Ghosts of the Prairie
THE HAUNTED HISTORY OF THE CAVE
The first people came to Mammoth Cave more than 12,000 years ago, when bison and mastodons still roamed the wilderness of what would someday be called North America. These early cave explorers also used Mammoth Cave as a burial place for their dead, perhaps believing that it provided some sort of passage to the next world. There have been a number of "mummies" found in the cave over the years. Some of them have been left behind in former burial postures, while others have been the bodies of early explorers who lost their lives in the cave. All of the remains have been remarkably preserved thanks to the minerals found here.
In the early 1700’s, there were few permanent residents of Kentucky (which was then part of Virginia) although the Shawnee and the Cherokee Indians used the region as a hunting ground. During the French and Indian War of the late 1750’s, a British soldier became the first reported European to reach the Mammoth Cave region. By that time, many of the colonists along the eastern seaboard were starting to feel the crush of civilization. The more adventurous among them began crossing the Appalachians for the western territories. They recognized the lure of the wilderness and the frontiersmen often heard from their Native American friends of the natural wealth of "Kain-Tockee".
Despite the skills of these men when it came to living off the land for food and shelter though, they were still at the mercy of other suppliers when it came to gunpowder and a method of preserving food. It was in the discovery of the saltpeter deposits that Mammoth Cave’s greatest riches were realized. The saltpeter led to the first legal ownership of the cave.
Legend has it that the first white man to venture into the cave was a frontiersman named Houchins, who chased a bear into an entrance to the cave in 1797. Valentine Simmons, however, was the first owner of the cave. He claimed 200 acres of land, which included the cave, in 1798. He then sold the cave to the McLean brothers, who began processing the saltpeter deposits. In 1810, the operation was taken over by Charles Wilkins and Fleming Gatewood, who began mass production in the cave.
Prior to buying the rights to Mammoth Cave, Wilkins had already established himself as a saltpeter merchant, supplying the Dupont gunpowder works in Delaware with product from Kentucky. The men were excited at the promise of the cave, already realizing that a fortune was to be made from the increasingly hostile relations between the United States and Britain. The War of 1812 would drive up the cost of saltpeter and production in Mammoth Cave would follow suit.
The business proved to be quite profitable but after the war ended though, the price of saltpeter plummeted and the mills were able to get the product more cheaply from other locations. The operations in Mammoth Cave were closed down for good.
Fortunately though, all was not lost. The fame of Mammoth Cave had started to spread. Numerous newspaper articles had been written about the cave’s contribution to the war and had also discussed its natural wonders and the strange "mummies" that had been found in the cave. Soon, people began traveling from the east to the Kentucky wilderness and Mammoth Cave began to receive its first tourists.
In 1815, Hyman Gratz became a partner with Charles Wilkins in the ownership of the cave. Gratz was a showman and an entrepreneur and he quickly realized there was money to be made in exhibiting the cave. After Wilkins died in 1828, Gratz continued showing the cave to anyone who was interested and actually stepped up operations to make the place more profitable. He used veterans of the mining operation as guides to accompany curious travelers.
The cave was originally called "Flatt’s Cave" but the name had been gradually changed to Mammoth Cave during the War of 1812. The "Rotunda", the first large room that was entered, prompted the name and gave visitors a taste of the massive chambers ahead. At first, the guides rarely ventured any further than the old mining operation and tunnels they were familiar with. As they grew more comfortable with the passages though, they started to venture a little deeper with each excursion. Travelers were then led into what were called the "Haunted Chambers" and they risked the dangerous, wet and rocky canyons known as the "Bottomless Pit" and the "Crevice Pit".
As the century grew older, the fame of Mammoth Cave grew larger and more widespread. Guidebooks began to boast of the cave’s hundreds of miles of passages and word of mouth, combined with newspaper and magazine articles, travelogues and first-person accounts, brought people from all over the world. People came from everywhere to see the marvels of the cave and some said that "more visitors had come from England to see Mammoth Cave than those visitors hailing from Kentucky". Some of celebrity guests of Mammoth Cave included historic personages like Jenny Lind, Edwin Booth, Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Prince Alexis of Russia and many more. People from all walks of life came to the cave however, not just the wealthy and famous. None of them walked away from it unimpressed!
While the list of early visitors is indeed impressive, it is hard for us to appreciate just how dangerous the cave could be at that time. These intrepid visitors were forced to brave slick floors, narrow passages and dangerous pathways. The greatest challenge though was lighting. Throughout the 1800’s, a variety of lights were used in the cave. Visitors carried open-flame lanterns, fueled by refined lard oil on occasion, but the most popular method of light was the full flame torch. The guides would wrap wooden poles with oiled rags and set them ablaze. Then, to show off the wonders of the cave and their own skills, they would fling the torches onto ledges and into narrow gaps in a way that few could duplicate today.
The visitors of the 1800’s were also fond of smoking their names onto the smooth, white ceilings of the cave. Today, you can still see names and dates, carefully scripted with fire, that were left behind by visitors more than a century and a half ago.
THE EARLY CAVE GUIDES
Mammoth Cave had many early guides, as the first flood of visitors began arriving here in 1818. The cave was famous by that time, thanks to a number of writers and authors who were already beginning to spread the word about the place, but the lack of decent and accessible roads discouraged many of the tourists. Stagecoaches stopped miles from the entrance, at Bell’s Tavern, and the remaining distance had to be covered by way of a narrow, rugged trail. The tavern was located in Three Forks, which is now known as Park City, and the place earned an excellent reputation as a dining and lodging place and the primary stepping off place for the eight-mile trip to Mammoth Cave.
There was an inn of sorts at the cave, but it was as bad as the roads were. It was simply a log building with two rooms on the ground floor and so most overnight visitors preferred to eat and sleep at Bell’s Tavern, which was revered for its peach and honey brandy.
In 1838, the cave was purchased by Franklin Gorin, an attorney from Glasgow, Kentucky who envisioned great things for Mammoth Cave. He paid $5,000 to the Gratz family for rights to the cave and immediately began to improve the roads and accommodations and to bring in skilled guides. He became the most important man in the cave’s early history. He improved the inn, renaming it the Mammoth Cave Inn and enlarging it to sleep up to 40 people, smoothed the roadways, added fences and stables and introduced a young slave to the cave named Stephen Bishop. This young man, who was just 16 years old at the time, would become a legend in his own lifetime. Bishop would go on to live the rest of his life in and among the passageways of Mammoth Cave, becoming the first man to explore and map the cave system. He was a self-educated man, with a remarkable wit and humor, and he acquired a considerable knowledge of geology.
