Hovey's Hand-Book of the Mammoth Cave of Kentucky
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Echo River, Pits and Domes

A pathway from the Hotel winds through the garden, down amid the forest, crossing a wagon road to Green River, and then brings us to the only known entrance to Mammoth Cave. Evidently it is where the roof broke down long ago; for the lower valley was doubtless once part of the cavern, and so was what is now known as Dixon Cave. The present Cave mouth is seven hundred and thirty-five feet, above sea level, one hundred and ninety-four feet above the level of Green River, and one hundred and eighteen feet below the crest of the overhanging bluff. The limestone stratum is three hundred and twenty-eight feet thick, measuring from the sandstone above to the drainage level below; and within these limits all the vast labyrinth extends its ramifications.

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One of the first things noticed by the visitor is the strong current of cool air that flows from the Cave mouth, frequently too strong to allow the carrying of lighted lamps until a point is reached many yards within, where the gale dies away. As we descend the solid stone stairway we observe with pleasure a waterfall that leaps from the ledge, gleams in the sunlight, and vanishes amid the rocks on the floor. Around us hang festoons of vines and ferns, and before us is the noble vestibule to a temple of eternal night.

An iron gate is unlocked for us, put there to prevent unpaid intrusion and vandal spoliation. Passing through, we bid farewell to daylight, and depend on the simple iron lamps given to each of us by the guide. The legend that a hunter named Houchins, in 1809, chased a wounded bear into this throat of the cave, whether authentic or not, is perpetuated in the name given it, Houchins' Narrows, made still narrower by the blocks of limestone piled in walls on either side, thus leaving a passage only a few feet wide. To the left is the tomb of two Indians found in early days and reburied here. No monument marks the grave of these nameless aborigines. Considering the fact that the Cave was resorted to by many generations of red men, it is remarkable that so few human remains have rewarded diligent search.

What are these wooden pipes along the floor? They were laid there by the saltpeter miners to convey the water from the cascade at the entrance down to the leaching vats that are now pointed out to us in the Rotunda. The ruts of old ox-carts are visible in which the "peter-dirt" was carried to the vats from the open avenues, while sacks were used for those more remote. The solution was pumped out to open-air boilers, run through ash-hoppers, cooled in crystallization troughs, and packed for transportation to the seaboard, mostly by mules. Thus did patriotic Kentucky supply the government with one of the ingredients of gunpowder, at a time when foreign sources were cut off. The yield of nitrate was four pounds to the bushel of soil, and the vast heaps of lixiviated earth seem to warrant the boast that Mammoth Cave alone "could supply the whole population of the globe with saltpeter."

Entrance to Mammoth Cave

The lofty arch of the Rotunda is directly under the Hotel; and it would be possible, by means of a shaft, to supply every room with the sweetest and purest air, transforming it into a "lime-air" sanitarium, as has actually been done in some other localities. By a series of temperature observations with verified thermometers, the writer has proved that the uniform temperature of the Cave is 54° Fahr., winter and summer; and the air is chemically and optically pure. Lighted by magnesium fire the grandeur of this first of many halls is made visible, as are also the openings of two broad avenues, one of them being the Main Cave and the other the entrance to Audubon Avenue and Little Bat Avenue. Here in winter assemble myriads of bats from all the region around, clustering in nooks and crevices for their long sleep of hibernation.

Leaving Audubon Avenue to be described in Route II, we enter from it, at a point some five hundred feet from the Rotunda, and by a low arch, the winding way known as Little Bat Avenue, chiefly remarkable as leading to the Crevice Pit, which is immediately over the Ruins of Karnak. The story is told by the late Dr. R. M. Bird that a former owner, Mr. Wilkins, let a lamp down the pit by a rope that caught fire, with the loss of the lamp. A reward of two dollars was offered for its recovery. A little darkey agreed to be let down, as a sort of living plummet, to sound the depth of the chasm. He told such a tale as to the magnificent temple underneath, with its tall columns and splendid adornments, that nobody believed him. Thirty years later the lost lamp was found by old Matt, the guide, who gave it to me.

The Main Cave, or Grand Gallery, or as we like to style it the "Broadway" of this subterranean metropolis, extends from the Rotunda to the Cataracts, and must be traversed to reach any other part of the cavern. In this first route only about eight hundred yards of it are shown.

