LURAY, VA. -- Cold air welling up from the earth chilled the skin as Andrew Campbell squeezed through the tiny opening into enveloping blackness.

Gaining his feet, Campbell lit a candle -- and six weeks of toil, sweat and disappointment were suddenly forgotten.

Before him was a palatial underground chamber that extended as far as he could see.

On this hot August Sunday in 1878, Campbell and two fellow cave hunters who were waiting on the surface had discovered a geological masterpiece soon to be called Luray Caverns.

Three years later, the dreams of Campbell, his nephew Billy and Benton Stebbins were shattered when the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the caverns did not belong to the men who discovered, explored and opened them to the public.

"The whole thing was a very weak and strange solution," says Russell H. Gurnee, author of "Discovery of Luray Caverns, Virginia," published in 1978, 100 years after the discovery.

Stebbins, an itinerant photographer and former newspaper publisher, arrived in Luray in early July 1878.

The approaching railroad and the commercial success of Weyers Cave in Augusta County convinced the entrepreneurial Stebbins that a "big cave" in the cave-rich Luray area could mean financial reward in the hard times after the Civil War.

Andrew Campbell, a Luray tinsmith and spelunker, and Billy Campbell, son of the Page County sheriff, were eager recruits to Stebbins' plan to conduct a methodical search for a cave.

Called the "Phantom Chasers" by the villagers, the searchers began with an unsuccessful exploration of nearby Cave Hill, site of Ruffner's Cave, which Andrew disdainfully dismissed as boring. They spent days fruitlessly searching sinkholes near the Shenandoah River and looking at more than 30 caves.

The heat forced them to begin early on Aug. 13. Halfway up Cave Hill, Billy pointed to a 40-foot-wide opening surrounded by brush, but Andrew rejected it as one of the sinks he had examined years ago. Billy decided to have a look anyway and disappeared into the depression.

After a moment, he called to the others and announced that an unusually strong flow of cold air was rising from the earth.

"Andrew decided this would be the last hole they would look at," said Gurnee, who reconstructed the discovery through depositions filed in the court case. "The sinkhole was choked with debris, and they spent six to eight hours digging it out."

Finally, Andrew grasped a rope and entered the cave. His candle revealed a huge room with a pincushion-like ceiling and a mammoth floor-to-ceiling column.

Despite his excitement, Andrew offered a discouraging report when he emerged, withholding the news until his cousin, who had accompanied the group, left for home. After a brief celebration, Stebbins and Andrew and Billy Campbell swore one another to secrecy. That night they slipped back to the cave.

The glow from their candles showed a profusion of dripping stalactites hanging over more massive stalagmites. They walked through the winding passages, turning back after the tunnel narrowed.

But they had seen enough. The next step was to buy the land.

The property was owned by Sam Buracker, a merchant who fell on hard times after the Civil War. His $15,000 in debts had been turned over to the Page County Circuit Court to collect.

About 500 acres of Buracker's land, including 28 1/2 acres on Cave Hill, was put up for auction.

Stebbins and the Campbells plotted their strategy. They would keep quiet about the discovery and buy the Cave Hill property at the next court sale, on Sept. 10.

Auction day came and the Phantom Chasers were at the courthouse. Billy's father, Sheriff William Campbell, who had been told of the discovery, bid for the three. The crowd was surprised by the escalating bids for the flinty, infertile land, as William Campbell outbid a representative from the Buracker family.

Four days later, with the sale final, Stebbins and Andrew and Billy Campbell began their exploration in earnest.

The secret was soon out. The Page News and Courier published an account of the find under the headline: "A Wonderful Cave. Subterranean Vaults of Mammoth Dimensions!"

Less than three months after buying the land, Stebbins and the Campbells had laid out a tour that covered a mile of trails. Visitors flocked to the caverns at 50 cents a head.

The Buracker home was not a happy place. All of Sam's property was attached, and the family was unable to stop the pressure of the court to satisfy his debts. Finally, his son-in-law , a Baltimore lawyer, filing a lawsuit, accusing the purchasers of land fraud, to recover Cave Hill and Luray Caverns to recoup the family fortune.

In September 1879, Page County Circuit Judge Mark Bird found in favor of Stebbins and the Campbells, but the state Supreme Court's unanimously reversed the lower court and voided the sale on April 21, 1881.

Stebbins, whose life was a series of business misadventures, received nothing for his three years of work. Andrew and Billy Campbell worked as guides at the caverns, which Biedler immediately sold to the Luray Cave & Hotel Co. for $39,400.

"The tragedy was Stebbins," Gurnee said. "He had a sad history. He once owned land in Titusville, Pa., but sold it. They later discovered oil on the land."

The discovery of Stebbins and the Campbells now attracts 500,000 visitors a year. The complex built around the caverns by Luray Caverns Inc., a local company that has owned the cave since 1905, includes a restaurant, two gift shops, two motels, a golf course and a country club.