“Anybody ever die down there?”

As a college-age tour guide at Howe Caverns during the Seventies, Cobleskill author Dana Cudmore was asked this question often enough. Unknown to most, the answer is “yes.” His new book The Cave Electrician’s Widow: The Tragedy at Howe Caverns & Dramatic Courtroom Fight for Justice chronicles that story and the courtroom battle that sought to redress the deaths.  Part David vs. Goliath; part mystery, part courtroom drama, part travelogue through the fascinating underground realm of the caverns, the book reveals a little-known episode from the famous tourist destination’s past.

To celebrate publication, Cudmore will give a lecture and sign books on Saturday, May 11 at 1:00 p.m. at The Old Stone Fort Museum, 145 Fort Rd, Schoharie (518) 295-7192.

Famous since the mid-1800s, Howe’s Cave had been modernized for visitors in 1927-29 with an elevator entrance, clean paths, and electric lights. It soon became one of upstate New York’s most popular tourist destinations.  Less than a year later, two of the new corporation’s employees died in the cave under baffling circumstances in the early morning hours of April 24, 1930. They collapsed near the postcard-worthy formation, The Bell of Moscow.

At 5 a.m. that same morning, 7½ tons of dynamite knocked 60,000 tons of limestone from the hillside at the old cement quarry, just southeast of the cave. Had fumes from the blast found their way through the maze of caverns’ passages and killed the men more than a mile away? Or had it loosened dangerous gases lurking in the cave for eons?

This is the untold story of that tragedy: the rescue attempts, the investigation, and finally, the legal recourse sought by the widows of the two men. Much of the story is told in vivid, first-hand accounts taken from court records of one of the cases. Carried back to the more innocent, earnest time of the 1930s, readers accompany Cudmore through the grand eight-columned entrance of the Schenectady County Court House. There, they sit on edge as, one by one, the witnesses—rescuers, cave experts, quarrymen, explosives engineers, doctors, and chemists—step forward. Under the dueling questions asked by the widow’s attorney and his adversary, their testimony shines an ever-shifting light through the lingering haze of mystery surrounding the deaths. What happened underground? Who was responsible? What will the jury decide?

Says Cudmore, “I was fortunate to be among the thousands of young men and woman to find a steady summer job as a tour guide at Howe Caverns, supporting in a minimum-wage way, my college education. I gave hundreds of guided tours, pointing out strange-looking rock formations and describing how, in 1842, a local farmer first explored why his cows huddled near the cave’s hidden entrance on hot days.”

That started the author’s lifelong fascination in the cave and its history. Having been a reporter, editor, and author of two other books about Howe Caverns, Cudmore was surprised as anyone to learn two men had died in the cave in 1930, but details were very limited, and the conclusions reached by investigators were vague, incomplete and inconclusive. Steps were taken that it would never happen again.

“While writing my previous book Underground Empires,” Cudmore explains, “a few tidbits of information on the 1930 tragedy revealed themselves. Needless to say, I continued to dig, and this new book is the result.”