Inside The Great Stalacpipe Organ: The World’s Largest Musical Instrument

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This story first appeared in Trust Me, I’m a Scientist, on April 15, 2015.

The Great Stalacpipe Organ

The Great Stalacpipe Organ

In 1954, on his 5th birthday, Robert Sprinkle was given a choice by his father, Leland Sprinkle: have a traditional birthday party, or take a tour of one of Virginia’s most famous caves, Luray Caverns. Robert chose the cave tour, and soon the Sprinkle family descended below the surface of the small town of Luray to view its main attraction.

When they arrived at a part of the cave dubbed “The Throne”, their guides indulged in a regular custom: “Playing” the cave’s stalactites like the keys of a marimba. “The guides had a habit of taking out a little rubber rod and tapping out ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’,” Robert now recalls. “They had noticed that these different stalactites, when hit, made a sound, and they had identified several notes.”

After the tour, Leland Sprinkle asked to speak with the cave’s owner, Ted Graves. They had coffee in the cafeteria, and Sprinkle explained that he was an engineer and an organist, and that he could make a musical instrument out of the stalactites of Luray Caverns. He could turn the cave itself into a giant instrument, the only one of its kind.

“[Mr. Graves] should have said ‘Are you kidding?’,” says Robert. “But he didn’t. He said ‘Sure, why not?’” Sprinkle spent the next three years constructing his organ. He combed Luray Caverns for stalactites of different pitches and wired up hammers to strike them when an organ key was pressed, all while finding ways to keep a complex electrical system from going to hell in a forever-damp 54 degree cave.

The “Great Stalacpipe Organ”—as Washington Post music editor Paul Hume dubbed it—debuted in 1957, but Leland Sprinkle would spend the rest of his life continuing to work on it in one form or another. Underneath the town of Luray, he had built his legacy, after navigating so many twists, turns and false starts in the years prior.

Leland Sprinkle’s Shortcut Detail

“My dad came of age during the Depression, and he had a number of opportunities that evaporated,” Robert Sprinkle tells me over the phone. He is now a physician and an associate professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. “He ended up making his way in the world in a fashion that wasn’t entirely what he had in mind.”

Leland Sprinkle was set to begin a PhD program in physics at Harvard when his father was struck with a case of appendicitis. The appendix burst and Sprinkle’s father died, leaving Leland to care for his mother. His Harvard plans curtailed, Sprinkle worked for various arms of the World War II-era U.S. government. He worked in the Treasury Department, the Federal Housing Administration, and later, the Pentagon. He worked on the Norden bombsight and the UNIVAC computer. He taught pre-flight calculus in the Navy. Along the way, he studied organ at the Peabody Conservatory, and earned patents for several inventions.

“Wherever he ended up, he made contributions that typically reduced the number of equations needed to solve a multivariable problem,” Robert Sprinkle says. “He did it again and again and he kept referring to himself as having been assigned to the ‘shortcut detail’.” According to Robert, his father never quite got the credit he deserved for much of his work, but “this was sort of his story, and he was surprisingly not bitter about it.”

Employees of Luray Caverns remember Leland Sprinkle as a unique man. A genius in matters of math, science, and music, he was also a willing teacher, and someone who could seemingly talk comfortably with anyone.

“He was always very kind to me,” says John Shaffer, Luray Caverns’ marketing director, who has been there for forty years. “He was always taking time to show a little kid like me why something worked. It didn’t take him ten seconds to go over my head, but he was always trying to include even the younger people helping him.”

Luray Caverns

Luray Caverns, the cave you can play.

Larry Moyer was a teenager when he started work at Luray Caverns as a tour guide, over three decades ago. Moyer made a model of the organ’s automatic player system for a school project, and when Leland Sprinkle heard about it, he asked to meet the young man, and offered to let him tag along for some of the work in the cave. Today, Moyer is the manager of maintenance operations for Luray—and the chief organ engineer.

“He was a very interesting man, a very good man,” Moyer tells me. “He loved to learn and he loved to see other people learn.”

Moyer, like many people who aided Leland Sprinkle in the creation and maintenance of the organ, had an interest in electronics, but no formal training as an engineer. Not that it mattered. There was no engineering blueprint for The Great Stalacpipe Organ at all; it had to be configured from the (under) ground up. “You can’t just go down to the store and buy a part for a Stalacpipe Organ,” Moyer says.

In The Cave

One day in February 2011, Paul Malmström donned his white dinner jacket, set up a stereo mic on a boom stand in the main “Cathedral” of Luray Caverns, and placed a Nagra tape recorder on a chair in an attempt to capture history.

Malmström is one half of the group Pepe Deluxé. He and partner James Spectrum call themselves an ‘inter-continental collective orchestra’. They had composed, and then spent years trying to get the opportunity to perform, the first piece of original music written specifically for The Great Stalacpipe Organ, titled “In The Cave”.

“Recording an unusual instrument is often a challenge because you need to find out both what and where it sounds good,” Spectrum tells me in an email exchange. “I tracked down most of the existing Stalacpipe recordings and those really helped us to realize that we should avoid repeating notes, especially in the lower register. We also decided that the tempo of the composition should be quite slow as there is plenty of reverb in the caverns – reverb that tends to blur faster notes.”

The organ’s stalactites cover over 3.5 acres of the cave, and each one is wired individually. Playing a note on the organ console sends a signal through a wire to a “solenoid”, a type of electromagnet set to trigger a coiled rubber hammer, which then strikes the stalactite. Pickups are employed to help amplify the stalactite sounds, and with sometimes acres of wire to travel through to get to a stalactite (and then an amplification system to travel back through to get to the performer) some lag or latency in the signal is apparent. “Speed metal heads beware,” Malmström says. “This instrument isn’t something you’ll do lightening fast 16th note runs on for sure. The keys have to be pressed with tender determination.”

The organ’s main console was built by Virginia’s Klann Organ Supply. (They still assist with refurbishing.) Much of the rest of the design and construction is focused around a never-ending battle with the cold and moist conditions of the cave. The organ sits on a heated platform, and additional heaters have been rigged up inside the console. The control room holding the main power source is covered in heat lamps.

The solenoid and hammer combo that "plays" the stalactites.

The solenoid and hammer combo that “plays” the stalactites.

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  • MisterWade

    Thanks for this article! I’ve been down in Luray Caverns 4 or 5 times in my life. The first time, I was 12 (I’m 63 now). The experience of standing in that chamber and hearing that delicate sound coming from all directions is absolutely beautiful. You can’t tell by the stereo recording, but it is the essence of surround sound. Some of the hammers are maybe 25 feet away and the reverb is incredible. There’s also no background noise. If you’re ever in western Virginia, it’s worth the trip for a unique experience. Not to mention, the rest of the cavern is pretty incredible, too.