Mammoth Cave is the oldest tourist attraction in North America. The first tourists came here in 1816, before Hot Springs, Arkansas and probably before Niagara Falls, attracted by the mystery and grandeur of the seemingly endless underground passages. In the Visitor Center, an LED displays says “400 miles of passageways in the cave, as of 2013.” Cavers, scientists, and adventurers keep discovering more. It’s a shallow cave with many mysteries.
“There’s no end in sight. Mapping and explorations is never ending,” says an explorer in the visitor center film.
I’m on the Star Chamber tour, an evening tour to see the cave as nineteenth century visitors might have experienced it. We carry lanterns instead of having the usual electric lights turned on. Ranger Shannon Hurley, a local, is our guide. He preps us with all the usual no-nos before we go into the cave – no smoking, eating, touching rocks. But there’s a new one.
“If you hit your head on a low rock, watch your language. We don’t want to improve children’s vocabulary in a negative manner.” That’s followed by warnings of how difficult this tour is, “260 stairs with an elevation change of 160 feet. If you have heart or lung trouble, knee or back problems … It’s very difficult to rescue someone in a cave.” But no one backs out of the tour.
We walk down the Historic Entrance, a natural entrance, where prehistoric people first went into the cave 4,000 years ago. Skeletons were found in the cave, one man crushed by a rock. The first explorers may have gone in for gypsum, mostly used for dry walling, now. “The old Hostess Twinkies had gypsum as well,” Ranger Hurley says. “It was supposed to make the cupcakes light and fluffy.” Then the prehistoric people left, for unknown reasons.
At the turn of the 19th Century, John Houchins went out hunting. At the top of the ravine, he saw a black bear and took a shot but missed. “He was obviously not a native Kentuckian,” Ranger Shannon Hurley says. But Houchins chased it until he found himself at the cave entrance. We don’t know if Houchins got his bear but he gets credit for rediscovering the cave. Unfortunately, the bears are all gone from the park.
Mammoth Cave became an interesting place when nitre, an ingredient in saltpeter, was discovered in the cave. Saltpeter with charcoal and sulfur became gunpowder. The unpleasantness with Britain, as the park brochure calls the War of 1812, was brewing and the United States could no longer import foreign gunpowder. Cave owners found saltpeter production very profitable. The large wooden vats and wooden pipes used to bring in water to leach the soil to get at the saltpeter can still be seen in the cave. Because Mammoth Cave is a dry cave, so many artifacts that would have decayed with water are still here.
When the War of 1812 was over, demand for saltpeter petered out. Someone had the bright idea that tourists might be interested in touring the cave. Stephen Bishop, a slave in the 1830s, became a guide and the first explorer of the cave trail system. He crossed the Bottomless Pit by throwing a ladder across the chasm and crawling across. On another tour, I cross the pit on a good bridge with a handrail.
The cave kept changing owners, bringing new ideas of how to capitalize on this wonder. One of the owners, Dr. John Croghan, thought that the constant 54-degree temperature would cure tuberculosis. In 1842, he brought more than a dozen patients underground to live in wooden and stone huts. Servants cooked meals and took care of the patients needs. Cave air was supposed to cure them. While the patients lived in the cave huts, visitors kept coming to the caves, going right past the patients, which they described as walking skeletons. But the cave air didn’t work too well and all his patients died. Three are buried in the old Guide’s cemetery behind the Mammoth Cave hotel. Croghan himself died of TB soon after. The stone huts are still here for modern visitors to see.
On each tour, you get wonderful stories of what happened in the caves. The rangers are entertaining as well as factual and each has his or her own spiel. The tours are run by park rangers, not by volunteers. With so many tours day in, day out, I find that amazing and refreshing. The easy tours can have up to 120 people but they’re orderly and you don’t miss a thing, if you’re paying attention. These rangers know how to work a crowd. At some point, on each tour that I’ve been on, the ranger turns out the lights and asks for quiet. Even young children stop chattering. The silence and utter darkness would drive anyone crazy after a short while.
I’ve stayed here two full days on two occasions. But by concentrating on the cave, I’ve only walked a few miles of the eighty trail miles above ground. According to Ranger Hurley, “Mammoth Caves is mostly a daytrip. People come through from the Midwest and stop for a tour on their way to Florida.”
That’s why there are no large gateway towns, like Gatlinburg outside the Smokies. Also with I-65 so close, people get off the interstate and get back on after a tour, even though there’s lodging next to the visitor center. I stayed at the Mammoth Cave Hotel, run by a concessionaire. It feels like a 1950s hotel, with a tiny bedroom and even smaller bathroom. You can’t beat the location and it’s a shame that it will be torn down soon.
By the 1920s, there was a clamor to protect the caves and the land above it. In 1926, Congress authorized Mammoth Caves as a national park, along with Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shenandoah in Virginia. The Kentucky National Park Commission was established to start buying land from individuals. The park opened in 1941.