Who Would Pay to See a Hole in the Ground?

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Bottomless Pit and the Bridge of Sighs in Mammoth Cave
Bottomless Pit and the Bridge of Sighs

With the failure of the tuberculosis hospital, the focus of activity at the cave returned to tours. Visitors continued to come to the cave by horse, stage and river packet, to take advantage of the hospitality of the Mammoth Cave Hotel and the peerless underground spectacle beneath. In addition to fine dining, the hotel would outfit travelers for a journey underground. The Guide Manual of 1860 explains that:

"The proper costume for a gentleman consists of a jacket, heavy boots, a cloth cap and woollen pants.

"The Bloomer or Turkish dress is the proper costume for a lady. It may be plain, or fancifully trimmed to suit the wearer. When trimmed in lively colors, which is always advisable, the effect is beautiful, particularly if the party be large. Flannel or cloth is the proper material. It must be borne in mind that the temperature in the Cave is fifty-nine degrees.

"Every lady carries a lamp, and in no case, except that of illness, should she take a gentleman’s arm. It is fatiguing to both parties, and exceedingly awkward in appearance."

The lamp in question was of the same variety the slave miners had used years before, a grease-oil lamp of a style imported from the East Coast and there fueled with whale oil. Whale oil being in short supply, rendered oils from cooking fueled the lamps in the cave, and their smoky, unprotected flame provided the principal illumination in the cave for over a century, supplemented by Bengal lights, magnesium flares, bonfires and torches – wads of fuel-soaked rag ignited and slung off the end of a short rod.

Stephen and the other slave guides such as Mat and Nick Bransford, Will Garvin, and Alfred, continued to escort hundreds of the curious along their choice of two routes: the Short Route, or the Long Route.

The Short Route (six hours) would have investigated Audubon Avenue to Olive’s Bower, then continued along Main Cave to branch off into Gothic Avenue and thence down into Gratz Avenue to see the Devil’s Cooing Tub and Napoleon’s Dome before returning; and on along Main Cave to the Star Chamber, Wright’s Rotunda, Cataracts, Fairy Grotto, The Temple (Chief City), and Ultima Thule.

The Long Route (14 hours) encompassed Main Cave to the Giant’s Coffin, then behind the rock and down to Wooden Bowl Room, Blacksnake Alley, Side-Saddle Pit, Washington’s Pit and Gorin’s Dome, and Bottomless Pit. Crossing the Bottomless Pit, the tour would carry on into Pensico Avenue, then retrace to Fat Man’s Misery, the Relief Hall, River Hall and down to the underground rivers. Passing by River Styx, Lake Lethe and Purgatory, the party would at last cross the Echo River by boat, to disembark at Cascade Hall, then up Silliman’s Avenue to the Pass of El Ghor, and on to Washington Hall, the Snowball Room, Cleaveland’s Cabinet, Elindo Avenue, Call’s Rotunda, Franklin Avenue and Croghan Hall to the Maelstrom, before returning by the same route to reach the entrance.

The hotel provided a meal on both routes – fried chicken, green beans, and biscuits among other things, all carried by the lunch carrier, a slave bringing up the rear of the party. The group would pause mid-tour to have a unique subterranean repast which the slave guides were sometimes invited to join in spite of their social station.

The cave management conducted tours throughout the Civil War, and tours have continued without interruption to the present day.

Last updated: May 23, 2018

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Mammoth Cave, KY 42259-0007


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