Leaving the "Corkscrew"

High overhead springs an arch eighty feet wide and resting on vertical walls. Presently the guide calls our attention to the exit of the Corkscrew, on our left, an extraordinary passageway by which we are to return after visiting the River Hall. If we happen here as another party is returning, a curious effect is produced by their torches emerging one at a time in a procession winding down the Kentucky Cliffs. But now we advance along the worn cart-road made by the saltpeter miners, strewn by their ancient log-conduits, which are strangely preserved during the century that has elapsed since some of them were first brought hither. Lift one and you will be astonished to find how light they are. At the junction of the Main Cave and Archibald Avenue is the "Church," where the pious miners used to hear the message of salvation taught by itinerant preachers, and where in more recent days many a sermon has been preached and many a psalm been sung, awakening echoes from the cavern walls.

Reserving the Gothic Avenue for another visit, we note, as we pass along, the grotesque figures of animals and birds made by the deposits of the black oxide of manganese overhead. Mark well the Standing Rocks, which fell edge-downward ages ago, set free from the roof possibly by some earthquake shock. Now we walk awe-struck under the Grand Arch, where the guides effect a marvelous surprise by means of simple illumination. They burn chemical fires at a point near the saltpeter vats, some five hundred feet to the rear of us, and the contour of the walls brings out a statuesque effect which is aptly styled "Martha Washington's Statue." It requires but little play of the imagination to fancy it a marble representation of that eminent lady of Colonial times.

An immense rock lies near the right-hand wall, forty-five feet long, eighteen feet wide, and fifteen feet high, which used to be called the Steamboat; but it is now known as the Giant's Coffin. The quasi-sarcophagus may have been torn from the adjacent wall by some convulsion, or it may simply have fallen and lodged in its present suggestive position. Its weight is estimated at two thousand tons. It is one of the great landmarks, and though we should pass it many times it is impossible to do so without being impressed by its solitary grandeur, rivaling as it does the blocks of Baalbec in Syria.

The route now taken leads us behind the Giant's Coffin, through a low and narrow passage which would never have been discovered had not the monster rock fallen. This is styled Dante's Gateway, from which a rude stairway leads us into the Wooden Bowl Room, so named either from its peculiar shape or because an Indian wooden bowl was found there. To the left is the opening to what has variously been styled Indian Avenue, Blacksnake Avenue, and Welcome Avenue. Really it is a combination of several avenues, running for the distance of eight thousand five hundred feet, as measured by the writer, which have been made passable by the skill and industry of Mr. H. C. Ganter when he was manager of the Cave, and which for this reason is generally called Ganter Avenue. Its inner end is at Serpent Hall, and it gives an exit for any one who may get caught beyond the rivers by a sudden rise of water.

Our present path goes through the "Dog-Hole," down a stairway fancifully called "The Steeps of Time," leading into the region of pits and domes. We pause a while by Richardson's Spring, which is a small pool filled by a running stream that has worn for itself a narrow channel in the rock, illustrating what has been done for the entire Cave on a grander scale. Small crustaceans are found in this clear pool, and blind insects abound under the flat rocks near by. Numberless blind crickets leap away from us, and white eyeless spiders, brown beetles, thousand-legged worms, and other abnormal forms of life are found by careful search. Nothing harmful, however, appears, either here or elsewhere. As a rule cave-life is timid.

Side-saddle Pit, fifty feet deep, was named from its imagined resemblance to a lady's saddle. Above it rises Minerva's Dome, thirty feet high. The spot used to be dangerous, but is now guarded by a stout railing. Once a terrier leaped down the chasm after a fire-ball flung by a guide. The guide's wife allowed herself to be lowered by a rope and rescued the poor dog, which did not seem to be seriously hurt by his perilous adventure. Calypso's Avenue, to the left, leads to the Covered Pit and Scylla and Charybdis, which are rarely visited.

Near the entrance to the Labyrinth is a window through which we behold the wonderful and lofty chamber discovered by a former owner of the Cave, Mr. Frank Gorin, in whose honor it is named Gorin's Dome. Perhaps the earliest account of it was that published by Dr. Davidson. Its height, as measured by myself with the aid of a cluster of small balloons, is one hundred and sixty feet, its width is thirty-five feet and its length sixty feet. Its vertical walls sweep in an S-shaped curve and spring from the river level to the apex of the dome, with projecting bosses of coral and with cascades that awake the echoes as they fall.

Darnall's Way was cut through the sandbank, in 1896, to the summit, where a bridge cast directly across the abyss gives us the most complete view to be had of the locality. One remarkable feature is a folded alabaster curtain one hundred and nineteen feet high. By casting fire-balls down the whole interior is grandly illuminated. Davidson descended to the bottom, as others have occasionally done since, by means of a well some thirty feet deep, down which one clambers like a chimney-sweep. He found there "stretching away in midnight blackness a horrid pool of water." In 1863 Mr. F. J. Stevenson, of London, had a boat made and lowered through the window, on which he floated away for seven long hours on a perilous voyage that no man has since then repeated. The water now setting back from Green River has closed the entrance to what we term "Stevenson's Lost River" but his old boat still lies where it was stranded at the bottom of Gorin's Dome.

