From Purgatory to Paradise

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Footsteps into New Discovery
Footsteps into virgin cave in New Discovery

Almost 15 years after Floyd Collins’ grim fate, four Mammoth Cave guides, Leo and Claude Hunt and Pete and Carl Hanson, risked entrapment in the depths of Mammoth Cave in 1939. They had ventured down to the eerie Roaring River at the bottom of the cave to capture eyeless fish for display on the surface, and found a small tunnel leading upward. Knowing that the Roaring River was subject to dramatic and unexpected flooding, they nonetheless wormed their way upward, only to be stopped by a single boulder. Returning to the surface, they obtained permission from the park manager to remove part of the boulder. Then, returning to Roaring River, they crawled to the boulder, and past it, to make what would soon be heralded as the great "New Discovery" of Mammoth Cave. Stunning formations in gypsum and in dripstone met their astonished gaze, as did colossal rimstone dams. A desire to return at once to report the find and a desire to remain and behold the wonders warred within them, but a fear of the river rising decided the matter. In the next two years an entrance was blasted into New Discovery and plans were made to open its wonders to public view – some suggested encasing the exquisitely delicate formations in glass globes to prevent the devastation visitors had wrought in other parts of the cave.

But World War II interrupted the plans, and by the time the question of opening that part of the cave again met serious consideration, a sea-change had occurred in the philosophy of park management. No longer were the cave’s resources seen only as objects for human amusement – they now held value in their own right, and for the first time since Dr. Croghan outlawed graffiti in the cave, a part of the cave was placed off-limits to visitors. New Discovery remains a pristine, unspoiled example of the best of the region’s subterranean splendor, and access is now limited to researchers.

Last updated: May 23, 2018

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