During that first summer of 1838, Bishop familiarized himself with every room, corridor and passageway known to the previous guides. In addition, he began to explore parts of the cave that had been untouched before. He found confusing mazes, dead ends and hidden wonders. One of the passages led to a deep hole that had always been known as the "Bottomless Pit". On October 20, Bishop placed a rickety wooden ladder over the pit and carefully made his way across, becoming the first man to do so. It was soon spanned with a bridge and Bishop began leading visitors to share in the wonders on the other side. Bishop also became the first to discover the cave’s underground water system and the strange, eyeless fish that lived in the caverns.
Reports of these discoveries brought even more visitors to the cave, so in 1839, Gorin hired two slaves from Thomas Branford of Nashville, Tennessee. He paid Branford the annual sum of $100. The new guides were brothers, Mat and Nick, and they have taken on the last names of their master in writings of the cave. They became known as the "Branford’s" and along with Stephen Bishop, they became the leading explorers and guides of Mammoth Cave. The three of them would continue leading cave tours until the 1870’s and their offspring would continue a tradition here for more than 107 years.
Time marched on and the Civil War brought unrest and trouble to southern Kentucky. However, the manager of the cave, a staunch supporter of the Union, continued to conduct tours throughout the years of the war. Stories that have been passed down tell of encounters within the cave between northern and southern soldiers, each taking a moment from the war to marvel at the natural wonders of the cave.
After the war ended, some of the former slaves in the Mammoth Cave community left the area to find new homes. Others, like the Branford’s, chose to stay on. They, like Stephen Bishop, had been offered their freedom years before in return for their services in the cave. They had refused to leave though and they stayed on at Mammoth Cave. Stephen Bishop had died shortly before 1860, but his wife, Charlotte, and son, Thomas, remained at the cave.
Even though the cave had remained open through the war, tourism had been damaged and Reconstruction and continued problems between the north and the south kept things slow for years after. A revival in tourism did not occur until the middle 1880’s, with the expansion of steamboat traffic, better connecting stage lines and the completion of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, a spur of which was built directly to the mouth of the cave.
Another Bishop, Ed, became one of the cave’s greatest explorers. Accompanied by a German cartographer named Max Kaemper, Bishop climbed and slid through a collapse of rock and dirt that had previously been thought of as "the end" of Mammoth Cave. The exploration, and the map that came from it in 1908, is still thought of as the most important accomplishment in the cave’s history.
Bishop’s discovery led to the realization that Mammoth Cave is actually several different caves that all connect in some way underground. No one knew this for many years and different people owned separate caves. It was so confusing that some people owned different parts of the same cave, with different entrances, on different parcels of land. In the early part of the 1900’s, as automobile vacations became popular in America, the ownership of the caves would have strong consequences in southern Kentucky. And sometimes this would have dire results!
THE CROGHAN’S OF MAMMOTH CAVE
William Croghan and his wife, Lucy, built their brick home called "Locust Grove" in 1790 in what was then wilderness near Louisville, Kentucky. Their first child, John, was born that same year. He grew up at Locust Grove, spending many hours enthralled with the stories told to him by his famous adventurer uncle, George Rogers Clark.
After graduating from Priestley Seminary in Danville, Kentucky and from the College of William and Mary in Virginia, John studied medicine and received a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in 1813. He then returned to Kentucky and opened a medical practice in Louisville, taking an active part in the establishment of the Louisville Marine Hospital.
After the death of his father in 1822, John inherited Locust Grove and a large plantation, which he farmed and used to produce salt. In time though, John gained his own taste for adventure, perhaps remembering the stories told to him by his famous uncle, and he went abroad to tour the world. In 1839, he returned home and visited Mammoth Cave. He walked the passages with his guide and was amazed by the size of the rooms and the chambers they found.
While in London, John had heard much of Mammoth Cave and he agreed with the current owner’s plans for publicizing the cave in the east and in Europe. He also understood the difficulties of getting tourists to the cave and then finding them suitable lodging once they arrived. He believed that not only should a grand hotel be built at the entrance to the cave, but underground in the cave as well! He envisioned a carriage road leading into the cave, a dining room, a library and a grand ballroom. Croghan quickly purchased the cave from Franklin Gorin in 1839 (the deal included the cave, the inn, Stephen Bishop and the Branford brothers) and set about turning his dreams into reality.
Mammoth Cave prospered under Croghan’s ownership, although the underground hotel was never realized. He did however construct the spacious Mammoth Cave Hotel, a large inn constructed from two log buildings. It was equipped with rooms to sleep several dozen visitors, a dining hall and a ballroom. It would continue to serve travelers until it burned down in 1916. Croghan also spent huge amounts of money on advertising and continued to attract visitors from all over the world. He established a reputation for the cave as an international showplace.
At Croghan’s own expense, he began building public roads to the cave. The first road was opened from Cave City to the Mammoth Cave Hotel and then continued on across Green River to connect to a road at Grayson Springs. Another road began at the Louisville and Nashville Turnpike near Rowletts Station and led to the hotel before continuing on to the southwest, where it connected with another turnpike. This was said to be an excellent road in those rugged times and also became the shortest route between Louisville and Nashville. It also just happened to travel right past the Mammoth Cave Hotel and bypassed Bell’s Tavern completely.
Croghan not only saw the cave as a tourist attraction, he also saw medical benefits to it. As a doctor, he had read of underground hospitals in Europe in which those suffering from consumption (tuberculosis) had been cured. He believed that Mammoth Cave just might have the same curative powers. He and many other doctors believed that the moist air and the constant temperature of the cave might slow, or even reverse, the ravages of the disease.
In 1842, Croghan directed Bishop and the Branford’s to construct wood and stone huts within the cave and then he invited 15 tuberculosis patients to participate in his experiment. Unfortunately, several of the patients died in the cave and the trial was considered a failure. The surviving patients were sent home and the huts were abandoned. They still exist though and can be seen in the cave today. Several of the patients who died were buried in the Old Guide’s Cemetery near the cave entrance.
