Mammoth Cave Takes Visitors Back in Time

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.

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