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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Gardner Cave was lost in a poker game? Don’t bet on it

Tour guide Erica Thorson, right, gives a short talk before her guests step onto a series of stairways and platforms inside Gardner Cave, which is in Crawford State Park, several miles outside of Metaline, Washington.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

It was 1899, or thereabout, when Ed Gardner was minding his own business (booze) in the dense forests along the Canadian border when his horse slipped into a hole.

And that’s how Gardner Cave was discovered. Or so the story goes.

Gardner Cave is the centerpiece of Crawford State Park, Eastern Washington’s oldest state park.

Crawford turned 100 this year, but you probably wouldn’t have known unless you happened to take a tour of the cave over the summer from Erica Thorson, the seasonal park worker who has led most of the tours of the cave since 2016.

When Thorson tells the story about Gardner’s fall into the cave and how he later lost the cave in a poker game, she’s pretty clear that these stories aren’t exactly verified. In fact, there’s no record that Gardner ever owned the cave.

Even if you hear it from Gardner himself, the story is much different.

“I don’t remember just the year that I found the cave,” said Gardner in an article that appeared in The Spokesman-Review in 1922. “It was about 1900. At that time I put in part of my time in Seattle or San Francisco and a part of the year in these parts, hunting and prospecting. On one of these hunting trips I found the cave. It was a cold morning and my attention was drawn by a shaft of vapor rising out of the earth.”

William Crawford, former owner of the Metaline Falls Mercantile Co., was the first person to have a deed for the property, according to research from the Pend Oreille County Historical Society.

And he turned it over to the state. A 1922 article in The Spokesman-Review makes the transaction out to be much more mundane than a rowdy round of poker.

“I wrote to Mr. Crawford that the Eastern Washington Historical society would undertake to have the state accept the cavesite as a state park if the local people would donate the land,” said Harl Cook, who in the early 1920s promoted a concept to make the cave part of an international park at the border, “He accepted for the community and paid about $600 from his own purse to acquire title for the state.”

Gardner also is mentioned in a 1903 Spokesman-Review article.

“A man named Ed Gardner, who works for a hydraulic company, alleges that he discovered the mouth of the cave four years ago, but thought nothing of it until an outlaw named ‘Johnny on the Road’ happened to go in there,” the article said.

“Johnny on the Road” isn’t mentioned in the article again, so it’s unclear what made him an outlaw.

A 1919 article in the Spokane Daily Chronicle gave credit to a different pioneer for finding the cave. But the newspaper didn’t seem to even know his first name.

“The discoverer of the cave was a Swede by the name of Johnson,” stated G.H. Moyer, formerly of Spokane and a buyer for the Crescent store, who was described in the report as the “first successful explorer of the cave.”

“Johnson made frequent trips to the cave: in fact he spent a great deal of his time at the place. One day he came down to Ione, bought a quantity of supplies and started back to the cave,” the Chronicle article said. “That was the last ever seen of him. He never reappeared, no sign was ever found of him and it was believed he had been lost in the cave.”

Moyer led a party to search the cave for Johnson’s remains but came up empty.

Before Gardner came forward to tell his story discovering the cave. A man name Ed Gould claimed to have found the cave, according to an article in the Newport Minor on Aug. 1, 1903. But Gardner claimed that he was the one to show Gould the cave, according to a report in The Spokesman-Review later that month.

An article about the cave by Gary K. Soule notes that among graffiti that has been found over the years in the cave were “illegible inscriptions” with dates “as far back as 1883 and 1888.”

“Some of the calcite cave formation in the cave were found to have candle smoked initials on them from early explorers,” according to the article, which was published in 2015.

Gardner returned to the Metaline area full-time in the 1920s, according to research from the Pend Oreille County Historical Society. He was a mechanic but known mostly as a bootlegger. He died by suicide in 1937 at the age of 69. Crawford died in 1925.

The idea that Gardner discovered the cave when his horse fell into it was mentioned in a 1978 article in the Newport Miner.

“When Ed Gardner’s horse fell through a limestone sink hole as he was riding over a quarter section of his homestead north of Metaline Falls in 1903, it shook him up a bit,” the Miner reported.

And you can choose to believe it if you wish.

Tucked away in the extreme northeast corner of Washington is Crawford State Park, home of one of the longest limestone cavern formations in the state.