Orion Knox Jr., who helped develop Natural Bridge Caverns, died quietly in Austin on Dec. 31 at the age of 81 after a battle with Parkinson’s disease.
Knox was one of four St. Mary’s University students who first explored the caves just north of San Antonio in 1960, after getting permission from the Wuest Heidemann family, who owned the ranchland above. Knox is credited with finding the first major room in the caverns, dubbed Pluto’s Anteroom.
Just 19 at the time, Knox was the smallest of the spelunkers, so the group often tapped him to go through the most narrow of passages during early exploration.
On March 27, 1960, the four cavers were on their fourth trip into the cave when Knox felt a cool draft of air, indicating additional unexplored passages. After clearing away debris, the group uncovered a 60-foot long, 22-inch wide crawlspace, which they named the Discovery Crawlway, leading into another 2 miles of uncharted caves.
Knox dropped out of St. Mary’s University to help the Wuest Heidemann family develop the caverns into the local Central Texas tourism hot spot it is today, and he remained an avid caver and surveyor well into his 70s.
A special commemoration ceremony will be held in the near future at Natural Bridge Caverns to honor Knox’s legacy, the company stated in a press release Tuesday. Knox remained a lifelong friend of the Wuest family, who still own and manage the caverns today. Explorations into uncharted areas of the caverns are still ongoing; over the past four years, the Wuest brothers and their team of specialized cavers have expanded the known parts of the cave by more than a mile.
“He was so interested in everything Natural Bridge Caverns,” said Brad Wuest, the third-generation owner, president and CEO of Natural Bridge Caverns. “Orion stayed so connected and involved, even up to the week before his passing.”
The two men would often talk for hours following any exploratory trips into the caverns, Wuest said, with Knox wanting to know every detail.
Knox last visited the caverns on Dec. 21 to enjoy the attraction’s annual Caroling in the Caverns Tour, a special holiday-themed tour that pauses in the larger “rooms” to enjoy Christmas caroling by local choirs. Despite his advanced Parkinson’s, he was able to walk the entire half-mile tour, Wuest said.
Knox’s last exploratory journey into uncharted areas of the caverns was in 2019, Wuest said. That was the same year Knox suggested Lee White, a world-famous free climber, make a 70-foot-high free climb to the top of the cavern’s Dome Pit to check out the virgin passageway the family knew to be there.
Knox is survived by his wife Jan, whom he met through the local caving club at the University of Texas in Austin in 1966, where he enrolled after working for the Wuest Heidemann family. Following his graduation from UT with a bachelor’s degree in architecture, the two married in 1968, and went on to become an avid cave surveying team, exploring and mapping cave systems around the world.
Apart from Natural Bridge Caverns, the pair are known for their survey work in Harrison’s Cave in Barbados, Kartchner Caverns in Arizona and Grutas de Bustamante in Mexico.
“He was very quiet but friendly; he didn’t really try to ever be in the spotlight,” Jan Knox said of her late husband. “He was an excellent surveyor and sketcher. We surveyed a lot of caves together.”
Knox worked for Texas Parks and Wildlife as a park planner, and later became the head of the Historic Sites branch of the department.
But he will most likely be remembered for his legacy at Natural Bridge Caverns, Jan Knox said. She noted Knox also worked on the first restoration of the Battleship Texas, which he often compared to caving since it was “another way of getting down in the mud.”
Even as his short-term memory began to fail, his long-term memory was sharp as a tack, Jan Knox said, especially when it came to Natural Bridge Caverns.
“He could remember fine details about natural bridge passages — even though he’d only seen some of them once or twice,” she said. “He would say, ‘Y’all need to go down there that way to go to the next hallway,’ and he could remember exact details about where everything was located.”
Jan Knox said she and Orion formed a lifelong connection with the Wuest family, and tried to visit Natural Bridge Caverns every couple of months. The couple never had children, and were especially fond of the Wuest family as it continued to grow and expand, she said.
“The [Wuest] family really adopted us,” she said. “I’m so thankful we were able to make it down to the caverns just a couple of weeks ago.”
No funeral arrangements are planned at this time, but memorial donations can be made to Texas Cave Management Association, which helps preserve caves in Texas, or the Texas Nature Conservancy, Natural Bridge Caverns stated in its release.