Ironically, Croghan also contracted tuberculosis and he died in 1849. Being a bachelor, he left the cave in trust for his nieces and nephews. In this way, his death began more than 70 years of tenants and resident managers at Mammoth Cave. The years that followed were strange ones for the cave, with no clear-cut route to follow. Mammoth Cave enjoyed success for most of these years, only slowing down after the Civil War.
David Graves of Lebanon, Kentucky leased the cave in the 1870’s. His time at Mammoth Cave is best remembered for the fine food that he served and the billiard hall that he operated inside of the cave. He finally left Mammoth Cave after a number of legal disputes with the owners of the cave and with a competitive stage line that was used to ferry passengers to the cave.
At that time, stage lines were the best methods of bringing tourists to Mammoth Cave. But stagecoach travel was not without danger. One evening in 1880, a group of visitors were returning from the cave when they were stopped by bandits at the Little Hope Cemetery. The robbers took more than $1000 and many personal items from the travelers, including a fine gold watch that was engraved with the name of Judge R.H. Rountree of Lebanon. Later, a newspaper article reported that the same watch was found in the possession of Jesse James after his death. Was this famous outlaw responsible for the Mammoth Cave stage robbery?
In 1886, Francis Klett brought a mushroom farm to the cave but more importantly, W.C. Comstock established the Mammoth Cave Railroad and greatly improved travel for cave visitors. The railroad connected to the L & N line at Glasgow Junction. The rail cars were pulled by an engine called "Hercules" and the little train served Mammoth Cave and the surrounding communities until 1929, when automobiles made it obsolete. All that remains of the train today is an overgrown spur line, the engine, a single coach car and mostly forgotten memories of a bygone era.
THE CAVE WARS
The Twentieth Century did not come quietly to the cave country of southern Kentucky. The rivalry that flared up between David Graves and a rival stage line in the 1870’s was only the beginning. As it turned out, there would be two realizations that brought about what has been called the "Cave Wars" of the early 1900’s.
The first was that cave tourism could actually be profitable and that it was also very popular. The attention given to various caves in the area had been substantial already, but as the new century dawned, it became obvious that it was no passing fad. With this realization in southern Kentucky, it became necessary for the locals to simply get in on the idea.
The second event was the beginning of the automobile vacation era. More and more people in America were buying cars and they were using them to travel to places where they had never been before. To folks in the surrounding states, Mammoth Cave became a natural destination point. Soon, this type of travel would gain the attention of the entire country and historic monuments like "Route 66" would be born. Unfortunately though, the interstates would bypass the small highways and regional attractions in later years and many of them would die and fade away.
The area around Mammoth Cave today is like a time capsule of the past. The "boom years" of the 1920’s through the early 1970’s had a lasting effect on the region in the attractions and motor hotels, most of which barely eke out an existence in these modern times. There are faded signs here that depict the wonders of caves and petting zoos that have been closed down for years.
But it wasn’t always this way.
From the early days, the residents of central and southern Kentucky used the caves for a wide variety of purposes. They provided shelter from storms, preserved their milk, canned food, turnips and potatoes, provided a playground for their children and even served as hiding places for moonshiners and their stills. But as the turn of the last century approached, it was becoming obvious that Mammoth Cave was a huge commercial success and so residents became less interested in the caves for their mundane uses and more interested in using them as a draw for tourists. Many of the local farmers and land owners began to pursue a sideline of cave hunting and developing.
Since the Croghan estate controlled most of the land on the ridge where Mammoth Cave was located, the exploration began to focus on neighboring Flint Ridge, which was separated from the Mammoth Cave ridge by narrow Houchins Valley. The locals desperately wanted to get into the cave business and to start promoting their own caves as competition for well-known Mammoth Cave, or at least to take away a bit of their business.
Flint Ridge became the site of a number of commercial cave operations and the source of a number of lurid and advertising campaigns as well. The owners were promoting and conducting tours of their own caves, located on their own property. As the years passed, and Mammoth Cave became a national park, many of these caves were absorbed into the park system. Most of these smaller caves merely made up portions of the much larger one. At that time however, people either didn’t suspect this, or just didn’t care. If a person had an entrance to a cave on his property, then he had his own cave. The caves were advertised and marketed wildly and each owner would extol the virtues of his cave above all of the others in the area. Each would post as many signs as possible between major roads and the entrance to Mammoth Cave, hoping to lure travelers away from the most popular attraction.
Prior to the 1890’s, major interest in the caves along Flint Ridge had been confined mostly to Salts Cave, thanks to the artifacts that had been found here. This remote offshoot of Mammoth Cave was the object of freelance exploration and exploitation and open to anyone, it had been plundered of old torches, Indian pottery, decaying moccasins and even a male mummy that had been discovered in 1875 by William Cutliff. Legend has it that he also found three other mummies and hid them away in the cave somewhere. To this day, they have never been found.
The development of the Flint Ridge caves really began in 1895, when Lute and Henry Lee opened up a sinkhole on the south side and dubbed their discovery Colossal Cavern. Officials of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad immediately began trying to purchase it and eventually succeeded. Afterwards, they blasted an opening about a mile and a half from the Mammoth Cave entrance but their intent was not so much to exploit the cave as to find out if it connected to Mammoth. Many had come to suspect that Mammoth Cave, as it had been explored by Stephen Bishop and other guides, was located under land that extended out from property owned by the Croghan estate. This was confirmed by Ed Bishop and Max Kaemper in 1908 but the Croghan heirs were so desperate to keep this a secret that they refused to publish the maps or findings of their expedition.
People suspected it anyway, including a man named Edmund Turner, a young civil engineer with a passion for underground exploration. He came to the Mammoth Cave region in 1912 and when looking for someone to act as a guide, he met another young man named Floyd Collins, a native who had given up farming for caving. With Collins, Turner explored Salts Cave and while finding some new unexplored passages, did not find any connections to Mammoth. Turner traveled all over the area and dug and blasted holes into any spot that he thought looked promising. At one point, he came close to discovering the Frozen Niagara entrance to Mammoth but ran out of dynamite and moved on to another spot. He boarded with many families in the region, including L.P. Edwards, whose farm he believed was located over a sizable cavern. The two entered into a verbal agreement to split anything they found and Turner believed that he could trust the man since Edwards was a preacher.
