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Special Characteristic: Historic Series of Approximately 150 miles of Explored Underground Avenues; One of Nation's Show Places for More than a Century and a Quarter

Mammoth Cave National Park
Ruins of Karnak—Mammoth Cave National Park

TRADITION has it that a wounded bear caused the discovery of famous Mammoth Cave, long known as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. Hunting safety, he limped into a cave opening. The hunter followed—and in the gloom found himself at the entrance to the caverns that stretch far into the underground world. He forgot the bear. That was in 1799. Today the area is a national park, with approximately 150 miles of explored underground passages—and none knows how many unexplored.

To the historic portions of the cave leading from that accidentally discovered entrance increasing throngs of visitors have come throughout more than a century. Long before transportation was easy, to those who traveled widely, Mammoth Cave was a lodestone. In what is known as the Onyx Arm Chair, Jenny Lind, the "Swedish Nightingale," sang to fortunate visitors back in 1851. In the cave Edwin Booth rendered Hamlet's Soliloquy to other fortunates. Many other famous people of the nineteenth century are known to have visited Mammoth Cave.

The name of Mammoth Cave first appeared in public records early in 1812. Saltpetre dirt, containing potassium nitrate or saltpetre, which was necessary for the manufacture of gunpowder, had been discovered in the cave. Rumors of the War of 1812 were in the air, and for awhile Mammoth Cave was a boom property. Three times in one day the records show it changed ownership. When the war actually started, and American harbors were blockaded against powder imports, Mammoth Cave became one of the few sources of supply of nitrate. Crude wooden vats and pipes were built for leaching purposes inside the cave and tons of salt petre dirt mined by torchlight and prepared for powder manufacture. The old vats still remain, showing no signs of decay, and several of the original pipes.

For miles stretch the corridors of the historic portion of the cave, replete with reminders of other days—both from the human and geological standpoint. Here is where nitrate was mined—over there Booth declaimed. Now the trail leads over what was, eons ago, the main channel of the underground river that carved out the great subterranean passageways.

Also in the old portion of Mammoth Cave is Echo River, slowly winding its eerie way 360 feet underground. In its depths live eyeless fish. Through hundreds of centuries of living in its darkness, having no need for sight, they gradually lost the power to see and eventually lost all traces of eye sockets.

On its surface, visitors of today go boating in specially prepared flat-bottomed boats.

In the older portions of Mammoth Cave, only the more massive formations remain since the travelers of a century ago—and until very recently— did not realize fully their responsibility to leave nature's priceless sculpturing for others to enjoy.

Fortunately much of the cave was unopened until well after the turn of the century, and the most spectacular portions not until the national-park idea was strongly brewing. The Frozen Niagara section, with its group of onyx cascades and "tapestries," its exquisitely delicate gypsum flowers, its stalactites and stalagmites, is superb. In this area is Crystal Lake—where again the visitor may go boating.

The various portions of the cave may be visited separately from three different entrances. Four of the scheduled trips leave from the Historic Entrance, and two from the magnificent Frozen Niagara entrance, discovered in 1923. One combined trip from the Historic Entrance on the west to Frozen Niagara on the east is believed to be the longest cave route in the world; this trip requires 7-1/2 hours, with a stop for luncheon in the underground Snowball Dining Room. Water is piped from the bottom of a spring above.


In the fall of 1938 new miles of amazingly beautiful limestone caverns were added to the known portions of Mammoth Cave. Starting out to obtain some eyeless fish for display in the historic section, four cavern guides themselves made history. There are miles of main avenues, underground gardens decorated with gypsum flowers surpassing any previously discovered, and a series of spectacular cave onyx formations unlike any thing so far discovered in Kentucky's other limestone caves. One avenue in the new section extends fully 7,000 feet, and for massiveness and perfect sculpturing is unequalled by anything previously known in Mammoth Cave. In places its walls and ceiling glisten white with flaked gypsum or are studded with gypsum crystals; at other points are great domes and cupolas of creamy white, sometimes fringed or veined with tracery in red rust, black, or brown.

This new portion of Mammoth Cave has been explored by National Park Service engineers, scientists, and cave guides, and is now being prepared for public use. In order that its wealth of delicate formations may not be injured, public showing of this section of the cave will be delayed until complete geologic and engineering studies have been made and trail and illumination problems solved. It is hoped this new discovery may be shown the visitor sometime in 1942.


Long before white men came, Indians knew of and worked in Mammoth Cave. In 1935 two guides exploring near Violet City found a mummy high on a ledge. From its position and the articles found with it, archeologists pieced together the story. An Indian miner was digging for something in sand on the ledge. A rock above slipped and pinned him down. The body, found many centuries later in an excellent state of preservation, was clad in a breech clout, woven of fiber. Crude stone implements lay nearby. Beneath the miner was what remained of a pouch, also of woven fiber. Close by bundles of reeds, thrust into the sand, had been used as torches, as their singed ends indicated. The mummy was found three miles from the nearest natural entrance—three miles of pitch black darkness, lighted for that long-ago miner only by the reed torches he carried. Today the mummy rests in an air-tight glass case just below the ledge on which it was found.


The surface area of Mammoth Cave National Park includes over 47,000 acres of picturesque forested hill country, penetrated by foot trails and a small mileage of park roads. Native flowers, shrubs, and wildlife enhance the peaceful charm.


Last Modified: Fri, Sep 1 2000 07:08:48 pm PDT

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