History Underground: Historic Mammoth Cave

I love exploring caves. Caves can be gorgeous places, full of extraordinarily beautiful cave formation, unique life, and the chance for adventure. Caves can also be rich in history. I’ve been thinking about caves quite a bit lately so today’s article is about one of the most interesting and easy caves to visit, Mammoth Cave.

Tour group preparing to enter Mammoth Cave with guide Ed Bishop, circa 1909.Mammoth Cave National Park is one of the most well-known commercial caves in the country. Of course, visitors can only visit a tiny fraction of the 390 miles of mapped passage.

The first known visitors to the Mammoth Cave system were native Americans who visited the underground passages at least 4,000 years ago. They explored the cave with torches, using the soft light of fire to illuminate the passages. Why did they go into the cave? Maybe for the same reasons we like to visit caves now: for the adventure and the wonder. Early explorers also mined minerals from the dark tunnels far underground.

Modern explorers didn’t rediscover Mammoth until the very end of the 18th century, and by 1816 visitors could go on guided tours of the underground marvel. In the early 1800s, Mammoth became useful not for tourism, but for gunpowder. Miners extracted saltpeter from the cave soil. Saltpeter was one of the most critical ingredients to making gunpowder. During the War of 1812, saltpeter mining in Mammoth became an important source of saltpeter when a British blockade prevented saltpeter from reaching the United States from abroad.

In the early years of the cave’s history, nobody knew how large Mammoth Cave really was. The cave was named “Mammoth” to extoll its vast size, even though the cave wasn’t really very “mammoth” at that point. Early cave guides usually led visitors to the areas of the cave near the entrance, but none wanted to venture farther into the darkness. That is, until Stephen Bishop. Bishop is widely recarged as one of the greatest explorers Mammoth Cave has ever known. A salve, Bishop was a teenager when he was brought to Mammoth Cave in 1838. White tour guides taught him the typical tourist routes and also taught him how to guide tourists. However, Bishop did something nobody else had yet attempted in Mammoth: he pushed farther into the cave to see what was around the corner.

Bishop crossed a deep chasm called the Bottomless Pit. An 1883 publication titled “The Mammoth Cave, Kentucky” described the pit:

It’s one of the most interesting portions of the cave. It is a deep, dark pool in the rocky flor whose depth is unknown. Attempts have been made to sound it, but probably owing to the lack of suitable apparatus, they have been unsuccessful. When the Pit is illuminated, its weird surroundings are strikingly brought out. the glar, driving back the shadows a short distance, the walls of rock, on which the flickering light battles with the darkness, and the mouth of the pit below so densely black as to apparently justify its name-all these are the  constituents of a scene which strongly impresses the imagination.

Mammoth Cave: The Bottomless Pit, 1887 wood cut print in the private collection of Dr. Nuno Carvalho de SousaStephen Bishop became a very experienced explorer and became the first person to cross this scary sounding black void.

 The pit extended across the floor, cutting off further progress. Stevenson tossed a rock into the void counting to himself. It took 2.5 seconds from the moment of release, by his best estimate, before the rock splattered to rest on the bottom. Stevenson held both oil lamps, lighting the edge of the drop and the six-foot gap that blocked the way to the continuation of the passage on the other side.

The two explorers went into a side passage to return with two cedar-pole ladders. Stephen cleaned off the edge of the hold, scraping the rocks into Bottomless Pit. They thrust the first of the ladders across the pit, jamming it on the other side between two rocks. They rocked the ladder back and forth until the pole ends were seated. This was the result of the talks about what might be found if one could cross Bottomless Pit. The more Stephen had talked, the more Stevenson had wanted to see for himself.

When all had been prepared, Stephen sat down, straddling the ladder. He tested it with his weight, rocking forward. It held. Now he was ready to go. He leaned forward on his hands, scooted forward, moved his hands forward, and pushed head again. He moved cautiously, a few inches at a time. Then he was over the void. Stephen moved on across quickly. There was nothing below to see except darkness. The pit was in shadow. It might have been more frightening if he could have seen the bottom, but he was interested in the other side. Now he rested his feet against the far edge, quickly scooted forward, and went over on his hands and knees on the other side of Bottomless Pit. Stephen let out his breath, cleared some rock from the edge, and then told Stevenson to come across. Stevenson bridged the second ladder over the drop. It was longer and seemed safer. For an instant his light showed the depth of the pit, and then he also was across.

Mammoth Cave: the River Styx guided tourBishop loved to explore, and it turned out that in just a few months, he discovered more new cave passages than all of the other tour guides. This was just the beginning of the fascinating history of Mammoth. One of the most bizarre periods is the Cave Wars of the early 1900s. Times were tough then, and business minded people realized that they could make money from cave tours. Mammoth isn’t the only cave in the area, so other tour operators started to promote their own caves, using tactics that were often not entirely legitimate. Other caves published outlandish and wrong information about their own cave to lure tourists, and their money, to other caves. Some cave owners even resorted to placing signs that said “This way to Mammoth Cave?” that actually led to their caves. Others resorted to blasting open new cave entrances in the hope of finding a new entrance to Mammoth. These shenanigans continued for decades, really until the cave was converted into a national park in 1941 (the same year the National Speleological Society formed). Exploration of the cave continued, and modern explorers found massive amounts of new passage and connected existing cave systems together to create the 390-mile cave we know today.

1812 saltpeter works in Mammoth CaveToday, visitors can enjoy a wide variety of activities both in the cave and above-ground in the national park. If you’re interested in history, the park provides several historic-themed tours. You can go on the “Historic Tour” and visit the area that still contains saltpeter works from the 1812 period and learn about the entire saltpeter mining process (it was pretty involved and really fascinating). Here’s a description of that tour:

Entering the cave through the Historic Entrance, you will feel the excitement that intrigued the earliest explorers and visitors. Experience the history and the role Mammoth Cave played during the War of 1812. Large passages invite you to imagine what it would have been like for prehistoric discoverers who walked these passages more than 2,000 years ago. Descend into the lower levels of the cave and follow in the footsteps of the first explorers who crossed the Bottomless Pit. Squeeze through Fat Man’s Misery. Climb 155 stairs up Mammoth Dome and exit through the Historic Entrance.   2 hours, 2 miles.

One of the most interesting tours is the Violet City Lantern Tour. This is how early visitors saw the cave and it really is fun to see the cave this way.

Walk through some of the largest passages in the cave by lantern light as guides recreate the experience of the first visitors in the 1800s. Become part of the tradition of visiting one of the oldest tourist attractions in the country. Relive the stories and illusions witnessed by Ralph Waldo Emerson and others of his day. See evidence of saltpetre production, an underground hospital and prehistoric mining of cave minerals. Enter through the Historic Entrance and visit the Narrows, the Rotunda, Broadway Avenue, Giant’s Coffin, Star Chamber, Wright’s Rotunda, the Cataracts, Chief City, Mummy Ledge, Elisabeth’s Dome, and exit by way of the Violet City Entrance.  3 hours, 3 miles.

Details on How to Visit:

Lodging and Camping:

There are plenty of places to stay near Mammoth Cave. The Mammoth Cave Hotel is a great location and is very close to the visitor center and cave entrance, but plenty of hotels are in nearby towns. You can also camp in the spacious park campground. Over 70 miles of hiking and biking trails are available, as well as opportunities for canoeing, photography, and other family-friendly activities.

Cave Tickets:

You can purchase tickets to cave tours ahead of time by visiting the Mammoth Cave NPS web page.


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