The result of this agreement was the discovery of Great Onyx Cave in 1915. Turner named the place, helped to build the entrance and developed the trails. Because the cave possessed the finest onyx columns in the region, Reverend Edwards was quick to capitalize on this and also took advantage of the verbal agreement that he had with Turner by cheating him out of his half and claiming the whole thing for himself. Turner died a pauper from pneumonia less than a year later and only a small fund, raised mostly by local cave guides, provided him with a decent burial. Edwards refused to donate a dime to the fund. Turner was buried in the Mammoth Cave Baptist Church Cemetery with small, uncarved sandstone rocks at his head and feet. The grave can still be found here today.
In the years that followed, Great Onyx Cave became one of the most successful of the caves on Flint Ridge, in spite of the fact that a number of adjoining neighbors filed lawsuits against Edwards, claiming that the cave was under their property. Although Edwards lost all of these suits, he still controlled the largest portion of the caves and later passed it on to his daughter, Lucy Cox. She continued the cave’s success and built the Great Onyx Hotel at the cave, which offered overnight accommodations and delicious meals.
Around this same time, another caving enthusiast named George D. Morrison turned up in the area. He was a mining engineer and oil prospector from Louisville and also became fascinated with finding new entrances into Mammoth Cave. Morrison founded the Mammoth Cave Development Co. and took out options on land south of the Mammoth Cave property. He began running illegal surveys of the cave, trying to determine if the passageways went under land he had recently leased. He even sent people into the cave to listen for drills and to set off charges of dynamite so that he could watch for erupting ground or smoke. Mammoth Cave officials caught him on one occasion and he was arrested and fined $75 for trespassing. Morrison maintained that he was prospecting for oil but everyone, including the cave owners, knew precisely what he was up to.
Morrison later left the area to acquire additional money to fund his ventures but World War I stalled his plans and he did not return until 1921. This time, he found what he had been looking for all along -- another entrance to Mammoth Cave on his own property. Not only that, but he also discovered new sections of the cave that were even more beautiful than the older part. To make matters worse, his property stood between the old entrance and the primary tourist route, which meant that travelers had to pass his cave first. Morrison quickly improved the entrance and constructed a hotel that he called the New Entrance Hotel. He even started plans for an elevator that would take patrons from the lobby to the wonders below. The Mammoth Cave managers were furious, especially when Morrison began setting up roadside signs that called attention to his new entrance and began selling tickets that actually had “Mammoth Cave” printed on them. The location began siphoning off tourists from the original site and the Croghan estate (not surprisingly) sued for an injunction to stop him from using Mammoth Cave in his name and advertising. But when Morrison showed the jury his maps and proved that it was all the same cave and that tourists could visit either entrance, the court found in his favor. The Croghan’s appealed the verdict and while a higher court supported Morrison, it did direct him to be more precise in his advertising.
Morrison’s success was electrifying to the other cave owners in the area and those who did not have caves on their land opted for the next best thing -- they sold souvenirs of all types. Shacks and stands sold everything from bookends to paperweights, all made from polished cave onyx, much of which had been stolen from area caves in the dead of night.
By the middle 1920’s, what became known as the “Cave Wars” were in full swing. Kentucky cavers acted ruthlessly and in highly competitive ways. In order to cut into their competitor’s business, rivals lauded their caverns and often spread rumors about Mammoth Cave being flooded or that the Mammoth Cave Hotel was closed or falling down. The owners of caves often told visitors who came to see them that they shouldn’t visit another nearby attraction for a variety of reasons, ranging from poison gases in the rival cave to a tourist being killed there in an accident. As more caves were discovered and developed, competition for the tourists became even more heated. Those who found a cave on their land borrowed heavily from the bank to develop it and to build a ticket office and curio shop. Then they roamed the countryside looking for tourists and herded as many as they could find into their caverns.
Sometimes the competition between the operating caves became more than just who did the most advertising. In this mainly Baptist area, shootings and killings were forbidden but just about anything else seemed to be allowed, including harassment, lying and tricks of all kinds. Some natives estimated that by 1925, as many as one-third of all of the visitors to the area were diverted away from Mammoth Cave and to the smaller caves by nefarious means. On many occasions, violence and vandalism marred the countryside. Signs were torn down and destroyed, fires were set and even shots were occasionally fired. On a few occasions, the visitors themselves even got into the act. One incident involved rival caves that were located right next to one another. A fence separated the two entrances and as visitors filed into each cave for a tour, the owners encouraged them to throw rocks at the opposite tour group!
The ultimate high point in the Cave Wars came with the death and the strange afterlife odyssey of Floyd Collins, which began in 1925. It all came to an end a year later though when Mammoth Cave became a part of the National Park system.
THE MAMMOTH CAVE NATIONAL PARK
In the early 1920’s, a group was formed called the Mammoth Cave National Park Association for the purpose of trying to get the government to grant national park status to the cave. By this time, many were starting to realize that the numerous caves in the area were undoubtedly connected. By turning the underground system into a national park, it would protect the entire region for future generations.
Most of those who started the association were businessmen and politicians, not the people who owned smaller caves in the area and who made their living from guiding tours through the attractions. Obviously, these people were opposed to the government coming in and taking over their property, but they lacked both the funding and the political clout to do anything about it. In 1926, legislation was passed that officially authorized the preparation of Mammoth Cave as a national park. Congress authorized the cave to receive National Park status that same year, however it was not made official until President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the papers in July 1941.
The delay was caused by the refusal of the local people to sell their land. The national park was slated to absorb all of the land, both above and below ground, where the cave was located. This created a huge parcel of land to be sold to the government. It was the duty of the Kentucky National Park Commission, formed in 1928, to acquire the land but they met with nothing but opposition. The acquisition became a heated subject in southern and central Kentucky. While some sold their homes and land willingly, others were forced out by eminent domain. It did not make for a pleasant climate in the area and not surprisingly, there are hard feelings that still linger in the area more than 70 years later.
