The fabled 17 mile lava tunnel from Bend to Redmond

A few years ago, I stopped at a random house asking about caves in the neighborhood. The fellow I spoke to was a friendly chap and had no information to offer, but he did have a question for me. He asked “I heard that the military base east of Bend on Dodds road was built on a lava tube that runs all the way to the Redmond airport. Do you know anything about that?”

The military base he was referring to is the Oregon National Guard Youth Challenge Program high school on Dodds rd. I don’t know if it is built on a lava tube, but it’s surely possible, just as it is for nearly any other building in central Oregon to unknowingly be built over a lava tube. There are plenty that are. But somehow that old rumor that Bend is connected to Redmond via a 17 mile lava tube had morphed into a secret military access route to the airport.

It’s suspected that the rumor began during the prohibition era when a few locals were known to have illegally distilled liquor in a few caves around the Bend area. Remnants of these operations were found in Skeleton Cave, Distillery Cave, and Moonshiner’s Cave. But only Skeleton Cave is of any sufficient length to be even remotely considered as the basis for this rumor, and as we know today, Skeleton Cave is not quite a mile in length.

An old distillery barrel in Moonshiner’s Cave.

News stories in the Bend Bulletin would later remark on the rumors. The first known mention “Tunnels Under Bend” (p. 4) occurred in 1940 after a fellow offered up a story of a 17 mile long tunnel used for shipping alcohol. The editor of the article, most likely Phil Brogan, rightly denounced the plausibility of such a fanciful tale citing no evidence. However, he does note that fissures underlie the landscape. Still, it’s hard to imagine an uninterrupted 17 mile long fissure running north to Redmond, when most of the faults in the area are not fissures but merely fault scarps and run generally SE/NW.

Another brief article made the front page of the Bend Bulletin, titled “Impressions of central Oregon visitors” (p. 1). A visitor asks the pervasive question about the two cities being connected by a cave the size of a subway tunnel. This myth is rebuffed too and the editor again suggests fissures, the odd cavern or two, and a subterranean stream. In 1958, another article “Cavern Explorers”¬†(p. 4)¬†briefly mentions the rumor that did not die.

The longest lava tube in Oregon is still Lava River Cave. A little over a mile long, it is the perfect example for when conditions are right, this lava tube still could not live up to the tall tales of the prohibition era. The city of Bend is underlain with the same lava rock that created the Lava River Cave and this flow nearly extends to the city of Redmond. Some caves have been found underneath, but there’s very little chance that these caves developed unbroken channels 17 miles long. Or that the roofs did not collapse and segment these caverns. If a cave of such mythical proportions did exist, it’d still be easier to ship the illegal moonshine on the surface even with the risk of being caught.