea lion for food.

A fine story and probably mostly true … except the part where it is said that Cox discovered the caves. Native peoples knew of the caves, most likely for millennia, before Cox arrived.

Though it is unknown if they had a name for the actual cave, the Siuslaw people’s place name for the area from Heceta Lighthouse to the caves was Hltuuwiis. Just south of the caves is Cape Mountain, known as Huwiina or Huwiiniich by the Siuslaw.

According to the book “Alsea Texts and Myths,” originally published in 1920, the caves and the area around them are mentioned in the Alsea people’s world-transformation story.

As the story goes, S’uku, the world transformer, arrived via the Umpqua River and headed north. Along the way, he created the ritual that mixed kinnikinnick leaves with tobacco, put sturgeon in the Umpqua and filled all the rivers and creeks with salmon.

Then he reached Cape Mountain, just south of what today is called Sea Lion Caves. He hears what to him sound like loud “monsters” in the huge cave. His solution is to turn the beasts into something his people can use:

“Then he began to think in his mind, ‘I wonder what I shall do with them? Yes, I will fix them so that my children will (be able to) eat those black ones; their name will be sea lions, and the name of those big ones will be whales.’”

It is believed that Native people hunted sea lions in the cave.

J.P. Harrington, an American linguist who studied the languages of indigenous peoples on the west coast of the United States around the turn of last century, notes a story he heard from Alsea people about hunting at the location.

“The sea lions were sleeping there thick … the sea lions were divided into two herds and as the sea lions became alarmed, some taking to the ocean and some toward inland,” he wrote.

He continued the story of a group working together to kill an old, large sea lion and how they packed what they could use to bring back to Waldport.

Although Harrington gave no specific mention of Native peoples using the cave before 1880, the people that had been in the area for generations knew the caves well. It is safe to assume they knew of them well before Cox.

Cox bought the caves and the area surrounding them from the state of Oregon in 1887. For decades after he first wandered into the caves, the only access was via the ocean.

In 1927, a local entrepreneur named R.E. Clanton purchased the land from Cox. He might have been the first to consider the money making potential of the caves. His intent from the beginning was to develop the caves and the area around them as a tourist attraction.

By 1930, it became quite clear that Highway 101 would soon transverse the entire Oregon Coast. Access to the caves would be improved drastically.

Two more local investors saw this potential. J.E. Jacobson and J.G. Houghton joined Clanton and the three began the work creating the Sea Lion Caves that we know today.

A few years later, Clanton was bought out by another local investor, R.A. Saubert, setting up a partnership that would last until 2006 when the Houghtons sold their interests to the other two families. To this day, the Saubert and Jacobson families still own Sea Lion Caves.

The first non-ocean access to the caves was carved, by hand, from the basalt cliff side. A 1,500-foot pathway led to a wood, enclosed 135-step staircase that extended into the north entrance of the cave.

Business was slow at first, but as Highway 101 improved, so did the number of visitors to the cave.

The next great advance in cave access began in 1958. For three straight springs, explosives were used to blast out a tunnel for an elevator down into the caves. Work could only happen in the spring, as this is when most of the sea lions spend their time outside of the cave, enjoying breeding season.

In 1961, the elevator, which descends 208 feet into the cave, debuted. This new, easier access to the caves increased business dramatically. The elevator has been upgraded a few times since its initial installation, most recently in 2016.

Today, Sea Lion Caves, like many businesses across the country, is simply trying to make the best of the bad situation that is the pandemic. Luckily, they were only forced to close for a few months in 2020. Since then, by limiting the number of people in the caves at one time, the staff at the caves has been able to keep the visitors coming, hopefully for at least another 90 years to come.

Expect special events all year round to commemorate Sea Lion Caves’ 90th Birthday. Learn more online at www.sealioncaves.com.

Sea Lion Caves is a privately owned wildlife preserve and bird sanctuary that opened in 1932. The Steller sea lions use America's largest sea cave year-round, though they are not always in the cave. Winter months will usually find hundreds of sea lions in the cave. (Photos by Zac Burtt/Siuslaw News and from the Sea Lion Caves archives)

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