Many things have changed at Mammoth Cave over the years, including in the cave itself. At every moment, monumental changes are taking place underground that will have an impact on the future of Mammoth Cave. The underground rivers continue their journey through the rock, the calcium droplets of water slowly slide lower and lower, creating artistic fixtures of stone and cave formations grow in size that can only be measured by the eye over a span of hundreds of years.
In every moment, time marches on and brings changes here. However, some things remain the same, remaining lost and forgotten with time. They are the ghosts and spirits of Mammoth Cave.
HAUNTED MAMMOTH CAVE
There have been many stories of ghosts at Mammoth Cave, spanning several generations of visitors, guides and service personnel. This isn’t surprising considering that caves can be very spooky places, filled with dark corners, shadowed crevices and odd noises. But are the stories of Mammoth Cave merely figments of overactive imaginations? That remains to be seen, although we should take into account that ghostly tales have been told about the place almost from the time when the first cave tours roamed the darkened corridors with only a small lantern to guide the way.
These eerie stories tell of unexplained sounds, strange lights, bizarre noises, disembodied footsteps and of course, apparitions and spirits. However skeptics maintain there are explanations for these things. A person’s imagination can play tricks on them in the dark and footsteps and voices can seem ghostly when there are echoes from other parts of the cave. They also state that stories of encounters with ghosts in Mammoth Cave are told by tourists and visitors who have no previous experience with caves and with the natural phenomena that accompanies them. But there are others who would say that this isn’t true. While many of the stories are indeed accounts told by visitors to the cave, others are not so easy to explain away. Many of the tales are experiences shared by park rangers, cave explorers, spelunkers and even geologists who are fully aware of what strange things a cave can do.
Believers in the resident ghosts can cite a number of reasons why the cave might be haunted. The long history of the place includes accidents from the days of the saltpeter operations, Native Americans who wandered into the cave and never found their way out, stranded travelers, missing cave explorers, tragic tuberculosis victims and even those who loved the place so much that they have never left --or so the stories go.
I will allow the reader to judge for himself.
I have visited Mammoth Cave many times in years past and while collecting ghost stories, I have had the opportunity to talk with many of the people who work here. I have also been able to find other accounts from those who have gone on the record about the resident haunts in years past. In my own experience, I have found most of the park rangers reluctant to talk about ghost stories, although I have found a few who don’t laugh off the odd tales and who will share their own strange experiences.
One such ranger has served as a guide in the cave for a number of years. She told me that weird things often happen along the route leading from the historic entrance to the cave. One day, she had been leading a tour group into the cave and had stopped to point out a site along the passage. She paused to wait for everyone to catch up and noticed a man in the back who was lingering behind the rest. He was wearing a striped shirt, denim pants and suspenders, but that was all she remembered. After her discussion, the group moved further along the passage and she looked for the man again, but he was gone. There was no one else in the tour group who matched the description of this man, so she sent another guide back a little way to look for him. The man was never found.
Another story, told by an experienced tour guide named Joy Lyons, tells of a tour that was taken a few years ago in the company of a large group and two guides. When they reached a point on the trail called the "Methodist Church", they usually turned out all of the lights so that visitors could experience what the cave was like in pitch blackness. She was standing at the back of the group when the lights went out and she could hear the lead ranger talking about the experience. Then, she felt a strong shove against her shoulder. The assault was hard enough that she had to step forward to keep from falling over. She turned to another ranger, who was supposed to be standing next to her and she whispered to him to stop clowning around. A moment later, the lead ranger ignited the wick on a lantern and she saw that the other ranger, she had thought was close to her, was actually about 70 feet away. There was no way that he could have shoved her and then walked so far in complete darkness.
"There was no one near me," she said, "but it was a playful shove. There are a number of us who feel things in various parts of the cave. It’s not frightening -- but it’s something else."
An additional story comes from Charlie Hanion, a former cave guide who became a nature writer. He and a friend were leading a "Lantern Tour" of the cave (a historic tour designed to give the visitor an idea of how early tourists saw the cave) and as his friend was talking to the assembled group, a girl of about 14 years-old turned to Hanion and asked who the man standing near the rocks was. Hanion looked about 40 feet away and saw a man in old-fashioned, formal attire. He was dressed in a fashion that tourists from decades past would have dressed to tour the cave. The man quickly vanished!
"But the really weird part came the following week when we were on the same tour," Hanion added. As the tour group reached the same point in the cave, a guide asked if there were any questions. A woman raised her hand and asked if strange things were ever seen in this part of the cave? The woman was a tourist and claimed to be a psychic. She pointed over to the place in the rocks where Hanion had seen the man the week before and she asked who that person was.
"It was the same spot where we’d seen it before. I didn’t see it at all that time," Hanion recalled. He also admitted that while he hadn’t seen anything, the entire experience gave him chills to think about.
Based on these accounts, it would seem that apparitions are fairly common at Mammoth Cave and this is especially true when it comes to the most famous ghost connected to the cave. It is said to be a fictional account but many wonder if the story might contain elements of the truth, especially those who believe they may have encountered the main character in the story.
In February 1858, an article appeared in Knickerbocker Magazine called "A Tragedy in Mammoth Cave". The story tells of a girl named Melissa, who confessed the entire tale on her deathbed, having succumbed to tuberculosis. Melissa was a southern girl who lived in the vicinity of Mammoth Cave and she had fallen in love with her tutor from Boston, a young man named Beverleigh. The tutor had ignored Melissa’s affections and began courting a neighbor girl instead. Melissa plotted her revenge.
Having grown up in the area, she knew well the twists and turns of Mammoth Cave and with careful planning, she lured Mr. Beverleigh to the cave. She conducted him on a "tour" to the depths of the cave and to a place called "Echo River". Here, she vanished into a side passage and left the poor man to find his own way out. Days passed and Beverleigh did not return. Melissa had only meant the whole thing as a cruel joke and so in despair, she went back to the cave to look for him. She made daily treks underground, searching and calling out to him -- but Beverleigh was never seen again.
Melissa was later diagnosed with consumption and died a short time later, never recovering from her guilt over the tutor’s death. Many believe that her ghost is still seen and heard in Mammoth Cave, desperately searching for the missing man.
