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Reading 2: Mammoth Cave Becomes a World-Famous Attraction
Gunpowder and Slave Miners
During the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain, much of the large quantity of saltpeter needed to fight the war was mined at Mammoth Cave. The cave owners relied on a work force of approximately 70 African American slaves to mine this valuable mineral. Miners collected dirt from various cave passages, loaded it aboard ox-carts and hauled it to leaching vats located both at the Rotunda, the large chamber a short distance from the Historic Entrance, and Booth’s Amphitheater, near the entrance to Gothic Avenue (see Map 3). When the vats were filled with dirt, they were flooded with water flowed by gravity from the cave’s entrance through wooden pipes. When the water had absorbed the calcium nitrate from the soil, it was drained into troughs beneath the vats. The resulting water and calcium nitrate solution was then siphoned into a collecting tank and pumped by hand through another wooden pipeline back to the entrance. Once at the surface, the solution was leached through wood ashes in vats similar to those used in the cave and finally boiled until saltpeter crystals formed. The crystals were then packed in barrels and shipped to gunpowder manufacturers in the East.
During the mining operation, many curiosities and artifacts from a much earlier time period were recovered from the cave dirt. Artifacts such as cane reed torches and fiber sandals were found. News of these discoveries spread quickly along with stories about the huge size of the cave. It was first called Mammoth Cave on a map produced in 1810 to provide detailed information on the location of the saltpeter deposits within the cave. Certainly the name would suggest the large size of the cave, but also as some scholars suggest, the name might have been chosen to capitalize on a recent discovery of Pleistocene elephant remains that captivated the imagination of much of the public at that time.
When the war ended in 1815, the cave’s owners could no longer make a profit mining saltpeter. Still, people who heard about the many discoveries continued to visit the cave to see for themselves the artifacts and the big chambers of this underground marvel. As people published accounts of their visits, the numbers of people who visited the cave grew rapidly.Exciting Discoveries and a Notable Failure
In 1839 Mammoth Cave was purchased by Louisville, Kentucky, physician Dr. John Croghan. Many trails had been mapped by visitors, but Dr. Croghan improved the trails to make it easier for people to walk through the explored sections of the cave. Croghan also bought and improved a nearby hotel to encourage visitors. From the cave’s previous owner, Franklin Gorin, he purchased the services of three individuals--the young slaves Stephen Bishop and brothers Matt and Nick Bransford--to work as guides.
Stephen Bishop proved to be an excellent explorer as well as guide. He made many of the great discoveries that increased the cave’s fame over the next decade. He was reportedly the first person to cross the "Bottomless Pit," which plunged more than 100 feet below the cave trail, into the darkness beyond the light provided by lard oil lanterns. Bishop became one of the most celebrated guides in Mammoth Cave’s history, and his services were requested by nearly everyone who visited the cave before he died in 1857. His much publicized discoveries reported in the guidebook Rambles in the Mammoth Cave ensured that the cave would be a destination for millions of people from all over the world.
As well as wanting to learn the extent of the cave, Dr. Croghan was curious about its possible healing qualities. He believed that the cave’s constant temperature and humidity might prove healthy for those suffering from consumption, a disease known today as tuberculosis. In the spring of 1842 he allowed patients suffering from the disease to live in wooden and stone huts constructed along the main avenues of the cave. Visitors during this experiment reported hearing constant coughing from the patients who appeared as pale, skeleton-like figures inside the huts. In 1843 the experiment ended in failure. Several patients died in the cave and many others grew more sickly. It seemed the high humidity in the cave and the cool temperatures harmed rather than helped the patients. Even so, Croghan’s experiment added much to the medical profession’s knowledge of tuberculosis and, by process of elimination, helped lead the way for control of the disease. The two remaining stone huts in the cave today are a haunting reminder of Dr. Croghan’s experiment. Ironically, Dr. Croghan himself died of the dreaded disease in 1849.
After Dr. Croghan’s death, his nieces and nephews acted as trustees of Mammoth Cave until the last heir died in 1926. According to his will, at the death of his last heir Mammoth Cave would be sold at public auction. During that three-quarters of a century developments in transportation--a Mammoth Cave spur line railroad and early automobiles--increased the number of visitors. It also brought increased competition to Mammoth Cave by the nearby owners of land which lay over some smaller caves. By the mid-1920s the area was in the middle of what historians call the "Cave Wars." This period was characterized by exaggerated advertising claims and outright deception about what visitors could see in the various other caves. Many cave owners allowed people to think that they were visiting Mammoth Cave when in fact they were in another cave.
Questions for Reading 2
1. What mineral was mined in Mammoth Cave during the War of 1812? Why was it important to the country? Who performed the labor?
2. Imagine yourself as the owner of the cave in 1815. How would you use it to make a living?
3. Who was Stephen Bishop and why was he important to the cave’s history? Why is it significant that Bishop reached this notoriety during the 19th century?
4. What did Dr. Croghan plan to do with the cave when he bought it in 1839? Describe his medical experiment. What does it tell you about medical science of the time?
Reading 2 was compiled from Guy Prentice, Archeological Overview and Assessment of Mammoth Cave National Park (Tallahassee, Fla.: Southeast Archeological Service, National Park Service, 1991); Marsha A. Mullin, "Mammoth Cave Saltpeter Works," Historic American Engineering Record No. KY-18, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1986; and Kelly A. Lally and Bruce J. Noble, Jr., "Mammoth Cave National Park Historic Resource Study" (Edmonson County, Kentucky) National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1991.