Mammoth Cave Takes Visitors Back in Time

M A M M O T H   C A V E, Ky., Feb. 20, 2004 -- Mammoth Cave doesn't have the colorfulstalagmites and stalactites that make some caves famous. Lightingis minimal; signs are nonexistent, and there's no pipe organplaying "Shenandoah," like the one at Luray Caverns in Virginia.

Yet Mammoth's claims to fame are many. It's the longest cave inthe world, with more than 360 miles of connected tunnels. It's alsothe second-oldest tourist attraction in America, after NiagaraFalls, with guided tours offered since 1816.

Huts used by an 1840stuberculosis colony still stand, as do mining pits from 1812. Mostamazing of all is how far back Mammoth's human connections stretch:Mummies have been found in the cave, and you can still seepetroglyphs (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 thecritter into a natural cave entrance that is still used today.

Other early 19th century visitors found the cave's tunnelslittered with discarded moccasins, reed torches and severalmummified bodies. Eventually archaeologists determined theseartifacts were up to 4,000 years old; the cool, dry cave air hadpreserved them.

Mummies a Major Attraction

The mummies became traveling shows. "Mammoth Cave wasworld-famous because of the mummies," said tour guide DavidSholar, a National Parks Service ranger. "Wealthy people in Europeand in the East wanted to see Mammoth Cave, and the owners ofMammoth got a wild idea — that people would pay money to see a holein the ground."

To sophisticated 19th century Easterners and Europeans, a cavetour in Kentucky — billed as "The American Interior" — was asappealing and exotic as a trip to the Amazon rain forest soundsnow. Porters — who in antebellum times were often slaves of thecave-owners — brought food and musical instruments to entertaintheir guests on 12-hour excursions. Ralph Waldo Emerson and the"Swedish Nightingale" Jenny Lind were among the Who's Who ofvisitors in the 1800s. Modern guests can get a taste of those trips on the Violet CityLantern 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 theicicle-like formations associated with caves; those are made whenmoisture drips through minerals in cave walls. Instead, what makesthe Violet City tour so interesting are the artifacts. Guides oftenwrote their names on the walls using candle smoke, and encouragedtheir guests to do the same. Today's tourists will find "WadWallace 1868" written on one wall, and on another, "E. Bishop,"left by the son of cave guide Steve Bishop, a slave renowned forhis knowledge of the tunnels.

The Violet City Tour

Ranger Sholar, who led our tour, also pointed out remnants ofstick torches lodged in the cave's rocky ceiling, which he said hadbeen left some 4,000 years ago. "Wood is durable, as long as it isdry," he said. When lit, the pole torches — made of cane reed fromthe 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 slabcalled Devil's Looking Glass, which appears to have been placed ata prominent angle on a tunnel path, as if the ancient artistswanted maximum visibility for their work. One drawing looks like asnake, or a lightning bolt; another resembles a human form, withtwo arms and two legs, but it might also have been a crude map offour nearby passages leading to a natural rotunda. You won't see any mummies on the tour, but you will pass thespot where one was found in 1935. Nicknamed "Lost John," the5-foot-3-inch man wearing a shell necklace was considered a majorarchaeological find and was exhibited until 1976, when federal lawprohibited the display of Indian remains. Lost John was buried nearwhere he was found.

Other artifacts include the pits where 70 slaves and indenturedservants worked hand-mining thousands of pounds of nitrate, orsaltpeter, during the War of 1812. The nitrate was used to makegunpowder, which had skyrocketed in price during the war afterBritain blockaded Eastern U.S. ports. It was shipped for processingto a Delaware chemist named E.I. DuPont, whose family's firm stillbears his name.

Cave Boasts 130 Species

Later the cave was purchased by Dr. John Croghan, who in 1842set up a colony for tubercular patients. Croghan thought the caveair would be restorative, but his patients actually grew worse, dueto smoke from torches and cooking fires in the cave. They diedwithin a year, and Croghan, who'd lived with them, later died ofthe disease himself. The Violet City tour passes by their huts.

We didn't see any animals in the cave, but biologists havedocumented 130 different species — including rats, bats, mice,crickets, salamanders, snakes and, in the cave's river, eyelesscrayfish and shrimp. But we found deer, chipmunks and birds afterjust a few minutes of driving and a short hike in the woods ofMammoth Cave National Park. Also worth a stop is the graveyard of a picturesque church nearthe visitor center. "Greatest cave explorer ever known" reads theepitaph for William Floyd Collins, whose death spurred the movementto make Mammoth Cave a national park. Born in 1887, Collins beganexploring 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 alwayslooking for a way to cash in. Collins was searching for a tunnelbetween Mammoth and nearby Sand Cave when he became trapped on Jan.30, 1925. He died 17 days later amid misguided rescue efforts andswarms of gawkers and reporters.

In an editorial soon after, The Courier-Journal of Louisvilleurged federal officials to make Mammoth a national park and bringsome order to the frenzied efforts to exploit local caves. "FloydCollins … will not have died in vain if you open the cavecountry… to the people of the United States," the paper said.The Eastern United States had no national parks when Congress, in1926, authorized the creation of Mammoth Park.

The cave's importance continues to be recognized. In 1981, theUnited Nations designated it a World Heritage Site, on the samelist with the Egyptian Pyramids and the Grand Canyon, and in 1990UNESCO classified it as an International Biosphere Reserve.

Admirers of Collins, meanwhile, still leave flowers and food onhis grave. If You Go…

MAMMOTH CAVE TOURS: Daily tours often sell out, so makereservations. 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 tightpassages. For families, try the two-hour "Frozen Niagara" tourand the three-hour "Violet City Lantern Tour." (Kids under 6 notpermitted 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, orcall (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 CaveCity's inexpensive motels. Visit or call (800)346-8908. NEARBY ATTRACTIONS: Water parks and amusement parks abound inCave City. The National Corvette Museum is in Bowling Green (8 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 forchildren, including entry to another cave).