While the story sounds incredibly melodramatic, the reader is warned not to dismiss it too quickly. According to Gary Bremer, a former Mammoth Cave guide, there may just be something to the tale.
Several years ago, Bremer and four others were in a boat on Echo River, an underground stream that lies deep in the cave. One of the men had left to get another paddle for the boat. Bremer remembered what happened next: "The three of us in the boat all heard a woman calling out. It wasn’t screaming but it was as though she was looking for someone."
The next day, they asked some of the other guides if anyone else had ever had such an experience. One of the older guides told him about a murder that was supposed to have taken place in that area and told him the story about Melissa. Bremer had never heard the story before that time.
Strangely, it would not be his last encounter here either. A short time later, he was again on the Echo River, this time with a new employee who had never seen the river before. She suddenly turned and grabbed his shoulder. "Did you hear a woman cough?" she asked him.
Bremer felt a cold chill. Melissa had died of tuberculosis, he remembered.
The other employee would later verify Bremer’s version of their experience and would also add that she had also heard garbled voices in the cave and on one night, believed that she heard someone whisper her name.
Not all of the accounts of Mammoth Cave come from parts of the cave that are accessible to the public. Many of the strangest tales come from Crystal Cave, which was once believed to be a separate cave and was once operated as a private attraction. This cave is located along Flint Ridge, now well within the boundaries of the national park. It is not, at this time, open to the public and yet the stories that surround this portion of the cave are too mysterious to not be included here.
Most of these legends involve the ghost of a man named Floyd Collins, the former owner of Crystal Cave. Collins was not only an avid cave explorer but an established businessman too, always on the lookout for new caves that could be developed and put into service as a moneymaking enterprise.
Floyd had grown up in the area around Mammoth Cave and through his early years, his family eked out a living with a farm on Flint Ridge. He had been fascinated with caves as a boy and spent most of his childhood crawling in and out of holes that were scattered over the farm. His life as a professional caver began in 1912 though, when he met Edmund Turner. The enterprising young man roomed with the Collins family for a time and he paid young Floyd to act as a guide and to help him find caves that could be explored and developed. Turner gave him more than just money though and instilled in Floyd a knowledge of cave formations and geology. Turner’s discoveries and initial success only heightened Floyd’s interest in developing his own caves and by World War I, he was spending little time on the family farm and was instead mining onyx and exploring the caverns of the area. In the winter of 1916 - 1917, he made his greatest discovery by accident.
One day, while slipping into a crevice that he described as “breathing” (meaning that air was coming out of it from a cave below) he uncovered a crawlway that led deeper into the earth. After two weeks of digging, he emerged into a huge cavern that was encrusted with white and cream-colored gypsum flowers. Delirious with excitement, Floyd rushed back to the house and even though it was well past midnight, he roused the family and rushed them to the cave while they were still in their night clothes. The stunned family members did not emerge until after dawn.
Floyd called this discovery “Wonder Cave” but William Travis Blair, his next-door neighbor, suggested that he call it Crystal Cave instead, referring to the wondrous gypsum flowers. Floyd’s father, Lee, and his brothers helped him to enlarge the entrance and they smoothed the floors and made trails during what ended up becoming more than 12 months of hard work. While all of this was going on, Floyd was exploring new passages and chambers and continued to make discoveries that made the cave one of the showplaces of the Flint Ridge.
In 1918, the Floyd’s opened the cave and hired a manager and with that, formally entered the Cave Wars. The family began prowling the highways looking for tourists because unfortunately, the cave was located off the beaten track and could be reached by an almost impassable dirt road. Floyd and his family fought for their share of the local traffic but the odds were against them, which was too bad. Crystal Cave was reportedly amazing and tourists were given an especially rare treat if Floyd himself showed them through. He often told them of adventures that were beyond the tourist trail or would, in his enthusiasm, reach over and break off one of the gypsum flowers and hand it to the astonished visitor. Those who came loved the cave, but few made the trip and Crystal Cave refused to make money, no matter how much work was put into it.
In the lull between tourists, Floyd continued to relentlessly explore the cave but this did nothing to alter the poor business situation. The cave was only occasionally profitable and the Collins’ still had to rely on farming and other activities to remain in business. In 1920, Floyd even invested in a still and for a short time before Prohibition made legal whiskey to supplement the cave’s income. Some say that he continued this after Prohibition was passed as well. The rough economic times, as well as family problems, caused a division between Floyd and his father, who wanted to sell off the cave and get out of the business. Floyd refused and in fact, the arguments between them stiffened his resolve. He was convinced that Crystal Cave’s many passages led to connections with surrounding caves. He had already explored five or six miles of passageways and had uncovered many leads, some of which ran toward Mammoth Cave. He wanted to, like George Morrison, find a commercially exploitable opening -- and one that was found in the right place could even displace Morrison’s New Entrance and ensnare the largest share of the tourists.
Floyd carefully researched his plans. He talked with old-timers and cavers about their experiences and looked over old charts and maps. From all of this, he concluded that the most likely spot for a new opening was just over the line in Barren County on the narrow piece of land that connected the Mammoth Cave Ridge with Flint Ridge at the latter’s southeast corner. An opening here just might, Floyd thought, connect Crystal Cave with Mammoth.
Floyd recalled from his past explorations that a sand hole existed on the farm of Beesley Doyle. Since Doyle was only one of three farmers controlling this area, Floyd began negotiations with him, as well as Edward Estes and Jesse Lee, the other owners. Of the three of them, only Estes was a caver, often raiding local caves for the onyx, which he sold to tourists. Floyd offered to search their land for caves in return for one-half of the profits and the three farmers could split the other half. Only Estes originally balked at the deal but finally, prodded by the others, he also agreed.
Floyd began his explorations, starting with the hole on the Doyle farm. The press later called this hole “Sand Cave”, but this was a misnomer. It was not so much a cave as a narrow, twisting crevice that led downward. It had been opened due to the collapse of a larger cavern centuries before and the passageway skirted the edge of an overhanging shelter’s back wall. Floyd chose this route, which was covered with sandstone debris, because he thought it might be a shortcut to what he hoped was solid limestone below. He had no idea where it might lead but hoped for either a new passage to Mammoth Cave, a back door to his own Crystal Cave or even an entirely new cave altogether.
