Unfamiliar Land

Derrick Cave

Lake County, OR


Deschutes National Forest is home to some amazing lava tube caves. Derrick Cave is located on the edge of the forest in Central Oregon, one of the most remote areas in the contiguous United States. Even here, far from any development, this cave has played a surprisingly unusual role in history.

Walking inside feels like entering a cathedral. It’s no surprise that Derrick Cave has been a notable spot for centuries. Early Oregon homesteaders used it as a picnic spot to escape the summer heat — they could make ice cream using ice from deep inside the cave.

During WWII, plans were drawn up to use the cave as an air raid shelter in case of bombing or invasion by Japanese forces. This idea lived on into the Cold War. In the 1950s Civil Defense volunteers designated it a nuclear fallout shelter for Central Oregon residents. A section of the cave was sealed off with concrete and an iron door, then filled with emergency rations and water for over a thousand people. If Oregon were the target of a nuclear attack, residents would take shelter in the deeper section of the cave. It was a plan that may have been flawed from the beginning, simply due to the impossible logistics of getting that number of people safely into the cave.

“There’s no practical way of sealing this cave to make it fallout-proof. If nuclear war had broken out and people had taken shelter in Derrick Cave, in a few days I think you’d have had 1,000 dead bodies in there.” — Doug Troutman, Lakeview BLM Office.

The Civil Defense supplies were eventually stolen, including the door itself that once sealed off the entrance to the cave. Today, the iron doorframe is the only thing that remains from this period of history.

Derrick Cave was also used in a series of experiments by NASA during the Apollo era. Scrap iron was hauled into the cave and lit on fire, to see if it could be detected above ground in high altitude gravimetric tests. Similar technology would be used later to survey Moon landing sites. Not too far away in the Newberry Volcanic Crater, astronauts trained to walk on the Moon by navigating lava fields while wearing bulky spacesuits.

There’s nothing in the cave today that would suggest the different ways it’s been used over the years. But it’s still a fantastic place to explore in Central Oregon.

# Posted on August 18, 2019 by Marc Charbonneau.