Hovey's Hand-Book of the Mammoth Cave of Kentucky
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From the Star Chamber to Violet City

Familiar now with the features of the first part of the Main Cave, we trudge along rapidly, till the guide cries "Halt!" We seem to hear the measured ticking of an old-fashioned clock. We find the natural timepiece to be but the dripping of water into a small basin hidden behind some rocks. The drops fall only a few inches, one by one, as they may have fallen for a thousand years; but such are the acoustic properties of the place that their musical ticking is heard for a long distance. The guide shows us also another pretty pool, made by a tiny rill gushing from the solid wall; and he tells us the story of a rambling blind boy, who won a living by his violin, and who said that he "wanted to see the Cave" for himself. Somehow he got apart from his companions, and when they found the little boy he was sound asleep beside this tiny basin, which has ever since been known as "Wandering Willie's Spring."

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Hastening on to the Star Chamber, we resume our exploration of the Main Cave. Beyond that hall of constellations, the Grand Gallery—as it used to be called—sweeps to the right, and the starry canopy changes to a "mackerel-sky," caused by the scaling-off of the black deposit on the ceiling, thus exposing the white limestone. This is the Floating Cloud Room. As we look aloft at the fleecy masses that seem to float along, we notice a stout oak pole jutting from an inaccessible crevice. When, why, how, and by whom was it put there? In Lee's "Notes of the Mammoth Cave," in 1835, ancient fireplaces are mentioned, which were also shown to myself by old Matt, in 1881, and which were hidden by broad slabs along the margin of the Cave.

Curious objects are pointed out as we walk through Procter's Arcade and Kinney's Arena, lofty and symmetrical enlargements of the passageway. One of them is another stout pole in a rift in the roof. The Keel-Boat (or the Whale) is an enormous rock seventy feet long, and a tilted slab of limestone is the Devil's Looking-Glass. Presently it begins to snow; and our shouts make the flakes fall faster. Waving lamps and lighted fire-balls augment the storm. Seeking an explanation, we find that the ceiling is crusted with native Epsom salts, whose crystals are thus dislodged, as well as more silently by the growth of new crystals, falling as saline snow till the brown ledges are whitened by mimic snowdrifts.

No stooping or crawling has to be done in the Main Cave, and the floor is everywhere dry. Formerly the tilting slabs of limestone made walking difficult, but now these are removed so as to give us a fairly smooth road throughout. The serpentine winding known as the S-bend expands to a width of one hundred and seventy-five feet and keeps that width for five hundred and fifty feet; but midway it meets a grand crossing, that increases the width to about four hundred feet. Fox Avenue, near by, encloses a large cave-island.

Dr. Nahum Ward and other early explorers fancied the Main Cave as formerly an underground Nile, and its rocky masses ruined cities; and on the first maps they were numbered First, Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth City. The first in order was called the Chief City, while the fourth, now familiar to us by that name, was the Temple. This fact explains some conflicting accounts by early and more recent authors. Robert M. Bird was responsible for these changes, giving the name of Wright's Rotunda to the First City in honor of his friend, Prof. C. A. Wright, M. D.

This is one of the most spacious rooms in the Cave, being shaped like the letter T, its length about five hundred feet and its width at the transept about three hundred and fifty feet. The ceiling is quite level throughout, but the floor is irregular, causing the space between roof and floor to vary from ten to forty-five feet. When several chemical fires are ignited at distant points simultaneously the effect is superb. Ragged cliffs divide this prodigious area, making a sort of great island, beyond which by climbing through the so-called Chimneys those who wish can reach the Black Chambers above, extending for several hundred feet. The walls and domes of these chambers are coated with the black oxide of manganese, and the enormous rocks lie scattered in the wildest disorder.

Returning to Wright's Rotunda and taking the other arm of the T, we presently find ourselves looking directly into a steep hollow, or pit, into which the Cataracts tumble from orifices in the roof, and with resounding force after a rainfall. Those who risk a descent part way down the pit and climb over a wall may find their way into the Solitary Chambers and the Fairy Grotto, though the difficulty of access prevents these places from being ordinarily exhibited. A "tumble-down" to the left of the Cataract chasm might correctly be regarded as the termination of the Main Cave.