Floyd stayed with the Doyle’s for the next two weeks as he began to dig out an entrance and to begin a descent into the crumbling passage. He returned home to his parent’s house on weekends and his father constantly chastised him for the time and attention that he was paying to his new project. Not only that, Lee Floyd insisted, but the hole was dangerous and he warned Floyd that he was liable to get caught in it. His mother also chimed in. She confided to her son that she had dreamed that Floyd would get caught in a rock fall and would be rescued by angels. She was convinced that the dream had been a warning from God. She begged him not to return to the cave -- but Floyd did not listen.
At the beginning of his third week of work at Sand Cave, Floyd moved over to stay with the Estes family but left his work clothes at the Doyle farm because it was closer to the site. His progress in the cave was rapid, especially after his use of dynamite on Monday. On Thursday, he hauled some stalactites out of the cave to show to Doyle and Estes as evidence of the wonders that he was sure were waiting below. On Friday morning, January 30, 1925 -- Floyd Collins entered Sand Cave for the last time.
When Floyd did not return to either the Doyle or Estes homes by Saturday morning, it was realized that someone should go and check the sand hole and to make sure that he was all right. Unfortunately, he was not. While winding his way through the narrow passage, a rock worked its way loose from the shattered stone and fell on his left foot. He became wedged in against the wall and was unable to work himself out. He was lying on his right side and his right leg was locked at an awkward angle. His left arm remained free but in the cold dampness of the cave, it quickly became numb. During the night, Floyd had fallen asleep and when he awakened, he discovered that his lantern had gone out. He could only wait and hope that someone came to his aid.
When Floyd’s family and friends arrived on Saturday, they immediately set to work trying to free him. They managed to work his upper body loose and to warm him up with a gasoline lantern but that was all. With Floyd still trapped, they began widening the narrow opening into the cave and removed two bushels of rocks but even this did not help. Floyd’s brother, Homer, climbed down into the passage to spend the night with his brother as rescue attempts were called off for the day. Not sure of what else to do, Lee Collins offered a $500 reward to anyone who could free his son. It was becoming clear to the crowd that was beginning to gather outside that the rescue would not be a simple one.
By Monday morning, newspapers across the United States had begun to report his predicament. Hundreds of people congregated outside Sand Cave. Members of the Louisville Fire Department were on hand, as well as experienced cavers, concerned locals and many who simply meant well but had no real experience with such predicaments. Many of them tried to reach Floyd with supplies and comfort and while many of them made it, most turned back, paralyzed with fear at the narrowness of the passageway.
As mentioned, newspapers all over the country reported on the trap that Floyd had gotten himself into. A number of reporters tried to reach Floyd for interviews but the most successful was a cub reporter from the Louisville Courier-Journal named William Burke “Skeets” Miller, who later won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage. Miller’s nickname (for “mosquito”) came from his diminutive size, which enabled him to slide down the narrow path and sit with Floyd where he was trapped. He made eight descents into the cave and conducted a series of interviews that were quickly relayed to his readers as a first-hand account of what it was like to be literally buried alive.
Days passed and began to turn into several weeks. There had been attempts to bodily hoist Floyd from the cave (he had requested it -- even if his foot was pulled off) and an assortment of wild schemes, but none of them had worked. The local attempts soon became a national crisis involving dozens of miners, the National Guard, the Red Cross and a number of engineers. Thanks to the inclement weather, the crumbling walls of the cave passage, and often just confusion, Floyd could not be freed.
Many would later claim that Floyd became secondary to the scene on the surface. Fascinated by the daily reports from the reporters on the scene, an estimated 20,000 onlookers streamed into the area. Some of them hoped to help or catch a glimpse of the now heroic Floyd but others simply wanted to exploit the event by selling food, drinks and souvenirs. The circus-like atmosphere reached its peak in mid-February and the steady stream of curiosity-seekers continued.
Finally, a group of men managed to work their way into the cave and began trying to pry loose the rock that trapped Floyd’s leg. They had widened the passageway and as they worked, the rock finally came free -- then immediately slipped back into place wedging Floyd’s leg even more securely into place. The worked it back and forth but it was no use. Then, to make the situation even more dire, a series of small cave-ins occurred, crashing down onto Floyd and cutting him off from the surface. His would-be rescuers, after discovering that Floyd was still alive, scurried back to the surface. From that point on, none of the workers would return to the cave, fearing that the entire shaft might collapse. Homer Collins was enraged that no one would attempt to save his brother and he clashed with the authorities. Eventually, he was banned from the site.
Since no one would go back into the hole, a new plan was devised. A vertical shaft was started a short distance away with plans for it to intersect with the spot where Floyd was trapped. Friends, family and volunteers worked feverishly and on February 16, the shaft finally reached Floyd. Tragically though, he had died three days earlier -- on Friday the 13th -- from exposure and exhaustion.
People all over America had been riveted to the story of Floyd Collins and his plight had been front page news in newspapers and the source of constant updates on the radio for weeks. The press had descended on the Mammoth Cave area and had turned the region upside-down. What was not reported so widely was the fact that it took an additional two months to finally remove Floyd’s lifeless body from the cave.
The tragedy brought national attention to the Kentucky cave country, but it also created a backlash, leading many to wonder if the caves were safe. The tourist trade was temporarily affected, with the small commercial caves suffering the most. This was at the height of the previously mentioned "Cave Wars" and now the smaller caves were fighting one another for an even smaller piece of the pie. Even Crystal Cave, which should have still managed to draw business thanks to the Floyd Collins name, was hurt by the slump. As a result, Floyd’s father, Lee Collins, was even more anxious to sell the place than he had been when Floyd was alive.
In 1927, he accepted an offer from Dr. Harry B. Thomas, a local dentist, to take Crystal Cave off his hands for $10,000. Dr. Thomas already owned two other commercial caves in the area, Hidden River Cave and Mammoth Onyx Cave. In the transfer of property, Thomas was authorized to move Floyd Collins’ body from its resting place and re-locate it in Crystal Cave, where it would be given a new burial spot. The Collins family, of course, objected to this, but it was too late. Lee Collins had already signed the deal.
