Will Garvin

A black and white photo of a man standing on stairs near a cave entrance. He is holding a lantern.
Will Garvin

Quick Facts
Cave guide and explorer
Place of Birth:
Hart County, Kentucky, USA
Date of Birth:
1847 or 1848
Place of Death:
Edmonson County, Kentucky, USA
Date of Death:
May 24, 1906

William “Will” Garvin was born into slavery in southcentral Kentucky in 1847 or 1848, his last name came from his and his parents’ enslaver, Sinclair Garvin. Many other records of Garvins in the area have been found, both African American and European American, any relationships with Will remain unknown. 

On February 25, 1865, Will Garvin enlisted with Company M, 12th Heavy Artillery, U.S. Colored Troops which served at Camp Nelson in Nicholasville, KY. While the Emancipation Proclamation gave freedom to enslaved people in confederate states in 1863, as a border state Kentucky was not covered in this proclamation. Often, the clearest path to freedom for enslaved Kentuckians in the years leading up to the 13th amendment was to enlist with the Union army. It remains unknown whether or not Will had permission from his enslaver when he enlisted in 1865. 

After the Civil War, Will settled in Edmonson County, Kentucky where he was one of only six black Civil War veterans, and soon began guiding tours at Mammoth Cave. He married Hannah Bransford, the daughter of formerly enslaved guide Nick Bransford, on May 27, 1876. 

Will Garvin is most widely known in Mammoth Cave history for discovering an area known as the Corkscrew. This maze through collapsed rubble linked the upper levels of the cave system to the lower levels near the underground rivers. It provided an exit for the cave where the visitor would have to do very little retracing of steps. Additionally, Will is the first person known to have experienced the optical illusion known as the Statue of Martha Washington. As he was exiting the cave he saw the spectral silhouette of a woman appear down the passage. Upon further examination it was merely the reflection of light from an approaching tour casting light upon the bends of the cave avenue. On occasion the Statue of Martha Washington can be seen on certain tours of the Historic section. 

Some have given Will Garvin credit for the discovery of Colossal Caverns. This cave was operated by the L&N Railroad and opened to the public. In 1972 this system was found to connect to the Mammoth Cave system. Today Colossal Caverns is one of hundreds of caves protected within Mammoth Cave National Park. 

On May 24, 1906, just three days before his 30th wedding anniversary, Will Garvin passed away. The exact place of his burial is unknown, the most likely locations are Will and Hannah’s former homestead or the cemetery of Pleasant Union Baptist Church, both of which stood on Flint Ridge. Will’s gravestone is one of many that has been lost to time inside the boundaries of Mammoth Cave National Park. 

Camp Nelson National Monument, Mammoth Cave National Park

Last updated: April 26, 2024