A passage to the left opens from Cataract Hall to a lofty avenue commonly spoken of as a continuation of the Main Cave, but really on another level. The limestone slabs that used to clatter under our feet and endanger our equilibrium have been made firm or else removed, and we easily proceed through the Gorge and across the portal of what once was styled the Temple, but has long been known as the Chief City.

By my measurement the room is four hundred and fifty feet long, with an average width of one hundred and seventy-five feet; but others have made the dimensions larger. The utmost height does not exceed one hundred and twenty-five feet. The maximum width, as measured by Dr. Call, is two hundred and eighty-seven feet. The area covers about two acres. And over this vast space springs a solid and seamless canopy of gray limestone, that has thus lifted its majestic arch for thousands of years. Dr. Bird found here, in 1837, aboriginal relics "in astonishing, unaccountable quantities." Formerly these were heaped as bonfires to illuminate the chamber; but even yet cartloads remain of half-burnt cane-torches, fragments of woven moccasins, and other objects of interest, to reward search amid crevices and crannies. The theory is that the Indians made this place their council chamber, or else their stronghold of refuge from enemies.

Fascinated with the local attractions and possibly too forgetful of the weariness of my guide, I lingered once till midnight, prowling amid the fastnesses of the Chief City. Noticing presently the utter silence that prevailed, I returned to where my guide had been left on guard, only to find a couple of lamps and a strip of brown paper on which he had scrawled the words, "It is midnight and I got tired and went out." The guide had really deserted me, and the only thing to do was to await the coming of comrades, who would surely hunt me up, as they did after the lapse of an hour or so. Extinguishing the lamps meanwhile, fancy was given full play to people the mysterious council chamber with ghosts of dusky warriors, till there seemed to be a rush of whispers and other imaginary sounds that were really caused, I suppose, by the coursing of the blood through my veins. It was easy to realize that a person actually lost in Mammoth Cave might soon be so bewildered as to lose his reason. Even in my own case it was a relief to break the spell, as I did, by simply striking a match and trimming anew the flickering flame of my lamps. Every observant visitor has seen with pleasure the assemblage of rocks and the overarching canopy aglow with Bengal lights or burning magnesium, and has commented on the singular fact that the lofty dome seems to follow him as he retires from its protection.

St. Catherine City, which lies beyond, is at the intersection of the Blue Spring Branch and Blackall Avenue with the main passageway. The latter, recently named in honor of the veteran cave-hunter, Dr. C. R. Blackall, of Philadelphia, ends in a funnel-shaped pit bearing the name of Symmes' Pit probably in memory of Captain John Cleves Symmes, of Newport, Kentucky, whose theory gained much attention formerly—that our globe was a hollow sphere with an opening at the poles, and that within were races of men and animals different from those on the surface. At a public meeting held at Frankfort, a resolution was adopted to the effect that the United States Congress should fit out an expedition to the Arctic Circle under his command, in order to find, if possible, the mysterious Polar pit for which this Cave pit was named.

Our course, however, leads us to Waldach's Dome (in memory of Charles Waldach, the pioneer in cave-photography) and Hains' Dome (in honor of his successor, Ben Hains), both of them symmetrical and noble domes, rising to oval ceilings above smooth floors of sand. In the Garret we find flakes of Epsom salts like those found in the Snow Room. Bending low through Mayme's Stoopway, we reach what to Dr. Call and myself seemed to be an impenetrable wall, to which we gave what we thought the fitting name of "Ultima Thule."

In the year 1908 Mr. Max Kaemper, of Germany, undertook a complete exploration of Mammoth Cave, assisted by Edward Bishop, guide, the results of which are exclusively for the owners of the Cave. Their observations led them to suspect that a certain tumble-down in the Sandstone Avenue might be identical with the tumble-down known as Ultima Thule. Hence they attacked a crawl-way near the latter, and by patiently removing many limestone fragments they wormed their way through to an oval hall, one hundred and sixty feet long by one hundred and twenty feet wide and sixty feet high, now named, for its discoverer, Kaemper Hall. An unseen waterfall, by whose music they had been led onward, was now seen to dash down an abyss they named, for the guide, Bishop's Pit. Another is the "Parrish Pit," so called for Norman A. Parrish, of Buffalo, New York. These are the first of a series of eleven pits, the others not yet being named.

