The Regional Review

Volume III - No. 3

September, 1939


Essayist Describes 1850 Visit to "Great Hole in the Ground"

The petty tribulations and the compensating pleasures of travel to Mammoth Cave 89 years ago, the Asiatic trousers of women explorers, the talents of a subterranean chorus formed by companion visitors, the inroads made on Louisville fireworks stores, and the personal impressions gained from two trips into the famous Kentucky caverns which now are protected as a national park -- all are described in the newly published Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson,1 a collection of his correspondence with relatives, friends and business acquaintances.

It was in Cincinnati, where the New England essayist had several engagements on a lecture tour, that he first disclosed his intention to visit the underground wonders. "I hear so much of Mammoth Cave, in Kentucky," he wrote on May 28, 1850, to his wife Lidian, "that if I should fall in with a party who are going there, I shall easily be tempted. It is 80 miles from Louisville, which I pass in my route." A letter to his brother William, written the next day, indicates he still was receptive to temptation: ". . . I am thinking a little of stopping at Louisville, next week, & traversing Kentucky 80 miles, to see the Mammoth Cave; thence by Nashville perhaps, to St. Louis & up the Missisippi [sic] to Galena; to Chicago; possibly to Mackinaw; & home by the St. Lawrence."

Finally, on June 4, a postscript of a letter to William Emerson announced: "I part today for Louisville & Mammoth Cave & up the Missisippi2 to Galena & so home." He had "fallen in" with a party of 17 persons, some of them described as "Cincinnati literati," and had taken passage for Louisville on the mail boat Ben Franklin.

It was not until 12 days later, however, after Emerson had reached St. Louis and was installed in the Planters' Hotel, that he wrote to his wife, on Sunday, June 16, the particulars of his visit to the caves. Following a long description of his experiences on the trip to the Missouri city, he continued:

". . . But I have told you nothing of the Cave, which it cost me a week to visit. And Ellen3, at least, must be duly informed of the great hole in the ground in Kentucky. At Cincinnati, people who had seen it represented it as so wonderful, and at the same time so accessible, (for they think it a little matter to run down the river to Louisville 133 miles --- (you go on board the boat at noon & arrive about midnight at L.) then you have 90 miles to go by stage which can be done in a summers day, that I suffered myself to be persuaded, & we suddenly made up a party of seventeen gentlemen & ladies, including three Englishmen, & set forth. But when we reached Louisville, there was no carriage beyond. The mail-coach departed, it is true, at 4 o'clock in the morning, but it had but 3 vacant seats. Extras were none, & could not be for a party of seventeen; neither horses or carriages could be found for so many. If we waited two days, the mail coach would go again, & would carry nine, & no more. Then we bethought ourselves of the Green River & so, though the way was long, namely, 182 miles down the Ohio to Evansville, and 150 up the Green River from Evansville & by Barren River to Bowling Green, yet the captain of the "Mammoth Cave" steamer promised so well, that we took passage. We sailed on Wednesday afternoon [June 5], and did not reach Bowling Green & disembark until Saturday morning at 9 o'clock, & the cave, by coaches, 30 miles, at night. The Green River is narrow & deep . . . but I can not make my long story longer . . .

