Luella Agnes Owen (1852 – 1932)
Luella Owen was the first woman of her time to explore and then write knowledgably about the caves of Missouri. She was a self-taught speleologist (spee-lee-OL-eh-jist), or person who studies caves. She bravely entered and explored hundreds of caves in the Midwest at a time when people used candles for light and women wore long skirts. She studied the caves of Missouri, South Dakota, and Colorado and wrote important papers and books about her discoveries. Luella was also a well-known geologist, or person who studies rocks and soil. She became famous for writing about the unique loess (LOW-is) soil of northwest Missouri.
Childhood in St. Joseph
Luella Agnes Owen was born in St. Joseph, Missouri, on September 8, 1852. She was one of five children born to James A. and Agnes Cargill Owen. Luella’s father was a successful lawyer and her mother came from a wealthy, slave-owning family. Both parents wanted their children to be well educated. The children had a large library at home and were taught by their mother for most of their youth.
Luella was a curious and adventurous child. She loved to roam the outdoors, dig in the dirt, and explore the caves along the bluffs of the Missouri River around St. Joseph. Luella’s parents, however, constantly worried about Luella. They didn’t like her going off alone or climbing into dangerous caves. Her father forbade her from going into caves alone. But Luella always found a way to investigate her world, especially the underground world. She often talked her siblings and friends into going with her into nearby caves so her parents wouldn’t become angry.
When the Civil War began and Union troops occupied St. Joseph, Luella had to be extra careful and secretive. Luella’s parents had sided with the southern states and they felt strongly that their children, especially Luella, should stay close to home. They didn’t want their children harmed by Union soldiers or angry citizens who thought the Owen family was on the wrong side of the war. During this dangerous period, Luella studied at and stayed close to home.
Freedom to Study and Explore Caves
Once the war ended, Luella attended the new St. Joseph High School and graduated with honors. Afterwards, Luella did not attend college but studied on her own. She learned about rocks, minerals, and soils. She read about geography and studied detailed maps of Missouri and nearby states.
After her father died in 1890, Luella felt free to go on field trips with spelunkers, or men who explored caves and caverns as a hobby. She would wear a long, split skirt that skimmed the tops of her boots. She carried a candle and held burning magnesium ribbons to light her way. She climbed down rope ladders to reach deep levels. She glided through cavern waters in light boats without oars, directing the boat through narrow passages or sharp turns by pushing her hands against cave walls. She crawled through tight or low-arched passages and jumped off ledges and over deep cracks.
An Expert Caver and Geologist
Sometimes cave guides would not take Luella into caves because she was a woman and they thought it was too dangerous for her. But most of the time, Luella entered and explored the caves that she wanted to know more about. In fact, between 1890 and 1900, Luella Owen explored hundreds of Missouri’s estimated 3,500 caves. She also explored caves in South Dakota and other midwestern states. Before long, Luella was an expert on caves. Her book, Cave Regions of the Ozarks and Black Hills, was published in 1898. It was the first and only book about Missouri caves for nearly fifty years. Luella also spoke out against stripping caves of their natural adornments. She convinced lawmakers that caves are important and beautiful geologic features worthy of protection. “The gift of beauty,” she wrote, “should always be honored and protected for the public good.”
Luella Owen was also famous for her work as a geologist. Always fascinated by the loose, yellowish soil she saw along the Missouri River bluffs, Luella discovered that this loess soil was special. It is very fertile and appears in only a few other areas in the world. Luella wrote many scientific papers about loess soil. She traveled around the United States and the world sharing her geologic information and insights.
Luella Owen was a scientist and explorer. Her published works gave others essential information about Missouri caves and loess soil. Luella continued to teach, lecture, and write until her death on May 31, 1932. She is buried in St. Joseph, Missouri.
Research and Text by Carlynn Trout
Borwick, Jim and Brett Dufur, eds. Forgotten Missourians Who Made History. Columbia, MO: Pebble Publishing, 1996.
Dains, Mary K. and Sue Sadler, eds. Show Me Missouri Women: Selected Biographies, 2 vols. Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1989, 1993) Vol. 2: 220–221.
Wilson, Suzanne. “The Lady Was a Caver.” Missouri Conservationist. March 1993. pp. 4–9.