Dangerous Work

Mammoth Cave early tour guides left legacy of courage

Some of those early guides were slaves

(July 2016) – Exceptional tour guides are what has made Mammoth Cave so successful over the years. Their tales of the cave’s deep mysteries and haunting tales have held visitors spell-bound for generations.
Stephen Bishop (1821-1857) was a mixed race slave who became known as one of the lead explorers and guides for Mammoth Cave. Bishop was introduced to Mammoth Cave in 1838 by his owner, Franklin Gorin, who purchased the cave from its previous owners in spring 1838.

Photos courtesy of WKU Xposure Magazine

Jerry Bransford, a tour guide for Mammoth Cave, shows visitors a picture of his ancestors, Materson “Mat” Bransford and William “Will” Bransford, inside the gift shop at the National Park.

He learned the toured routes from white guides Joe Shackelford and Archibald Miller Jr. But Bishop also ventured deep beyond the toured areas of the cave, discovering vast miles never before seen.
Bishop was able to explore and map out miles of new cave routes. He is credited with being the first human to cross a vertical shaft known as the 105-foot Bottomless Pit. The shaft was a gateway to previously unknown and unexplored sections of the cave.
Areas he discovered beyond the Bottomless Pit that can still be viewed by visitors today include Fat Man’s Misery, Cleaveland Avenue and Mammoth Dome. Bishop was known for being a showman, and visitors wrote of his distinctive speech and singing voice.
He wore the same outfit when giving tours – a chocolate-colored slouch hat, green jacket and striped pants. Bishop began the naming tradition of the cave, employing half-homespun American, half-classical terms such as the River Styx, the Snowball Room, Little Bat Avenue and Gorin’s Dome.
A year after Bishop began working at Mammoth Cave, Dr. John Croghan of Louisville bought the Mammoth Cave Estate from Gorin. Along with it went Bishop and its other slaves.
In 1842, Bishop was sent to Croghan’s estate in Louisville, Locust Grove, for two weeks to draw a map, from memory, of the cave system. The map was published in 1844 by Morton and Griswold as a pull-out insert in Alexander Clark Bullitt’s “Rambles in Mammoth Cave in the Year 1844 by a Visitor.” This map remained in use for more than 40 years and he was given full credit for his work, even though he remained a slave.
Bishop was freed by manumission in 1856, the year before his death at the age of 37. His cause of death still remains a mystery, but some say both he and Croghan died of tuberculosis. He is buried at the Old Guide’s Cemetery at Mammoth Cave National Park.

Photos provided

A group prepares to enter Mammoth Cave with tour guide Ed Bishop in 1909.

He left behind his son, Thomas, and wife, Charlotte, who had been a house slave for the Croghan family. He did not get to fulfill his life’s dream of buying his family’s freedom and moving to Liberia.
Over the years, several books have been written about Bishop, such as “Grand, Gloomy, and Peculiar: Stephen Bishop at Mammoth Cave,” by Roger Brucker. “Stephen was noted for being the first systematic cave explorer,” Brucker wrote on his website. “
He was the prototype for guiding, educating and entertaining cave visitors. He was the economic engine that put Mammoth Cave on the map of American natural wonders.”
One of the strengths of Bishop’s story lies in the fact that “most slave stories are about slaves living on, or escaping from, plantations. This is one of the few books written about the non-plantation slave experience,” wrote Brucker.
Materson (Mat) Bransford was also a well-known guide at Mammoth Cave. A former slave, he was the son of the white Thomas Bransford and a slave woman. Bransford began as a guide at Mammoth Cave in 1838, a few months after Bishop. In an ironic twist of fate, he became the property of his own half-brother after the death of his father.
Bransford married a slave, Parthena, and they had four children who were born into slavery. Despite his best efforts, Bransford could not stop his wife’s owner from selling three of their four children away from them. After emancipation, Bransford remained at the cave for the rest of his life.

Photos courtesy of WKU Herald

Today, college students like Celia Baker of Louisville, Ky., work as tour guides along with non-students.

An 1860 guidebook on Mammoth Cave estimated that Bransford had walked 50,000 miles underground by the time he reached age 37. Bransford himself estimated that as a guide he had walked a distance equal to four and a half times the earth’s circumference.
Another slave leased to the cave by Bransford’s master Thomas Bransford, was Nick Bransford (the two slaves were not related, but shared their master’s last name). As with Bishop and Mat, Nick was just a teenager when he started touring at Mammoth Cave.
Nick Bransford also had a plan to buy his freedom, while working as a tour guide. Visitors would sometimes give the guides gratuities, in addition to receiving a substantial income for a slave at the time. This was greatly appreciated since guide work was seasonal and supplemental income was needed.
He began harvesting one of the cave’s oldest crops – eyeless fish and crawdads. At night he would slip down to the streams inside the cave and scoop some up in his hat to sell to tourists the following morning. By 1863 he had earned enough money to buy his freedom, but he continued working at the cave for a total of 50 years.
Bransford married Stephen Bishop’s widow, Charlotte. He donated the land for the Mammoth Cave School, which his grandchildren attended, and was one of the first deacons of the Pleasant Union Baptist Church, which used to stand in Mammoth Cave National Park.

There have been many Bransford tour guides who followed in their ancestors’ footsteps. Their explorations and informational tours have helped make the park a success world-wide, keeping visitors coming back year after year.

Back to July 2016 Articles.



Copyright 1999-2015, Kentuckiana Publishing, Inc.

Pick-Up Locations Subscribe Staff Advertise Contact Submit A Story Our Advertisers Columnists Archive Area Links Area Events Search our Site Home Monthly Articles Calendar of Events Kentucky Speedway Madison Chautauqua Madison Ribberfest Madison Regatta