The Great Stalacpipe Organ sits deep underground

Great Stalacpipe Organ in Luray CavernsDeep in the heart of Virginia’s Shenandoah Mountains sits Luray Caverns. The cave is fairly impressive as caves go. But more remarkably, it is home to the Great Stalacpipe Organ. The organ is a lithophone: basically, an instrument that produces sound by hitting a rock. In this case, solenoid-activated rubber mallets strike stalactites of varying sizes, each chosen to correspond to tones of the musical scale. An organ console with a keyboard (pictured at left) activates the mallets. Leland Sprinkle designed and implemented the organ in 1956 over three years.

One of the earliest references to performances of lithophone music in Luray Caverns comes from the tour led by the cave’s co-discoverer Andrew Campbell for a group sent by the Smithsonian Institution in 1880. According to a summary of the report incorporated into the earliest printed guides to the caverns, Campbell surprised the group by playing a tune on a stalactite formation. By the early 20th century, guided tours regularly featured performances of folk tunes, hymns, and other well-known pieces. The modern guided tour states that Sprinkle conceived the idea for the Great Stalacpipe Organ during one of these performances when he toured Luray Caverns on his son’s birthday in 1954.

Sprinkle created the organ over three years by finding and shaving appropriate stalactites to produce specific notes. He then wired a mallet for each stalactite.

Lithophones are among the oldest musical instruments, perhaps due to their durability. Ancient xylophone-like instruments with stones have been found in Africa and Vietnam. One set from the Sahara dates between 2500 and 8000 BC. Some archaeologists conjecture that Stonehenge was designed as an instrument because the stones ring when struck rather than make a dull thud.

For more about lithophones, see my post on The World’s First Rock Band.

Hear the Stalacpipe in Action

This YouTube video includes an introduction with recording, followed by an excerpt from the guided tour.

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