A Hidden Gem

Mammoth Cave is celebrating
its 200th anniversary

Exhibits tell the stories of famous early tour guides

(July 2016) – Even though he had been to Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave before, Nick Ellis found his last trip into the crystalline cave to be “incredibly impressive.” His visit was one of many that visitors make into the cave annually, as Mammoth Cave celebrates 200 years of guided tours in 2016.

Photos courtesy of the
National Park Service

Frozen Niagara inside Mammoth Cave is made of travertine, or traveling stone – dissolved limestone that has been redeposited by dripping water.

Ellis, 45, and his girlfriend, Melissa Davis, had been in Nashville, Tenn., for a wedding in December 2015 and decided to stop in at Mammoth Cave on their way home to Madison, Ind. Even though they had both been to the site before, Ellis said this excursion was “perfect.”
“We went to the Visitors’ Center, then straight to the ticket counter and our tour started in 10 minutes,” he said. “You could tell our tour guide had been giving tours for many years. He was very knowledgeable and responded to all questions.”
Because of his positive experience Ellis said, “We’ve already made plans to go back.” He and Davis plan to go back with friends and take a seven-hour tour. Such tours require a group of 12 or more people.
“We want to do a more rigorous tour,” he said. For such a tour as this, the group would have to bring lanterns to light the dark recesses of the cave.

Photos courtesy of the
National Park Service

These 200-year-old wooden pipes inside Mammoth Cave were used in a saltpeter operation in 1812.

While at the cave, the couple had wanted to stay at the park lodge, but the 54-room facility was being upgraded. They traveled into nearby Cave City, Ky., and “experienced the local flair.”
Ellis said Mammoth Cave is definitely comparable to other National Park sites. He’s visited the northwest and Maine, and said Mammoth Cave “is as equally impressive. To have it here in our region is something to be very proud of.”
He said he was impressed with the natural features of the park. It is a natural resource “worth celebrating and protecting.”
As if he could foresee the future, there will be lots of celebrating at the park in 2016. “We have several anniversaries this year,” said Vickie Carson, Public Information Officer for Mammoth Cave. “The biggest is our 200th anniversary of giving cave tours.”
Although an actual date is not known, the date has been derived from documentation stating cave tours were given after the War of 1812 and after salt peter works in the area folded. It is believed they started around 1816, said Carson

Photos courtesy of the
National Park Service

People have entered and exited the Historic Entrance of Mammoth Cave for more than 4,000 years.

At that time, only a few miles of the cave had been explored, and the tours were very arduous to follow. Today, more than 400 miles have been mapped out.
One of the area’s most famous spelunkers was Floyd Collins, who explored Sand Cave, in the same area as Mammoth Cave, on Jan. 30, 1925. In his quest to discover a new entrance to the system of underground caves, Collins became trapped in a narrow crawlway 55 feet below the surface.
Collins spent 18 days trapped in the cave, while engineers and geologists were called in to help. When all efforts failed, miners began digging a shaft to reach him. On Feb. 4, the cave passage used to reach Collins collapsed in two places. He was pronounced dead of exposure, and the cave was sealed. Only months later would his body be removed for burial closer to home.
Mammoth Cave is part of the National Park Service, and the NPS is celebrating a century of existence this year. The NPS was created by Congress in 1916.
Even during war time, workers at the cave had reason to celebrate. On July 1, 1941, Mammoth Cave was added to the NPS by an act of Congress, making this the 75th anniversary of this occasion, Carson said. Yet another honor was bestowed upon Mammoth Cave in 1981 when it received designation as a World Heritage Site.

Photos courtesy of the
National Park Service

Mammoth Cave in south central Kentucky this year is celebrating its 200th anniversary of guided tours. Many special events are planned for summer and fall.

