‘I’m hoping someone will love it as much as we did’: Co-owner of Bristol Caverns discusses decision to sell

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BRISTOL, Tenn. (WJHL) — It’s not only a natural wonder but also a popular attraction in Northeast Tennessee and now it’s for sale.

The million-year-old caverns now have a million-dollar price tag, $4.5 million to be exact, and while selling may sound strange, it’s not uncommon.

“The cave has been sold five times in the history of it,” said Bristol Caverns co-owner Gary Barnett. “The original owner, Mr. Hitt, who owned the property around here, started developing the cave in the late ’30s, early ’40s. He did hire some of the servicemen coming back from the war that couldn’t find work to help with the work inside the caverns, putting the walkways in and lights, and so forth. It originally opened up in 1944.”

The Barnett family purchased the property in the summer of 1981 from the Hatcher family, the previous owners. Mr. Barnett alongside his three sons, one of whom being Gary, ran the property for over 40 years.

Gary Barnett said it was a dream come true seeing as their family had always expressed interest in purchasing the property. Barnett and his brothers had even worked as tour guides prior to the purchase and were able to develop a deep understanding of the history associated with the cave as well as develop a strong connection to the property.

However, as the years went on, Barnett’s father and brother passed away leading them to come to the decision back in March that they would soon put the property on the market.

It’s a large property with potential both above and below ground for development. Above ground, Barnett said they own almost 17 acres and below it’s a vast 78 acres. While the cave itself does not require much maintenance, the potential to expand tours in the cave is very possible.

“Right now we’re showing about a third of it so there is more of the cave to be developed and one of the goals that we really want to do which we never really got done, was open up the back section where there is a large column back there which is one of the largest columns in any cave throughout the country, especially East of the Mississippi,” said Barnett.

The column located in the far end of the cave, which is not yet accessible to the public, measures 74 feet around the base, 52 feet in height, and is about 10 feet thick. He said it’s a timeless treasure that he hopes will be eventually added to tours, pending a new owner and the ability to develop.

It’s a priceless piece of history that Barnett said many may take for granted in the region.

“There is over 60,000 known caves in the U.S. today. Tennessee is the leading state with over 10,000 caverns in the state of Tennessee and out of that, there are probably only about eight that are commercial businesses like this,” he said.

While it’s currently on the market, that doesn’t mean tours are stopping anytime soon. The Bristol Caverns are only closed four days out of the year and operates from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. on Sunday. Tours leave the front office every 20 minutes and last about an hour.

The best part of this year-round attraction is the fact that it stays at the same temperature. The core 60-degree temperature makes for a refreshing trip in the summer months and a cozy trip in the winter.

Barnett and his family’s main desire for a new buyer is that they love it as much as they do, and for future generations to continue to view this Tri-Cities treasure.

“It’s been a good business over the years. We have enjoyed it and enjoyed being able to work here and you meet a lot of interesting people and we’ve just really enjoyed it over the years. I’m hoping that someone will love it as much as we did and they’ll want to preserve it and want to protect it and just take care of it,” said Barnett.

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