The Secret Cave in Central Park—And Why It Was Sealed

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux and completed in the 1860s, Central Park was constructed to feel like a natural landscape. The area features waterfalls, tree, ponds, and rocks arranged to look like they had always been there.

One of the most woodland-like areas is the Ramble, more than 30 acres of trees, paths, and gardens, designed to take visitors completely out of the hustle and bustle of the city and into a nature wonderland. Olmsted deemed the Ramble “a wild garden,” though it was a carefully made one—nearly all of the area, minus the bedrock foundation, was fabricated by the famous landscape architect.

When they were excavating the area, however, workmen discovered at least one naturally occurring element that Olmsted and Vaux decided to work into their plans: a narrow little cave, apparently carved out in part by humans. Some speculated that Native Americans had once used the cranny for shelter, though no evidence was found to back the theory.

To help it blend into the landscape they had meticulously planned, large rocks were arranged around the cave to make it look as if they had naturally settled there. They also arranged flat stones into a staircase leading down into the hidden room. The man-made lake was altered to allow adventurous boaters to row right into the cave.

As you might imagine, the Tom Sawyer-esque hideout was a big hit with children. It was also a hit with adults—particularly couples who liked to steal away for some private time in the secluded cave.

But the cave also seemed to attract more nefarious activity. In 1904, a man attempted suicide (not the first to take place in the Ramble) on the stone steps—though some believed it was actually attempted murder. Whatever happened, it wasn’t the only negative press for the cave.

In 1922, artist Alexander MacArthur was sentenced to three months in a workhouse for “behaving improperly” inside the cave, and in 1929, about 335 men were arrested in Central Park for “annoying women”—and the Ramble Cave was one of the preferred spots to do so.

Wikimedia Commons // CC0

Apparently fed up with the complaints, park authorities had the cave sealed off sometime in the 1920s. Though it can no longer be entered, intrepid explorers can still discover the old stone steps that lead down to the cave—they're located on the east side of the Ramble Stone Arch (pictured above).

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