Traveling along Interstate 65 in central Kentucky, it’s easy to appreciate the beautiful rolling hills, picturesque farms, and friendly small towns along the way. But many people don’t know that even more beauty is hidden beneath the earth’s surface. This is Cave Country, and the entire region is honeycombed with a series of caves, some of them so small you could not stand up in them, and others massive underground labyrinths filled with beautiful rock formations.
The granddaddy of them all, of course, is Mammoth Cave, which was first discovered by early native peoples about 4,000 years ago. Just like today’s visitors, they were awestruck by the beauty they found so far underground. Entrepreneurs mined the cave for saltpeter, an important ingredient in making gunpowder, in the early 1800s, and others seeking to make a profit began giving guided tours of Mammoth Cave in 1816. In the early part of the 20th century a movement began to protect the cave, and in 1941 it was declared a National Park. Tourism had increased steadily over the years as more and more of the cave was explored and made accessible.
But there are many other caves in the region, most of them privately owned, including Diamond Caverns, Indian Cave, Sand Cave, Great Onyx Cave, and Crystal Cave, just to name a few. Scientists believe that many, if not all the caves in the region, are connected. Since even today so much has yet to be explored, nobody really knows just how elaborate the cave systems are.
Recognizing an opportunity to make money from visitors eager to explore underground, farmers who had caves on their property either began promoting their own cave tours, or leased their caves out to entrepreneurs who wanted to develop them.
Back in the 1920s, the competition for tourist dollars grew to the point that people who owned or operated caves would employ all kinds of methods, many of them not entirely ethical, to lure visitors away from Mammoth Cave or other caves in the area. These activities became known as the Kentucky Cave Wars, and while no shots were fired that I know of, they did result in legal battles and at least one tragic fatality.
The competition was fierce, and private cave owners came up with all sorts of ways to try to get people to tour their caves for a fee. In 1921, a man name Morrison put up signs announcing a “new entrance” to Mammoth Cave to divert drivers going to the big cave to his property instead. Cave owners put up other signs giving false directions to Mammoth Cave that actually ended up at their own operations. They hired men who became known as “cappers” who would actually jump on the running boards of cars to tell people that Mammoth Cave had been flooded, or destroyed by an earthquake, and point the drivers to whichever cave was paying them. There are stories about cappers who dressed in police uniforms and stood in the roadway leading to Mammoth Cave turning vehicles around and directing them to other cave operations.
Tragedy came to Cave Country in 1925 when a young man named Floyd Collins became trapped underground by a cave-in while looking for a connection to Mammoth Cave from Sand Cave, which was on his family’s farm. A massive rescue effort was launched to save Collins and it became a media event reported around the world. Unfortunately, after 14 days he died of thirst and starvation, alone in the dark. Today visitors to Mammoth Cave National Park can travel a short distance past the Visitor Center to a small Baptist church cemetery and pay their respects to Collins, who is buried there. I wrote about the brave young cave explorer’s ordeal in my book Highway History and Back Road Mystery II.
Today, things are a lot more peaceful in Cave Country. The National Park has expanded to encompass many of the smaller caves, while some private operations such as Diamond Caverns, located near the entrance to Mammoth Cave National Park, continue to thrive. If you visit the area in an RV, there is a very nice full-service campground at Diamond Caverns that can handle just about any size RV. There is also a campground inside the park, although RV sites with hookups are limited, and there are other campgrounds in the area.
The next time you travel through Kentucky’s Cave Country, do yourself a favor and stop and take a tour of Mammoth Cave, and maybe even some of the other caves that are still available. You’ll be amazed at the wonderland you will find beneath your feet.
Be sure to enter our latest Free Drawing. This week’s prize is an RV camping journal donated by Barbara House. Barbara makes several variations of these, and they all have pages where you can list the date, weather, where you traveled to and from that day, beginning and ending mileage, campground information including amenities at RV sites, a place for a campground rating, room to record activities, people met along the way, reminders of places to see and things to do the next time you’re in the area, and a page for notes for each day.
To enter, all you have to do is click on this Free Drawing link or the tab at the top of this page and enter your name (first and last) in the comments section at the bottom of that page (not this one). Only one entry per person per drawing please, and you must enter with your real name. To prevent spam or multiple entries, the names of cartoon or movie characters are not allowed. The winner will be drawn Sunday evening.
Thought For The Day – When you think your best isn’t good enough, more than likely it isn’t.