Mammoth Cave National Park in October was our 60th National Park. Unfortunately we visited during the pandemic so the only tour operating was the expanded historic self-guided tour. It was disappointing because we saw a very small portion of the cave and the tours we originally wanted to do were not open. Having said that, Mammoth Cave is certainly impressive.
Mammoth Cave is the world’s longest known cave system and new passages continue to be explored and mapped. Currently somewhere in the neighborhood of 412 miles have been documented. Scattered over the 53,000 acres of the park are more than 250 cave entrances. Some lead into the Mammoth Cave system, most do not. Of the twenty-odd entrances to Mammoth approximately one-fourth are truly natural and not modified. The most famous is the historic entrance behind the visitor center, which is where we entered.
There are at least five known levels of interconnecting passageways, each level boasting an intricate system of avenues and each connecting to the one above and below it. Even though it was formed by water, Mammoth Cave is primarily dry and, other than several decorative rooms, absent of stalactites and stalagmites. Visitors are often surprised by the lack of dripstone formations. On our tour we were basically in a huge passageway which was formed by an ancient underground river.
These passageways were eroded through limestone. Above the limestone sits a layer of sandstone which acts as a “roof” protecting the passageways below, shedding rainwater to vertical cracks and underground “drainpipes.” An example of this layering of sandstone and limestone can be seen beside the path to the historic entrance.
Established as a national park in 1941, Mammoth Cave was well-known long before that. Archeological evidence shows that Native Americans explored the first three levels of the cave nearly 4,000 years ago. Probably the first European to have reached Mammoth Cave was a British soldier, Thomas Hutchins, during the French and Indian War of the 1750’s.
This cave is saltpeter rich. Saltpeter was needed to produce gunpowder and preserve meats. By 1811, saltpeter extraction was quite extensive with as many as 70 enslaved men working the underground operation. Remnants of that operation are still visible today.
After the end of the War of 1812, people began to view Mammoth Cave as a tourist attraction. The cave passed through a variety of owners and in 1838, Franklin Gorin purchased the caves and surface acreage. He brought a young enslaved man, Stephen Bishop, to Mammoth Cave. Bishop explored, mapped, and became an expert on the cave. He and two other enslaved young men, Mat and Nick Bransford, became highly-regarded cave tour guides. Most of the early cave guides were young black men. In a number of cases, guiding in Mammoth Cave became a family tradition with several generations doing so. Stephen Bishop is buried in the Old Guide’s Cemetery in the park.
In 1839 John Croghan bought the property, and set out to increase tourism. He also had several huts built within the cave with the idea that tuberculosis patients could be cured with the pure air and constant temperature. After several patients died, that experiment was laid to rest. We saw two of those huts and being confined in them underground certainly did not look appealing.
Mammoth Cave continued to pass through a number of owners and as early as 1911 efforts were made to create a national park. Congress established Mammoth Cave as our 26th national park in 1926 but it was not made “official” until 1941 and then World War II postponed the dedication until 1946.
With all the covid restrictions in place we spent most of our time in the park above ground, exploring some of the 60 miles of hiking trails. Since we only got to walk about 2 ½ miles roundtrip in the cave, we’d like to go back to Mammoth Cave and see a bit more of the 400+ miles of this natural wonder.
For more information: https://www.nps.gov/neri/index.htm