Thomas wanted to move Floyd’s body because he was sure that it would be a huge moneymaker for Crystal Cave. He had the body exhumed and then placed it in a glass-covered, bronzed metal coffin, opening it for public viewing in June 1927. It was placed in the middle of the tourist trail leading to Crystal Cave’s main concourse. Here, visitors could pass by and look at him as they walked deeper into the cave. He had a large granite tombstone placed at Floyd’s head. Granted, the stunt was ghoulish but it worked. Hundreds flocked to see Floyd’s body and in his death, he became the cave’s greatest advertisement. The guides would lecture solemnly about the exploits of the "world’s greatest cave explorer" while the tourists gawked at the white, waxed face of the man in the coffin.
The Collins family sued Thomas and the case was battled out in court for several years. In 1929, the courts ruled (hopefully reluctantly) that Collins’ body could stay where it was. Dr. Thomas had the legal right to the macabre display. Floyd would remain where he was in Crystal Cave --- or at least that was the general idea.
At some point on the night of March 18, 1929, Floyd’s body was stolen from its glass coffin and spirited out of the cave. The theft was discovered the next morning and authorities from three counties were enlisted to help in the search. The casket was dusted for fingerprints and bloodhounds, after being given Floyd’s scent, scoured the surrounding area. Before the day was over, the missing body was discovered (minus the left leg), about 800 yards from the cave’s entrance. It had been wrapped in burlap bags and hidden in the brush along the Green River.
The cadaver was back in its coffin the following day, a little worse for wear, although the missing leg was never found. The identity of the thieves was also never discovered, although many of the local folks had their suspicions.
The prime suspect was Dr. Thomas himself. Although he maintained that he could not guess the motives of the body-snatchers, there were those who believed that he had stolen the body himself in an effort to boost business at Crystal Cave (which it did). Others, however, blamed competing cave owners, jealous over Thomas’ newfound success and some believed that the Collins family had nabbed the corpse, or had hired it done, and they had lost the body before they could get away.
Regardless, after the attempted theft, the casket was covered each night with a metal lid and was securely locked. As time passed, the body was shown infrequently, although tourists were still asked to pause at the casket and listen to a short spiel offered in memory of the fallen cave explorer. The body continued to be displayed on occasion as late as 1952, although it remained in the cave for years after, long after it was closed to the public.
Many years after his actual death, Floyd Collins was finally buried at the Baptist Church cemetery up on Flint Ridge Road. His grave can easily be found here today. The last time that I visited here, I found a plastic bag that had been left behind on his tombstone with a note that was inscribed "To Floyd". Inside of the waterproof bag were a handful of matches and a candle-- the best friends of an old-time cave explorer. Even after all of this time, Floyd Collins has not been forgotten. Could that be because his ghost is still around?
Over the past several years, Crystal Cave has not been accessible to the public, although it has been charted and explored by national park employees and by a limited number of spelunkers. The fact that these veteran cave explorers have encountered weird phenomena in the cave dismisses the idea that the ghost stories here are merely the result of the overactive imaginations of tourists who are unfamiliar with the ordinary happenings in a cave.
A few years back, a group of Mammoth Cave employees were on an after-hours excursion in Crystal Cave and they noticed an old whiskey bottle that was resting on a rock ledge. One of the men in the group picked it up and looked at it and then placed it back on the ledge where he had found it. The group walked on deeper into the cave.
Later on in the evening, one of the men was walking back toward the cave entrance and was just passing by the old whiskey bottle when he heard a strange sound. "It was just behind my ear," he stated. "I heard a sound as though someone had flicked a finger against glass... a clink. I turned around just in time to see the bottle hit the ground."
Another man who was with him jumped back in shock. He claimed that the whiskey bottle had not just fallen, but that it had come straight out from the wall and had just dropped! "The little clink was loud enough to make me look back toward the ledge," he remembered, "and as I did, the bottle actually came out and then went right down in front of me. It was very bizarre."
Could the ghostly activity in the cave be attributed to the ghost of Floyd Collins? If there were an identity to be given to this ghost, he would certainly be everyone’s first choice.
Another tale from Crystal Cave is attributed to a former employee named George Wood, who filed it as a report back in 1976. He wrote that he and another employee, Bill Cobb, had spent a day in June checking springs for a study on groundwater flow in central Kentucky. They didn’t make it to the last spring until after dark and it was located near the old and abandoned Collins house on Flint Ridge.
Cobb went to the spring while Wood waited near the truck. After a few moments, he heard the sound of a man crying out in the darkness. At first, he thought it was his friend calling for help, but the voice seemed too high-pitched. It was also so faint that he had to listen carefully to hear what it was saying.
The voice cried: "Help me! Help me! Help me, I’m trapped! Johnny, help me!" It called out over and over again.
As he stood there on the edge of the dark road, he felt a cold chill run down his back. He vividly recalled hearing and reading about Floyd Collins and how he was trapped in Sand Cave --- which was located just a short distance from where he was standing!
A few minutes later, Cobb returned and Wood asked him if he had been calling for him. The other man had heard nothing while at the spring, but after hearing Wood’s account, admitted that he was spooked. In fact, they both were and didn’t waste any time in getting back in the truck and driving off.
Could the spectral voice have really belonged to Floyd Collins? And if so, could the "Johnny" that was heard in the mysterious cry have referred to Johnny Gerald, a friend of Floyd’s and the last person to speak with him before the cave collapse sealed him off from rescue? Is his spirit still trapped in the cave, or could the sound have been merely an eerie echo of yesterday?
So, are they really ghosts in famous Mammoth Cave? If the stories of witnesses and guides from almost the past two centuries can be believed, there are. Combine these accounts with hesitant reports from scientists and trained skeptics, who can’t explain what they have encountered in the cave, and you certainly have an unusual situation on your hands!
But if nothing else, the cave is certainly ripe for a haunting and the legends alone draw thousands of eager visitors each year. The mystery, the history, the cave explorers who have never returned, the tragedy, the terror and the death have created just what may be one of the most haunted places in the world!
Mammoth Cave is located twenty miles northeast of Bowling Green, Kentucky in the
southwest part of the state. Don't look for the body of Floyd Collins when you go there...
he is now resting in the Flint Ridge Baptist Cemetery, which is located on the park