Mammoth Cave National Park
History of Mammoth Cave
Indigenous peoples lived and hunted in Kentucky between 2,000 and 4,000 years ago in the Late Archaic Period (3000 — 1000 B.C.). These early explorers traveled miles within Mammoth Cave, using cane plants as torches, in order to collect the minerals mirabilite, epsomite and gypsum. How they used the minerals is still a matter of speculation, although it is hypothesized that they were valued for medicinal and/or ceremonial uses.
In 1964, six explorers from the Cave Research Foundation reconstructed this early mining operation to better understand what the experience might have been like. In bare feet, wearing only shorts to simulate American Indian clothing, and carrying torches of the same species of cane and weed stalks that had been found in the cave, they spent five hours walking and crawling underground. After some experimentation, they found that a torch of four or five canes and about three feet long worked well. The warm orange light from the cane torches provided better illumination than modern carbide lamps and, on average, lasted nearly an hour. In spite of the cool temperature in the cave and their scanty dress, the explorers did not grow uncomfortable. The reenactors proved that, with enough torches, a party of Indians could easily have spent a dozen hours or more comfortably mining and exploring the cave.
In addition to mining, American Indians lived in rock shelters or large cave entrances during parts of the year. Dry conditions in the cave have preserved vast quantities of artifacts, including some of the earliest evidence of organized agriculture in the eastern United States. These part-time residents ate a variety of wild plants including hickory nuts, sweet flag, lily, dandelion, wild strawberries, blackberries, raspberries and acorns. When they could, they supplemented this plant-based diet with deer, turkey, raccoon, other small mammals, mussels and fish.
One of the most fascinating discoveries made by archeologists indicates that some of the American Indians utilized the cave to prepare bodies for burial. Researchers found parts of 41 human skeletons at the Salts Cave campsite in the cave. The sizes of the skeletons indicate that there were newborns and adults, of both genders. Their bones were broken, split and marked in the same way as deer bones.
Exploration for minerals continued during the Early Woodland Period (1000 — 200 B.C.), but for reasons not yet understood, ceased soon afterward. According to legend, about 2,000 years later, in 1797, a hunter named Houchin rediscovered the cave while chasing a bear. Frontiersmen quickly realized that Mammoth Cave contained saltpeter (used in making gunpowder), and during the War of 1812, Hyman Gratz and Charles Wilkens established a commercial saltpeter leaching factory there. Vats and wooden pipes that were used in the operation are still visible today just inside the mouth of Mammoth Cave. Take the Historic Tour or the Violet City Lantern Tour to see these artifacts.
Beginning in 1838, the public began to appreciate the geologic, cultural and biological importance of Mammoth Cave. Capitalizing on this interest, Franklin Gorin, the owner at the time, initiated a regular guide force led by a 17-year-old slave Stephen Bishop. Before his death at the age of 36, Bishop achieved worldwide fame for his discoveries and knowledge of the cave, as well as for his wit and charm. Bishop had begun a tradition of excellence among cave guides that included the well-known Bransford Family and that tradition continues to this day.
In 1839, a new owner—Dr. John Croghan—extensively developed and explored the cave, exploiting it commercially as one of the great wonders of the world. He built roads, improved buildings and constructed a large hotel to lodge tourists.
Dr. Croghan's work on Mammoth Cave, along with others like him, ultimately helped America define a national identity at a time when the country sought desperately to dignify its industrial and military might. America seemed to lack the ancient places and cultural antiquities that Europe boasted and the promotion of places like Mammoth Cave helped fill that void. Big was beautiful: Mammoth Cave, Grand Canyon, Giant Sequoia. Superlatives like these, rooted in nature, would come to epitomize the American spirit.
Dr. Croghan also established an underground tuberculosis hospital in the cave. He believed that the stable temperature and humidity and apparent dryness would have a curative effect on patients. Volunteer patients lived in the cave in small stone structures with canvas roofs. The experiment was a failure. Within a few months, a few of the invalids died and many others left the cave. Ironically, Dr. Croghan died six years after the experiment—a victim of tuberculosis. To view the structures where the patients lived, take the Violet City Lantern Tour.
Mammoth Cave was authorized as a national park in 1926 and was fully established in 1941. At that time, just 40 miles of passageway had been mapped. As surveying techniques improved, great strides were made in describing and understanding the overwhelming extent of the cave system. Several caves in the park were shown to be connected, and today, the cave system is known to extend well beyond the national park boundary. The park was named a World Heritage Site in 1981 and became the core area of an International Biosphere Reserve in 1990. With its 53,000 surface acres and underlying cave ecosystem, Mammoth Cave National Park is recognized as an international treasure.