"Bottomless Pit"

Another huge abyss, the Bottomless Pit, was long regarded as ending further progress, till Stephen Bishop crossed it in 1840 by means of a slender cedar sapling thrown over the yawning gulf; since when it has been spanned by a substantial and safe bridge. Instead of being "bottomless" it is exactly one hundred and five feet deep. Above it is Shelby's Dome, named for the first Governor of Kentucky. Balls of cotton waste saturated with coal-oil are flung down by the guides, which grandly display the wrinkled and corrugated walls of the pit. Looking directly across, we see an opening through which the writer and William Garvin emerged from their explorations around Scylla and Charybdis. There are other ways of approach, one from Gorin's Dome, another from near the Scotchman's Trap, and still another from River Hall to the very bottom, from which the upward view almost equals that from the base of Gorin's Dome. All this great group of pits is connected below to form an immense hall, about four hundred feet long, which at high water is flooded by the overflow from River Hall. By special permission of former President of the United States Benjamin Harrison, this vast room was named Harrison Hall.

On crossing the Bridge of Sighs we find an enlargement of the Cave formerly used as a dining place, and hence known as Reveller's Hall. Pensico Avenue, along which we go, is crossed underneath by an invisible passageway, causing sounds to be reproduced in Echo Chamber with marvelous reverberations. Wending our way amid the huge rocks that encumber Wild Hall we next reach the Grand Crossing, and beyond it the singular dry stalactite, the Pineapple Bush, and end our path in Angelica's Grotto, with its curious Hanging Grove.

Retracing our steps to Reveller's Hall, we descend by an opening overhung by an enormous slab so poised as to make it seem as if a careless breath might make it fall. This is the Scotchman's Trap, so named for a canny Scot who refused to go farther lest he should be entrapped. But we dive under and go on, coming presently to the Fat Man's Misery. This is a serpentine passage, its walls changing direction eight times in two hundred and thirty-six feet, its width but eighteen inches and its height in places only five feet. It is indeed enough to try a fat man's soul and body. The sides are marked by ripples and waves, and are polished by the friction of many vexed visitors.

The fattest man that ever went through weighed two hundred and eighty-two pounds at the start, but avers that he lost twenty pounds in the process. Another, a jovial son of Erin, stuck fast and was left to his fate. Later he turned up all right and explained matters in his own way. He said that he remembered every sin he had ever committed; and when he called to mind how, at a certain recent hotly conested election, he voted the wrong ticket by mistake, it made him feel so small that he got free from the Fat Man's Misery quite easily.

The room into which we emerge is fitly styled "Great Relief"; and from it we enter the Bacon Chamber, where Nature in a frolicsome mood has carved the limestone into masses resembling rows of hams and shoulders in a packing-house. Near by is the Dining Hall, where, on occasion, well-filled tables are spread.

A special trip can be made through Spark's Avenue, entered from Bandit Hall, and leading on to the Mammoth Dome. We first visited it in 1878, and were assured that no one had been there for seven years. A treacherous old ladder was then the only means of descending to the floor, which sloped away to a pool whose waters received a cascade falling from the lofty apex. The ladder has been replaced by a substantial stairway, by crossing which we reach the Egyptian Temple, or the Ruins of Karnak. Six columns eighty feet high and twenty-five feet in diameter stand in a semicircle, each deeply fluted, veneered by yellow stalagmite and covered by mimic tracery. Overhead is the black opening already mentioned as the Crevice Pit; and underneath are extensive catacombs rarely visited. Dr. Call's measurement of the extreme height, from the cascade pool to the summit of the dome above the Crevice Pit, was one hundred and fifty feet; which was later confirmed by my balloon system of measurement. The total length of the room is not far from four hundred feet.

River Hall, to which we now return, might be said to extend for miles, were we to include all the known branches of subterranean waters. So unlike is it to the Main Cave that we might almost be said to have entered another cavern—which would really be true. What is called in a general way Mammoth Cave is a congeries of different caves, whose walls and floors were first thinned and then broken through by the agency of water, until was formed the immense and greatly diversified labyrinth whose mazes we are exploring. Here is the gathering-bed of hundreds of sink-holes opening from the surface. The exit is in deep, bubbling pools along Green River, of which the Upper and Lower Big Springs are examples. And when Green River is flooded by freshets its waters back through such secret channels and also flood River Hall by a body of water from thirty to one hundred feet in depth and fully two miles long, with capricious currents and perilous whirlpools. Navigation at such times is forbidden; but at low water it is entirely safe, under the care of our skillful guides.

