Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2018 - 29
Luray Caverns Sent
Nation's First Air
Caverns' owner T. C. Northcott was
obsessesed with the 54-degree cave air, and
was convinced of its restorative benefits.
by Eric J. Wallace
At the turn of the 20th century, the
founder of the Luray Caverns Corporation, T.C. Northcott, erected
what amounted to the nation's first
air-conditioned building, atop the
summit of Cave Hill in Luray, Virginia. Northcott was a heating and
ventilation engineer, and the project was the culmination of his 20year obsession with cave air, which
he believed could provide miraculous restorative benefits for those
suffering from respiratory illness.
"After investigating the caves of
New York, Ohio and Virginia, he
secured building and park privileges over the Luray Caverns as a site
comprising the greatest number of
healthful and attractive features,"
wrote Dr. Guy L. Hunner, a surgeon
at the John Hopkins University
Medical School, who visited Northcott's Limair Sanatorium in 1901.
In addition to its location directly above the caverns, the site looked
out on the Page Valley and was surrounded by a panorama of mountains-the Massanutten range to the
west and the Blue Ridge to the east.
Drilling through the rock into a
cavern chamber, Northcott installed
a ventilation shaft five feet in diameter and equipped it with a fan powered by a five-horsepower steam en-
Limair sat on a hill at the top of Cave Hill in Luray, Virginia.
gine, enabling him to pump cave air
into the sanatorium 24 hours a day.
Thus, convalescents could breathe
a continuous supply of curative air
while enjoying abundant sunlight
and great views.
During the summers, there
was an additional benefit: "The
air drawn from the caverns being
about 54 degrees, when forced into
the building, cools the rooms to
any degree comfort may demand,
however intense the heat prevailing outside," observed Hunner. In
winter, the air was warmed by passing through a series of coils filled
with boiling water. Humidity was
regulated by a series of condensers.
Northcott's faith in cave air derived from a belief that, like water
passing into an aquifer, it had been
cleansed by a process of natural filtration. "He claimed the air was purified as it was drawn into the caverns through the rocks and porous
soil, sanitized by the limestone, and
'finished' as it floated over underground springs and pools," says Luray Caverns resident historian and
spokesperson Bill Huffman.
In his time, Northcott's theory
was convincing enough to inspire
respected medical professionals like
Hunner to pursue scientific valida-
tion. Returning to Limair in 1902,
Hunner conducted a series of experiments.
Hunner spent four days sampling
the air in the caverns, sanatarium,
surrounding landscape and neighboring homes. While the specifics
of the experiments are somewhat
esoteric, his findings were telling.
Testing for bacteriologic cultures,
while the sanatorium yielded just
nine colonies total-and those after a "particularly large ball"-the
home of a nearby farmer showed
143, and a local physician's office
92. Hunner also tested the air in the
John Hopkins gynecologic operating room and found 65 colonies.
(The air in Washington D.C. tested
at over 450.)
In the end, despite Hunner's enthusiastic testimony-which he
published in Popular Science Monthly
in 1904-his colleagues were loath
to acknowledge his findings, claiming the moldy stagnant air from an
underground cavern could not possibly be "pure." However, before the
matter could be settled once and
for all, Limair burned down and, although it was eventually rebuilt, as
the company's focus shifted toward
tourism, the project was ultimately
January/Februrary 2018 29