Mammoth Cave National Park

Modern History
A long view of the Green River
A long view of the Green River.

Since the days when prehistoric Indians explored the cave by the light of cane reed torches, Mammoth has inspired the imagination, tested the courage, and awakened the senses of visitors. Ancient artifacts and well-preserved human mummies found in Mammoth indicate that people began venturing into the cave as many as 4,000 years ago. Modern-day encounters with the cave began, according to legend, in the late 1790s when a hunter chasing a bear through the hills near the Green River stumbled across its gaping entrance. This opening today is called the Historic Entrance. At first just a curiosity, Mammoth became a valuable commercial property with the outbreak of the War of 1812 between the United States and England. Cave sediments with abundant quantities of nitrate, an essential ingredient of gunpowder, were mined by slaves during the war. By the war's end, Mammoth was famous. It soon became one of the nation's most popular attractions. Visitors came by stagecoach and by train to be led by guides through tours of its mysterious subterranean world. "No ray of light but the glimmer of our lamps; no sound but the echo of our own steps; nothing but darkness, silence, immensity," is how one early visitor recalled his tour.

Further explorations continued to reveal more of Mammoth's wonders. Stephen Bishop, renowned guide and cave explorer, discovered miles of passages, underground rivers, and gypsum-decorated chambers in the mid-1800s. Later explorers followed where Bishop left off, pushing the known extent of Mammoth even farther, or, like Kentucky farmer Floyd Collins, discovering other caves nearby.

Meanwhile, extraordinary events took place in the cave. In the 1800s and early 1900s there were weddings, performances by Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth and singer Jenny Lind, and the establishment of a hospital for tuberculosis patients in the cave. At the same time, support was growing to protect Mammoth's natural wonders. Finally in 1941 Mammoth Cave National Park was established to preserve its maze of passages, cavernous domes and pits, underground rivers and lakes, unusual animals, and beautiful navigable rivers and rugged topography. At that time, 40 miles of cave were mapped. We now know this is the world's most extensive cave system—over 300 miles long... so far. Visitors still come by the thousands, drawn by the dark frontier that is Mammoth Cave.

An Underground World

Mammoth Cave is the centerpiece of one of the greatest cave regions in the world. The area, with its multitude of limestone caves, underground rivers, springs, and sinkholes, is known as a karst landscape. Water has been the guiding force in the creation of this landscape, including the intricate labyrinth of Mammoth. Underground water working in cracks and between rock layers has carved out Mammoth Cave's long, horizontal passageways over the past several million years. The upper passages, dry today, were hollowed out thousands of years ago; the lower passages are still being enlarged by the flowing waters of Echo River and other underground streams. Mammoth's huge vertical shafts, called pits and domes, have been created by groundwater seeping downward through sinkholes or cracks located beyond the edge of the protective hard layer of sandstone that overlies much of the cave.

Water also has been essential in decorating parts of the cave with gypsum formations, stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, and flowstone. The delicate gypsum formations occur on the walls, ceilings, and floors of some of the cave's drier chambers; the rest of the formations appear in some of the wetter chambers. Since the creation of Mammoth Cave, unusual fish, shrimp, crayfish, crickets, spiders, beetles, molds, and mushrooms have taken up residence in its protective environment of cool darkness. Many of the cave animals are blind, or nearly so, and some lack skin pigments as a result of living in the total blackness of the cave. Although sightless, many have other highly developed senses. Blindfish have extremely sensitive organs on their head and body that enable them to feel their way through the water. Cave crickets have exceptionally long antennae to perform essentially the same function on land. Other animals, such as bats and some cave salamanders, spend only part of their lives in the cave.


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