Sullen waters reposing at the foot of a cliff sixty feet high are called the Dead Sea, though not bitter but sweet, as those may find who venture down to the margin. An iron railing guards the way as we descend to a lower terrace. Presently, on the right, we see a cascade, that falls into a funnel-shaped hollow and vanishes. Near by, in 1881, the writer found a natural mushroom bed, that suggested the idea of a mushroom farm, but with meager results because located in Audubon Avenue, where irrigation is impracticable.

Banquet Hall in Mammoth Cave

The black waters of the River Styx wind between steep wails for some four hundred feet, and with an average breadth of forty feet. Formerly it was passed over by boat, but now by a natural bridge protected by a guard-rail. Lake Lethe is next in order, along whose border we go cautiously, in hope of seeing specimens of the famous eyeless fish (Amblyopsis speleus) that abound in these waters. They seldom exceed three or four inches in length, are colorless, have cartilage instead of bones, are viviparous, and are so sensitive to approach that they dart away if a grain of sand falls on the water. The blind white crawfish (Cambarus pellucidus) is often seen. These creatures were first described by Dr. Davidson, two years previous to their being mentioned by DeKay, who was credited by Agassiz as their discoverer.

The Great Walk for four hundred yards used to be admired, but now its beautiful yellow sand is covered by the back-water from the rivers. The roof here is mottled like snow-clouds. Midway the mask of Shakespeare is pointed out, and other objects of interest are visible. Stephen Bishop, John Craig, and Brice Patton first crossed these rivers, over which thousands have since safely voyaged. A fleet of flat-boats awaits us, the material for which was brought in by way of the Crevice Pit. Each boat has seats for some twenty persons, while the guide propels the primitive craft by his paddle.

Four arches open to the Echo River, only the fourth being ordinarily available. To reach this we cross the Sandy Sahara and flounder through the Slough of Purgatory. The voyage abounds in most enjoyable adventures, though care must be taken not to upset amid waters that have no shores except at the landing-places. A few years ago a party, mainly of journalists, managed to swamp their boat, but were rescued by the presence of mind of all concerned, particularly the strong-armed and faithful guide, John M. Nelson, whose orders they obeyed.

Echo River varies in width from twenty to two hundred feet, under an archway averaging thirty feet in height, the depth varying from five to twenty-five feet; and its level being only about twenty feet above that of Green River. The portion over which visitors are taken is perhaps half a mile or more long. All along its margin, where the rock abruptly meets the water, are countless cavities that have been washed out by the stream. These gave a wag in our party on first crossing the river his chance, and he cried, "Oh, see these little bits of caves, three for five cents!" Then awoke the echoes and carried the sound away and away till he was ashamed of himself. Then a lady in black velvet Cave costume, with tiny bells along the fringe to keep her from getting lost, sang the "Sweet Bye and Bye." A revolver was fired, answered by a "Rebel Yell." Flute and cornet were played with magical effect.

On Echo River

The term "echo" misleads; for what is given is really a wonderful prolongation of sound, lasting five, ten, or even twenty minutes. The tunnel's own key-note when struck excites harmonics of depth and sweetness, along with a profound undertone. When the guide agitates the water a myriad tiny silver bells tinkle, followed by heavier ones as the waves strike the cavities along the walls. This tempest of harmony dies away with strange mutterings, as if of an angry mob. Mr. Ganter tells of a time when the writer fooled him by causing unearthly shrieks, as of wretches in mortal agony, at an hour when none were on the river but themselves.

Here ends the First Route. We retrace our steps as far as Bandit Hall, where some one raises the question if there is no way out but by Fat Man's Misery. The guide answers, "Yes, by the Corkscrew," adding the warning, "Those who come in by the Fat Man's Misery go out by the Corkscrew, and those who come in by the Corkscrew go out by the Fat Man's Misery: and whichever way they take, they wish they had taken the other." So, up we scramble like so many rats, under or over great ledges, leaping from rock to rock, or climbing ladders, through what seems like an enormous pit that had been filled in with gigantic rocks, till at last, breathless, we emerge upon the Kentucky Cliffs in the Main Cave. A few steps carry us past the saltpeter vats, through the Rotunda, and the iron gate is unlocked to let us into the vestibule, whence we climb the stone stairs to daylight.

"Bridal Altar"

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Last Updated: 22-Dec-2011