The cave has been “privately owned and operated since the 1800s,” she said. It became a well-known site due in part to the many people who visited and wrote about it.
“It was common for people to write travel journals to explain their travels, etc.,” Carson said. Much like to today’s travel blogs, these descriptions of all the area had to offer tempted people to visit by the droves.
During the 1870s and 1880s, pictures were taken known as stereoscopic cards.
These images were played on stereographs in many parlors around the country, depicting ancient limestone formations and natural wonders that many had never before seen.
Visitors would even ask for certain guides by name because they had read about them, said Carson. Many of the earliest guides were slaves, such as Stephen Bishop, who earned a reputation as a legendary cave explorer.
Other notable guides were Materson Bransford, the son of affluent Tennessean Thomas Bransford and a slave woman. He began guiding at Mammoth Cave in 1838. 
Nick Bransford (no known blood relation) was another well-known guide at the cave. As a slave, he was leased and brought to Mammoth Cave in 1838. He put in many years as a guide, working at the cave until his death in 1895.
Guides and cave explorers alike have found many artifacts inside  the cave. It is known that there was a prehistoric presence, said Carson. Native Americans who inhabited the region 4,000 years ago frequented the cave.

Photos courtesy of the
National Park Service

The waterfall at the Historic Entrance of Mammoth Cave is fed by an underground stream.

In their quest for gypsum crystals and salt, deep within the cave they left behind traces of “woven sandals, burned torch sticks, gourd bowls and pottery.” Exhibits in the Visitors’ Center help to interpret the geology and history of the cave.
Even before the Native Americans appeared on the scene, caves were hollowed out of the limestone by an underground river approximately 10 million years ago. The limestone was put in place by an ancient sea nearly 325 million years ago.
After years of wear and tear, Mammoth Cave is finally getting a makeover. A much needed $6 million reconstruction project is halfway completed on trails known as the historic two-mile section of the cave.
Upgrades have not been made to these trails at Mammoth Cave since built by the Civilian Conservation Corp. in the 1930s. “The caves need to be worked on,” said Carson. Approximately 200,000 visitors travel through the cave each year. “We have many Europeans and people from Southeast Asia and China” who visit the cave.

Photos courtesy of the
National Park Service

Mammoth Dome is a vertical shaft, almost 200 feet high.

“Everything in the cave is labor intensive,” said Carson of the reconstruction project.  She’s tried to keep a tally on the totals and said that 9,700 paver stones have been carried in on pallets on a shaft, then transported by powered wagons, and finally by hand. Sand and aggregate, needed to level out certain areas, has been brought in five-gallon buckets. Concrete is also needed in some places, she said.
“The total weight taken in has been 1,500 tons. It’s taking a long time to move things.” But when finished, the improvements will only add to the ethereal beauty of the caves. 
The park consists of more than 52,800 acres in Edmonson, Hart and Barren counties in Kentucky. It is the longest known cave system in the world.
Tours range from easy, toddler-friendly to moderate to strenuous, for the more adventurous visitor. A variety of tours include Historic, Frozen Niagara, Star Chamber and several more. Also offered above ground are more than 70 miles of trails and horseback riding, surface walks and programs such as Nature Tracks for Kids. Nearby Green River offers fishing and paddling opportunities.
Robin and Bill Dwyer, from Hollidaysburg, Pa., recently took the two-hour Domes and Dripstones Tour and the two-hour Historic Tour, which is the most popular tour. They explored Mammoth Cave while on an RV trip.
Even though she had attended the University of Kentucky, Robin said she “had never really explored Kentucky. We take an RV trip every summer and decided to go to Kentucky and do some exploring.”
Bill suggested going to Mammoth Cave, and that is where the couple ended up. Since they were traveling by RV, they stayed in a nearby campground in Horse Cave, Ky.
“We really like the National Parks,” said Robin, a native of northern Kentucky. They have visited Carlsbad Caverns, White Sands, N.M., and the Everglades. “Our goal is to one day see more.”
When they first planned their trip in the earlier part of the year, Dwyer did not realize her nephew, Brian Nelson, would be working at Mammoth Cave over the summer. She found out two weeks before their trip that Nelson, who lives in the Nashville area, was working an interim job in security at the park. “He loves it,” she said.
Dwyer said Mammoth Cave is a “great, non-commercialized, natural attraction. An added bonus was the fact that the park is celebrating 200 years of guided tours this year and the National Park Service is celebrating its 100th anniversary. We were proud to be a part of it.”
Upcoming events to mark Mammoth Cave’s anniversaries include a Naturalizing Ceremony in September, costumed interpreters on site in October, and Roots in the Cave, a genealogical event planned for Nov. 11-12.

• For more information, call (270) 758-2180 or visit www.nps.gov/maca.

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