Fifty steps to the right is a short passage where an iron gate is now fixed, opening into a symmetrical chamber seventy five feet in diameter and of about the same height, rising by vaulted arches and closing above in a beautiful circle. This is Elizabeth's Dome, named for a sister of Mr. Kaemper. The exit is by the Grand Portal, an arch sixty feet wide and fifty feet high, commanding one of the most magnificent views in all the underground world.

On visiting the locality soon after its discovery, I seated myself on Albert's Stairway, while one of my companions ignited Bengal lights here and there, and the other used an automobile searchlight brought in for the purpose; and thus they gave me my first view of the wonderful region, to which the general name of Violet City is given, in honor of Mrs. Violet Blair Janin, the wife of Trustee Albert C. Janin, and the fair owner of one third of the Mammoth Cave estate. Special features are Blair Castle and the Marble Temple, whose environs are styled "Walhalla," for the fabled realm above the clouds where dwell the heroes and demigods of old German mythology.

The Chimes

Picking up our torches again, and carrying my acetylene bicycle lamp, to which I had fixed a convenient handle, we followed a natural pathway near the wall on the left, that led us from place to place. We found that Violet City is two hundred and fifty feet long by one hundred and twenty-five wide, rivaled only in size by Wright's Rotunda and the Chief City, and greatly exceeding them in beauty. A sandstone cave-in at the end seems to lend color to the idea that Sandstone Avenue, or some similar place, is near. These fallen blocks are cemented together by a profusion of onyx.

Stalactites and stalagmites abound everywhere, varying in color from the purest white alabaster through every imaginable shade. The upper central part of the hall is crowned by three masses of fluted white onyx, glistening with exquisite crystals, while from the roof hang in fine array stalactites eight or ten feet long. The right wall is decorated with pure white formations, and the left wall is coated with rich brown onyx. A row of stalactites of varying length emit musical tones when struck by the knuckles, and by skillful percussion simple airs can be played on them. These are the Chimes.

Other attractions excite surprise. The Beer Mug, like a mug of foaming ale, the Ripe Tomato, a rare bit of red onyx, and other odd specimens of natural mimicry are here. One familiar with the brilliant creations found in the wonderful caverns of Luray might easily imagine himself in that Virginian fairyland instead of in Mammoth Cave. Thus far these marvelous treasures have been kept untouched by vandal fingers, such as have robbed or destroyed elsewhere what should have been most jealously guarded in the greatest cavern known.

In his zeal to open a passage from Violet City to Sandstone Avenue Mr. Kaemper obtained permission to use explosives. Thus he made considerable progress. However, the indications were that he was likely to burst through to the surface somewhere, instead of into Sandstone Avenue, and accordingly he desisted. In either case the result might have been advantageous. An opening into Sandstone Avenue would enable visitors to make the circuit through the Main Cave and Violet City, and return by the Long Route, without having to retrace their steps. On the other hand, an exit to the surface from near Violet City would enable them to return by coach to the Cave Hotel without a wearisome tramp over ground already trodden.

The Marble Temple

To convince those who, like the writer, are skeptical as to the proximity of Violet City and Sandstone Avenue, Kaemper and Bishop repaired, one to the first place and the other to the second, agreeing on a fixed moment by the watch when they would fire revolvers and likewise hammer on the rocks. The pistol shots were inaudible, but the blows on the walls were faintly heard. By similar sound-tests it was determined that Wright's Rotunda is directly above the Serpent Hall (beyond Echo River), so that it might be possible to connect them by a stairway through an artificial shaft. Incidentally I may state, however, as showing how far sound may travel through the rocks and their mysterious crevices, that, while in the Chief City, we heard the steam-cars running over the Mammoth Cave Railroad.

But now no short cut is provided for us, and we return as we came, carrying with us delightful memories of the New Discovery.

William Garvin, the Guide

In "Violet City"

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Last Updated: 22-Dec-2011