Richmond, Virginia

Henry T.N. Graves of Luray Caverns family dies

BY Tammie Smith
Thursday, July 15, 2010

Every school kid awed by the spectacular stalactite formations hanging like icicles at Luray Caverns can thank nature -- and the Graves family, who envisioned the caverns as a tourist attraction and field trip destination.

Henry Theodore Northcott Graves was at the helm of family-owned Luray Caverns Corp. from 1952 to 2008 as the caverns grew into a popular tourist destination, with about 500,000 visitors a year.

Mr. Graves died July 8 in a Winchester hospital. He was 87.

"My dad was a World War II veteran, and he inherited the caverns, and he wanted it to grow," said John Graves, who took over as president of Luray Caverns when his father stepped down. Other siblings also work in the family operation.

The Luray Caverns property came into the Graves family in 1905, when Henry Graves' grandfather purchased it.

John Graves said his father sensed the wanderlust in returning World War II servicemen and recognized the availability of automobiles to facilitate travel.

Mr. Graves earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Virginia in 1949 and a few years later was at the helm of the family business.

"Soldiers had been away four to five years and they wanted freedom to move around. He recognized that and got in on the ground floor," said John Graves.

Luray Caverns today boasts a broad array of attractions that complement the caverns.

The caverns "are the largest and most popular in the East. It's no accident how they got there," said Brian Ososky, executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Travel Association.

The Luray Caverns property today includes a vintage-car museum housing the numerous cars Mr. Graves collected over the years, two hotels, a country club and restaurant, a golf course and the recently opened Luray Valley Museum.

Mr. Graves served on many regional and state boards and associations that supported tourism.

"It wasn't just the caverns," said John Graves. "He wanted tourism to flourish throughout the region and state. So he had a really good relationship with Shenandoah National Park. We have also been good partners with other caverns in the valley and other attractions."

Mr. Graves was a longtime member of the Virginia Cave Commission, now the Virginia Cave Board, and his reputation remained for those who followed him.

"I understand he stressed the importance of commercial caves not only for Virginia's tourist industry but also advanced the use of cave tours for education, including stressing the importance of groundwater protection," said Thomas Lera, chairman of the Virginia Cave Board.

"He had a vision commercial caves could promote, through the right educational programs, cave preservation and conservation. His plan was to lead by example, and the guide training at Luray Caverns was his way of spreading the word. Luray Caverns embodied his dreams."

John Graves said the annual Day of Discovery at the caverns Aug. 14 will be an opportunity to recognize his father and "ensure the public the caverns will remain as strong as ever."

Survivors include his wife, Rebecca Beall Jackson Graves, whom he married in 1944; six children, Rebecca Beall Hudson of Luray; Katherine Murchison Fichtler of Montana; Elizabeth Duvall Vitu of France; Cornelia Walton Spain of Richmond; John Howard Hershey Graves and James Roderick Oughton Graves of Luray; 13 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

A funeral was held Tuesday at Christ Episcopal Church in Luray. Burial followed in the Graves family cemetery.