Mammoth Cave doesn't have the colorful stalagmites and stalactites that make some caves famous. Lighting is minimal; signs are nonexistent, and there's no pipe organ playing "Shenandoah," like the one at Luray Caverns in Virginia.
Yet Mammoth's claims to fame are many. It's the longest cave in the world, with more than 360 miles of connected tunnels. It's also the second-oldest tourist attraction in America, after Niagara Falls, with guided tours offered since 1816.
Huts used by an 1840s tuberculosis colony still stand, as do mining pits from 1812. Most amazing of all is how far back Mammoth's human connections stretch: Mummies have been found in the cave, and you can still see petroglyphs (cave drawings) that are thousands of years old.
Mammoth entered recorded history around 1798 when John Houchins, a Kentucky homesteader, shot and wounded a bear, then followed the critter into a natural cave entrance that is still used today.
Other early 19th century visitors found the cave's tunnels littered with discarded moccasins, reed torches and several mummified bodies. Eventually archaeologists determined these artifacts were up to 4,000 years old; the cool, dry cave air had preserved them.
Mummies a Major Attraction
The mummies became traveling shows. "Mammoth Cave was world-famous because of the mummies," said tour guide David Sholar, a National Parks Service ranger. "Wealthy people in Europe and in the East wanted to see Mammoth Cave, and the owners of Mammoth got a wild idea — that people would pay money to see a hole in the ground."
To sophisticated 19th century Easterners and Europeans, a cave tour in Kentucky — billed as "The American Interior" — was as appealing and exotic as a trip to the Amazon rain forest sounds now. Porters — who in antebellum times were often slaves of the cave-owners — brought food and musical instruments to entertain their guests on 12-hour excursions. Ralph Waldo Emerson and the "Swedish Nightingale" Jenny Lind were among the Who's Who of visitors in the 1800s. Modern guests can get a taste of those trips on the Violet City Lantern Tour, a three-hour, 3-mile hike without electric lights. Instead, hikers use kerosene lamps to illuminate the cave's steep, dark paths, just as visitors did 150 years ago.
Mammoth is a relatively dry cave, which is why it has few of the icicle-like formations associated with caves; those are made when moisture drips through minerals in cave walls. Instead, what makes the Violet City tour so interesting are the artifacts. Guides often wrote their names on the walls using candle smoke, and encouraged their guests to do the same. Today's tourists will find "Wad Wallace 1868" written on one wall, and on another, "E. Bishop," left by the son of cave guide Steve Bishop, a slave renowned for his knowledge of the tunnels.
The Violet City Tour
Ranger Sholar, who led our tour, also pointed out remnants of stick torches lodged in the cave's rocky ceiling, which he said had been left some 4,000 years ago. "Wood is durable, as long as it is dry," he said. When lit, the pole torches — made of cane reed from the nearby Green River — would give light for 30 to 60 minutes.
The Violet City tour also includes a look at the petroglyphs. These charcoal drawings were left on an immense, flat stone slab called Devil's Looking Glass, which appears to have been placed at a prominent angle on a tunnel path, as if the ancient artists wanted maximum visibility for their work. One drawing looks like a snake, or a lightning bolt; another resembles a human form, with two arms and two legs, but it might also have been a crude map of four nearby passages leading to a natural rotunda. You won't see any mummies on the tour, but you will pass the spot where one was found in 1935. Nicknamed "Lost John," the 5-foot-3-inch man wearing a shell necklace was considered a major archaeological find and was exhibited until 1976, when federal law prohibited the display of Indian remains. Lost John was buried near where he was found.
Other artifacts include the pits where 70 slaves and indentured servants worked hand-mining thousands of pounds of nitrate, or saltpeter, during the War of 1812. The nitrate was used to make gunpowder, which had skyrocketed in price during the war after Britain blockaded Eastern U.S. ports. It was shipped for processing to a Delaware chemist named E.I. DuPont, whose family's firm still bears his name.
Cave Boasts 130 Species
Later the cave was purchased by Dr. John Croghan, who in 1842 set up a colony for tubercular patients. Croghan thought the cave air would be restorative, but his patients actually grew worse, due to smoke from torches and cooking fires in the cave. They died within a year, and Croghan, who'd lived with them, later died of the disease himself. The Violet City tour passes by their huts.
We didn't see any animals in the cave, but biologists have documented 130 different species — including rats, bats, mice, crickets, salamanders, snakes and, in the cave's river, eyeless crayfish and shrimp. But we found deer, chipmunks and birds after just a few minutes of driving and a short hike in the woods of Mammoth Cave National Park. Also worth a stop is the graveyard of a picturesque church near the visitor center. "Greatest cave explorer ever known" reads the epitaph for William Floyd Collins, whose death spurred the movement to make Mammoth Cave a national park. Born in 1887, Collins began exploring caves — which abound in this part of Kentucky — at age 6. Money could be made by charging tourists fees to enter the caves, so poor families in this hardscrabble rural area were always looking for a way to cash in. Collins was searching for a tunnel between Mammoth and nearby Sand Cave when he became trapped on Jan. 30, 1925. He died 17 days later amid misguided rescue efforts and swarms of gawkers and reporters.
In an editorial soon after, The Courier-Journal of Louisville urged federal officials to make Mammoth a national park and bring some order to the frenzied efforts to exploit local caves. "Floyd Collins … will not have died in vain if you open the cave country… to the people of the United States," the paper said. The Eastern United States had no national parks when Congress, in 1926, authorized the creation of Mammoth Park.
The cave's importance continues to be recognized. In 1981, the United Nations designated it a World Heritage Site, on the same list with the Egyptian Pyramids and the Grand Canyon, and in 1990 UNESCO classified it as an International Biosphere Reserve.
Admirers of Collins, meanwhile, still leave flowers and food on his grave. If You Go…
MAMMOTH CAVE TOURS: Daily tours often sell out, so make reservations. Fees range from $4 for short self-guided tours, to $10 to $15 for longer tours accompanied by park rangers, to a $45, six-hour "Wild Cave" tour that involves crawling through tight passages. For families, try the two-hour "Frozen Niagara" tour and the three-hour "Violet City Lantern Tour." (Kids under 6 not permitted on the Violet City tour.) Both tours have steep, sometimes slippery climbs; temperature hovers around 50 degrees. For details, click on "View all fees" at www.nps.gov/maca, or call (270) 758-2180. GETTING THERE: Located 90 minutes from Louisville or Nashville; exit 53 from I-65 South, exit 48 from I-65 North. ACCOMMODATIONS: You can camp in the park, or stay at one of Cave City's inexpensive motels. Visit www.cavecity.com or call (800) 346-8908. NEARBY ATTRACTIONS: Water parks and amusement parks abound in Cave City. The National Corvette Museum is in Bowling Green (8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, admission $8 adults and $4.50 children, (800) 53-VETTE). Kentucky Down Under, a zoo featuring Australian animals, is in Horse Cave (8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, March 13 to Oct. 31, (800) 762-2869, admission $18.75 for adults and $10.50 for children, including entry to another cave).