While today the cave is one of many park attractions, in its commercial infancy it was the attraction. Unlike some of Missouri’s commercial caves, Marvel was discovered centuries ago. In 1541, Spanish explorers entered the cave hoping to find riches. In 1869, more explorers searched the cave (known then as Devil’s Den) for minerals. They found none but said the cave was a source of marble, inspiring a new name: Marble Cave. Word of the cave’s marvels spread in the 1880s, attracting visitors.
In 1894, Canadian William Henry Lynch and two daughters were the first to open the cave they owned to public tours. One visitor was Harold Bell Wright, who famously published the novel The Shepherd of the Hills, luring more people to the Ozarks. Lynch created a road to the cave (now Missouri 76) and the cave became a well-established tourist attraction.
Since no marble was ever found, the name was changed to Marvel Cave. In 1950, Danish immigrant Hugo Herschend, his wife, Mary, and their sons, Jack and Peter, leased the cave they’d visited on vacation from Lynch’s daughters to start a family business. The Herschends began to expand the tourist experience. After Hugo died in 1955, Mary and her sons began building a recreated 1880s mining town—an idea sparked by a visitor. Silver Dollar City opened in 1960 around the cave, attracting 125,000 people the first year. From the mouth of a cave, a theme park was born.