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The photo above shows the Historic Entrance to Mammoth Cave. With over 350 miles of surveyed passages, Mammoth Cave is longer than any other known cave. While called a cave, Mammoth is more accurately described as a system of interconnected caves or passages. I have a map on my wall that shows cave passage locations under the park and it looks somewhat like a bad case of varicose veins. The passages twist and turn and branch off from each other in many directions. There are 4 separate levels of the cave, in one area near the historic entrance there are 4 levels of passages one above the other. Evidence of exploration and mining of the cave for minerals by prehistoric men was found in the cave in the form of the spent torches they used for light. But apparently sometime around 2000 years ago the cave was abandoned (or avoided for some reason) and men didn't enter it again until early European settlers moved into the area in the 1780's. The European/Americans immediately saw an opportunity, and began to exploit the cave. Notably the cave was mined for saltpeter using slaves in the early 1800's. The saltpeter was used to make gunpowder. By 1816 the cave was being developed and marketed as a tourist attraction. Slaves that formerly worked the mines now became guides for tourists, and these slaves also did much of the early exploration of the cave passages. In addition to the cave system, the park includes a 27 mile section of the Green River, ponds and historical buildings.
There are many available cave tours. They were working on installing a new cave lighting system and other facilities at the time of our visit and apparently some facilities were closed for construction. We found the information regarding tours a bit confusing, we seemed to get conflicting information on which tours were being offered and restroom availability. I wasn't feeling very good, and didn't relish the idea of 2 hours trapped on a tour in a cave, so we decided to only take the short, basic "Discovery Tour". Instead of caving we spent a considerable amount of time exploring the above ground part of the park. To be perfectly honest, we've been in a lot of caves over the years, but we hadn't been in Kentucky before!
In the early 1800's a saltpeter (calcium nitrate) mining operation was set up in the cave, and the large Rotunda room was used for processing the saltpeter. Dirt from the cave floor contains calcium nitrate. Slaves were used to haul this dirt in carts from other parts of the cave to the Rotunda. Wood frames were filled with the dirt, then the dirt was leached with water to dissolve and remove the calcium nitrate. The water used for leaching was piped in from outside of the cave using wood pipes. After leaching the soil in the frame, the leach water was collected in pipes under the frame and from there it ran down into wood storage tanks. From the tanks a hand pump was used to pump the water through wood pipes back out of the cave. You can still see some of the wood pipes on the cave floor in Houchins Narrows between the Rotunda and the historic entrance. Once on the surface, the leach water was further processed to remove impurities by filtering it through barrels filled with wood ash. Finally the remaining filtered water was boiled away, leaving the saltpeter crystals. The saltpeter crystals were packaged and shipped to factories in the Eastern U.S.A., where it was used as an ingredient for making gunpowder. Much of the saltpeter used for making gunpowder for use in the War of 1812 came from Mammoth Cave. The mining operation closed down around 1815 when the end of the war caused a decline in the demand for saltpeter.
The Heritage Trail starts near the hotel and loops around the old guide's cemetery.
(William) Floyd Collins was exploring Sand Cave in 1925, when a rock lodged on his leg and he became trapped. A frantic rescue effort followed, which became a major media event. Newspaper and radio updates followed the progress, and a reporter actually crawled into the cave and interviewed him while he was trapped! Thousands of people came to the rescue site. So many showed up that vendors set up concessions and souvenir stands and a carnival-like atmosphere ensued. The rescue effort failed when the cave ceiling collapsed between him and the rescuers. They could no longer provide him with food and warmth, they frantically get digging, but Floyd died a few days later of starvation and exposure. His body was later removed and displayed for tourists in Crystal Cave, which he had discovered. When the Park Service purchased Crystal Cave, his family requested his body be moved, so it is now buried in the cemetery at the Mammoth Cave Baptist Church. For more on the tragic story of (William) Floyd Collins, and the nationwide media circus that surrounded his attempted rescue, Click here.
The Mammoth Cave Campground is located a short hike from the Visitor Center. There are 2 other campgrounds located elsewhere in the park. All of the campgrounds have toilets, picnic tables, grills, and water. None of the park campgrounds have electrical, water or sewer hook-ups. There is a gas station, store, laundry, and shower facilities located adjacent to the Mammoth Cave Campground.
For more information on Mammoth Cave, including available cave tours, see the National Park Services Mammoth Cave website at http://www.nps.gov/maca/.
For reservations or more information on booking a room at Mammoth Cave see the hotel website at http://mammothcavehotel.com/.
Text and Images by Jess Stryker. Copyright © Jess Stryker, 2006. All rights reserved. Permission is granted for student use of photos for non-profit school/class projects.