Mammoth Cave is one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and a giant tomb for some. The history of this natural wonder is incredible, and a bit creepy. Researchers have dated remains found in different parts of the cave back over thousands of years, from ancient Indians to pioneer explorers. It’s full of wonder, and like any good story, history and tragedy.
Mammoth Cave historic entrance.
The original entrance that all visitors to Mammoth Cave took. This was literally a gateway to the Mammoth Cave legacy of today.
Frozen Niagara tour.
It's estimated the first humanoids to rest in these caves thrived back in the days of the Mastodon, around 12,000 years ago. However, there have been petroglyphs, pottery, archaic tools, mummified, and skeletal remains found from over 4000 years ago. One ancient resident was found crushed by a boulder with a primitive digging tool, skull and a few bones remaining intact. The original residents of this country once took shelter in the caves during their traveling hunts. Thus the real discovery goes to them.
Mammoth Cave orbs.
The Shawnee and Cherokee used the caves for shelter and planning during the French and Indian wars of the mid 1700s. During and afterwards more pioneers came. Mammoth Cave’s main cave entrance was located in a 200 acre claim made by Valentine Simmons in 1798, but its value was not determined until much later. The land sold several times and ended up in the hands of known salt peter merchant Charles Wilkins, who used over 70 slaves to dig out and prepare saltpeter during the war. As one would expect, some slaves perished.
Names in smoke.
The notoriety of Mammoth Cave’s saltpeter aid during the war, along with the discovery of several mummies on the property drew attention. People began to travel to the caves, becoming the first tourists. Wilkins partnered with Hyman Gratz and began providing tours of the underground world, naming it Flatt’s Cave, but Wilkins died in 1828. Gratz was a master entrepreneur, and continued using slaves and miners as tour guides for novice spelunkers. Touring these uncharted caves was dangerous. These tourists walked on slick cave floors, using only oil burning lanterns and torches for light. The actual records of all those that perished during that time are unknown. There are areas where torches were used to smoke their names upon the ceilings, still visible on today’s modern, much safer tours.
Old Guide's Cemetery.
In 1838, a Glasgow local, Franklin Gorin purchased Mammoth Cave for $5000, and put a 16 year old slave named Stephen Bishop to work charting the caves. Bishop is attributed as being the primary person who mapped Mammoth. Gorin also established an inn to sleep 40 visitors, built roadways, stairs, and other modern conveniences to improve tourism. In 1839 Gorin purchased 2 more slaves for tour guides, and they continued their work until death in the 1870s. At that point, their children, and children’s children, continued as tour guides for the next 107 years. Some of their spirits are said to still “tour” the caves they walked for years. The former guides bodies are buried in the “Old Guide’s Cemetery” near the entrance.
John Croghan took over the cave in the mid1800s, and made a portion of it a Tuburculosis ward in 1842 within its walls. Patients who died were buried in the “Old Guide’s Cemetery”. Croghan contracted TB himself and died in 1849. He is also said to wander the caves he gave his life to.
Mammoth Cave, Historic Tour
The 1900's brought the discovery of other caves, such as Big Onyx, that ended up connecting to Mammoth Cave. This bought about a brutal and intense war between different land owners, who happened to have cave entrances on their property. Artifacts were stolen, lies were told, and court battles were initiated. All the while, tourism boomed and more people came to explore. One such explorer was Floyd Collins, who discovered Crystal Cave in 1917.
Floyd Collins grave.
Floyd Collins was trying to find a new entrance to a popular cave attraction on January 30, 1925. He found himself trapped in a narrow crawlspace about 55’ from the surface. Collins was known, so his predicament became a media sensation, becoming one of the first news stories covered on the brand new invention, the radio. His rescue is noted as the third biggest media event between wars. People traveled to help him, relentless in their efforts to save the explorer. Unfortunately, he was wedged in, and knew his end would be in the cave he loved. He died of exposure and dehydration after 14 days of being trapped. Sadly, this was only 3 days prior to his rescuers tunneling to his location. Still, it took around 2 months to actually remove his body from its accidental underground tomb. Collins is said to wander his own discovery and continue spiritually spelunking.
Today, people travel from all around the world to go on tours and investigate the miles of connected cave systems. The area itself is so vast, explorers are certain there’s yet more to be discovered, and likely more bones and relics. This massive chain of caverns, pits, crawlspaces, and limestone springs holds a lot of Kentucky history within its stone walls. It’s an eerily magical place to visit all year round. Have you ever been to Mammoth Cave?