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The largest musical instrument in the world is underground in a Virginia cave

The Great Stalacpipe Organ spans 3.5 acres of the cave and is considered the world's largest musical instrument. The name is a combination of the words <em>stalactite</em> and <em>pipe organ</em> but in actuality, it is a percussion instrument.
Alan Goffinski
The Great Stalacpipe Organ spans 3.5 acres of the cave and is considered the world's largest musical instrument. The name is a combination of the words stalactite and pipe organ but in actuality, it is a percussion instrument.

In the rolling mountains of Northern Virginia, Luray Caverns are celebrating the 50th anniversary of their designation as a National Natural Landmark. They are the most extensive cave system in the eastern U.S., but for many of the million annual visitors, Luray Caverns are better known for their sounds. Luray Caverns are home to the largest musical instrument in the world.

Tunnels wind throughout, leading visitors into a chamber known as The Cathedral. This is the heart of The Great Stalacpipe Organ.
/ Alan Goffinski
/
Alan Goffinski
Tunnels wind throughout, leading visitors into a chamber known as The Cathedral. This is the heart of The Great Stalacpipe Organ.

A trek into the depths of Luray Caverns reveals a stunning spectacle; stalactite and stalagmites, golden rock formations, and crystalline limestone chambers carved out by water over millions of years. Pools of glassy, smooth water reflect the stalactites above. It creates the illusion of an underwater stone city. Tunnels wind throughout, leading visitors into a chamber known as The Cathedral. This is the heart of The Great Stalacpipe Organ.

The organ was designed in 1956 by Leland Sprinkle.
/ Alan Goffinski
/
Alan Goffinski
The organ was designed in 1956 by Leland Sprinkle.

It was designed in 1956 by Leland Sprinkle,

"Leland Sprinkle came through the caverns with his son on his fifth birthday. They would take a little rubber mallet and play a little song on the stalactites. And he got the idea of building an organ," said Larry Moyer, who started working at the Caverns for 42 years as a teenager and is now the lead engineer of the organ.

Larry Moyer, center, who started working at the Caverns for 42 years as a teenager and is now the lead engineer of the organ.Two apprentices, Stephanie Beahm, right, and Ben Caton are both learning what they can from Moyer so that future generations may experience the enchanting sounds of the Great Stalacpipe Organ.
/ Alan Goffinski
/
Alan Goffinski
Larry Moyer, center, who started working at the Caverns for 42 years as a teenager and is now the lead engineer of the organ.Two apprentices, Stephanie Beahm, right, and Ben Caton are both learning what they can from Moyer so that future generations may experience the enchanting sounds of the Great Stalacpipe Organ.

The Great Stalacpipe Organ spans 3.5 acres of the cave and is considered the world's largest musical instrument. The name is a combination of the words stalactite and pipe organ but in actuality, it is a percussion instrument.

Each key on the organ, when pressed, triggers a small electric hammer. Throughout the cave, these hammers gently strike stalactites of various sizes, causing them to vibrate and give off a musical note. The soft tap of the mallets on stone create bewitching, almost otherworldly melodies that linger, reverberating in the still, damp air.

Visitors make their way through Luray Caverns.
/ Alan Goffinski
/
Alan Goffinski
Visitors make their way through Luray Caverns.

"There's miles and miles of cabling down here for it. The electronics, we build ourselves. There's no, uh, great stalactite pipe organ store, so we can't go buy parts for it," Mayer said.

A musical instrument of this size and complexity requires regular upkeep. It is Moyer's responsibility to ensure all the electronics and miles of cables remain operational in the damp environment.

Pools of glassy, smooth water reflect the stalactites above. It creates the illusion of an underwater stone city.
/ Alan Goffinski
/
Alan Goffinski
Pools of glassy, smooth water reflect the stalactites above. It creates the illusion of an underwater stone city.

Over the decades, Moyer has labored countless long nights tending to the Great Stalacpipe Organ for the enjoyment of visitors. While he cherishes the opportunity, he acknowledges he will someday have to pass on the responsibilities. Two younger apprentices, Stephanie Beahm and Ben Caton are both learning what they can from Moyer so that future generations may experience the enchanting sounds of the Great Stalacpipe Organ.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Goffinski
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