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.