Dale Larabee | Larabee’s Lowdown
In 1949, on East Talmadge Drive, Kensington, Dr. Ralph Havens and his son Glen started to dig into his charcoal pit, 50 feet downward on the side of Fairmount canyon.
“Dad dug in a flurry of activity” his son Ralph, Jr. reported later. “Dad was one of those guys who had to work seven days a week.”
That first day, Havens Sr. dug and dug and just kept going, ending his day 70 feet under
his house. Some time later, Haven and other diggers entered the Haven house through daughter Carol’s bedroom closet. (I hope she knew they were coming.) Havens said digging helped him think. Come 1960, the unusual house addition was 700 feet of tunnels, 9 rooms and tons of sandy soil transferred downward to the canyon.
The diggers uncovered shark teeth and bones, a whale’s eardrum, and a tooth of an extinct four-tusked walrus that lived 3 million years ago. Havens and friends created the Havens’ Caves. Havens’ house, now owned by Art Gonzales, is a Tiger Woods’ drive from ours of 40 years. Until Sunday past, I have never set foot in the Caves. My sons have, hundreds of others have. After Sunday past, I never will again. I am claustrophobic.
First, no one really knows why Havens dug except Havens.
I found two articles telling more about the Caves: a 1983 U-T article and Thomas Baumann’s 1984 book Kensington-Talmadge. Both describe Havens as a non-stop worker and inventive man. Havens was an engineer with numerous patents (fiberglass fishing rod, for example). He was also a shrewd dude. As he and his family burrowed their way from canyon wall uphill to daughter Carol’s closet, news spread. Neighborhood kids flocked to Havens’ house (Havens had five children); so Havens paid ten cents for each red wagonload of sandy soil lugged from the snakelike tunnels to the canyon below. Lifelong resident Darlene Love remembers this assembly line of kids as much fun and some 1950s pocket cash. She also recalls Ralph Jr. turning off the lights and scaring the hell out of everyone.
Havens’ Caves is a 90-foot-deep catacomb containing: a game room big enough for ping pong tournaments, a slide from one room to a lower one, a fishpond (all the fish died in the darkness), an array of once-lighted tunnels, nine rooms including a King’s room, a rat’s maze so elaborate and rooms so huge that in 1960, 200 guests at Carol’s wedding reception toasted the newlyweds underground. I would have protested with others safely upstairs. Carol’s husband declined Havens’ invitation to move in saying he didn’t want a mole for a wife.
Havens ignored City building codes and permits. The City advised everybody to stay out, but said it would not “issue a citation unless some hazard develops.” City tax folks didn’t wait and tripled the Havens’ property value due to the nine-room addition. The Doctor had the underground designated a non-taxed basement.
The senior Havens died in 1982. Barry and Pam Bernasconi purchased the Cave House in 1974 and stayed until 1980. They sold to a man named Brooks and he to Gonzales. Barry Bernasconi told me he crawled — crawled! — into tunnels sometimes to dead ends. Some nosey carpet cleaners went into the Caves from a trap door while the Bernasconis were away. They couldn’t find a light switch and, using Bic lighters, started down the 99 steps. Their Bics went out. When Bernasconi got home, he found them pale and sweating on a patio. They could not see their hands in front of their faces as they crawled up. Bernasconi added that in his day the Caves were entered through what had been Carol’s bedroom down well-maintained steps, with a bannister and a glass door at bottom. No more. Gonzales early after moving in entered the Caves through a small entrance on the outside of his house. Deep underground, his flashlight batteries went dead. “Dale, if you had put your hand on my shoulder as I was crawling back up …” He couldn’t find the words.
Today, during the Chargers-Broncos game, I had to try spelunking. The entry Gonzales used, the trap door long ago closed, is a cluttered crawl space. I made it five steps down. I looked below at the first of 94 more steps dropping into the gloom. This is NOT the way wedding guests descended for a glass of champagne and toasts. I expected to hear echoes of kids hauling red wagons, a Ping-Pong game, screams as Ralph flicked the lights off, or a clink of glasses. All I heard was my bongo drum heart and raspy gasps. I returned to the light.