". . . Early on Sunday morning [June 9], our ladies appeared in short dresses and Turkish pantalette & turban indespensable to the adventure. We entered the grand old cavern at 7-1/2 o'clock, a chilly descent into the earth. Every man and woman is provided with a good lamp. We had also bought at Louisville the last bundle of Roman Candles in the city, & Stephen the guide carries Bengal-lights.4 Two and two, every lady with a gentleman, we marched along the grim subterranean street, stooping at first a little, but the stone ceiling soon rose above our heads to 20, and sometimes to 40 or 50 feet. Water is the engineer who built this tunnel, & of course his work is done evenly and well. Every passage may be trusted to lead quite through to some other; & the floor & the ceiling are finished, & usually smooth. For miles, I think, the ceiling presents the appearance of a whitewashed wall, though dingy & weatherstained, & hundreds & thousands of people have held up their lamps & torches & smoked their names on a surface so inviting to the love of fame. The passage for great lengths will be as regularly arched as a railway tunnel, of which it often reminds me. But the little procession moves along, two & two, every one with his lamp, & the ground changes. Now we come off the rocky floor to damp earth, then to water, & a bridge, over what is called the "Bottomless pit." We lighted a newspaper & let it sink flapping & flaming down till it touched bottom, & was extinguished. We came to the Church and its pulpit rock, an area where some thousands might sit: to the "Coffin Room" where the vault widens & heightens, & in the middle of it lies uplifted on its table a sarcophagus 54 or 58 feet long, --- fit, I think, to be the tomb of Columbus in the heart of his continent. We came to a little river which we crossed, 8 at a time in a boat, & pretty soon again to another river, Echo River, which was to be crossed again in boat six at a time Here, as each party disappeared under the winding vaults which arched the river, our ladies, three of whom were excellent singers and two gentlemen sung [sic] well---made a music quite preternaturally good, ---so it seemed to me as I hearkened on the Acherontian shore to the disappearing choir of souls. Some of us, I for one, did not make this navigation this time, nor until our return from the extremity of the cave, but clambered & crept through a difficult alley of rock called "Fat man's misery," through "Purgatories," &c to the "Valley of Relief," where we rejoined our sailors. But I cannot recount all the details of our pilgrimage. Sometimes we came to Rocky Mountains where we needed to climb up & down over mere heaps of broken rock; sometimes down slippery sidling narrow paths with a chasm below us on one side; sometimes to ascend by ladders rather dangerous-looking to nervous ladies. From the mouth of the cave to Serena's Arbour, which was our farthest point, is nine miles, and we returned all the way on our own steps, an 18 miles' walk performed in 14 hours. . .

". . . Another fine chamber is called the "Vineyard," because the whole wall is a mass of stony grapes. Another the "Snowball Room." All the roof is snowballs. When we came to great enlargements we lit a Roman Candle & discharged its dazzling fireballs into some yawning vault. No height or depth could resist their prying eyes. It was a long & trying tramp certainly for ladies to make, but the temperature of the cave which is invariably 57 or 58, winter & summer, permits great & long-continued exercise, and no accident, not a fall or a sprain occurred. When we emerged into the warm light at half past nine o'clock, it was raining fast, and a long & violent thunderstorm had passed over us where of we nothing knew. We had lost one of the "days of our bright lives." People say, the best part of the cave is the outside, and the emerging into daylight is magically fine, as I found the next day, on my second visit. There is a point where you feel the chill of the cave on one cheek, & the warmth of daylight on the other. The next morning we entered again, & made a visit of four hours to new parts of the cavern --- to the "Gothic Chapel," to the "Star Chamber", and to Gorin's Dome." The Star Chamber is a broad passage where the lofty ceiling perhaps 50 or 60 feet overhead is a black ground dented with here & there a white spot The guide takes away all your lamps & hides them and you find yourself at once under a starry sky, with a comet, too, easily distinguishable. The illusion is perfect. I lay here on my back on the ground for a quarter of an hour or more whilst our choir sung [sic] "The stars are in the quiet sky," and considered that this was the best thing in the cave, & that this was an illusion! But I have spun my story to such an intolerable length that I must end it at once. I walked that afternoon . . . to Bell's Tavern, 7 miles, and, in lack again of any stage, carriage or horse, the next day 14 miles further, when at last we procured a buggy to Bowling Green. . ."

(1) (Ralph L. Rusk, ed., 6 vols., Ralph Waldo Emerson Memorial Association, Columbia University Press, 1939), IV, 206-208; 211-214.

2) Emerson was consistently parsimonious in his use of the letter "s" in Mississippi.

(3) A daughter.

(4) Pyrotechnic blue light composed usually of a mixture of saltpeter, sulphur and sulphide of antimony.

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Date: 04-Jul-2002