Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Mammoth Cave

We drove Tuesday from the Smoky Mountains to Mammoth Cave. The journey caused us to backtrack along the Nashville-to-Smokies route we took only a few days before, until we veered north into Kentucky and found our way to our campground in Cave City. Once we got set up for the night, we ate a dinner of - what else? - Kentucky Fried Chicken!

This morning we woke up and got to the Mammoth Cave National Park Visitor Center right as it opened at 8:15. We had time to play around in the gift shop (and buy Junior Ranger hats for our two youngest guys), ask the park rangers all of our annoying questions, and buy our tickets for the 9:00 cave tour.

There are several different cave tours to choose, each with a different route and emphasis, but we chose the historic tour to learn about the different ways humans have used the cave in the past.

First, a bit about the cave itself:

Mammoth Cave is named so because of its size, not because woolly mammoths were found there. And it lives up to its name, being the longest cave system in the entire world! I toured the cave with my parents and younger sister back in the 1980's, and at that time 390 miles of the cave had been discovered and mapped. Since then, that number has reached 400 miles. Yes, it is hard to comprehend just how large this cave is! And there is more of the cave yet being discovered!

Our tour guide "Ranger Joe" did a phenomenal job walking us through the two miles of our cave tour. At first we were a bit chilly, as the constant temperature in the cave is 54°F, but as we descended further and the outflow of wind died down, we adjusted to the coolness of the cave. Luckily we were smart enough to bring our sweaters with us!

We learned that indigenous people used the cave as deep as 14 miles in, as long ago as 4000-2000 years ago. A very interesting fact is that a female mummy was discovered in the cave in the 1800's, but she was removed to the Smithsonian Museum after people protested her presence as a tourist attraction.

White European discovery of the cave dates back to 1797. For many years the land was privately owned, and the cave was used as a money-making endeavor. During the War of 1812, when the British Navy blockaded American ports and we were unable to import gunpowder from foreign allies, saltpeter was mined out of the dirt in the cave (saltpeter being a key ingredient in gunpowder). African slave labor was used to accomplish this arduous task.

When the war ended, mining was discontinued, but exploration and tourism started to boom. And we learned that graffiti is not necessarily a modern phenomenon! We saw many "Bob was here" type of "wall art" in the cave with dates as long ago as the early 1800's. Everyone wants to leave their mark!

At some point, the cave was used as a hospital. A doctor took several tuberculosis (aka "consumption") patients down to live in the cave, thinking that the constant temperature and humidity would help them. Three patients died in there, but some lived in the cave as long as eight to nine months, then lived for as much as seven years longer.

But in 1925 a tragedy occurred. A man by the name of Floyd Collins was trying to map the cave when a boulder fell on him, trapping him in the cave. An extensive rescue effort was unsuccessful and he ultimately died in the cave from exposure. But the media coverage of the drama as it unfolded brought national attention to the cave, and in 1926 Congress authorized the cave to become a national park.

Our tour taught us about the historical significance of the cave, but we also got to experience the awesomeness of the natural underground beauty. Some of the chambers were so large, they literally could not be captured on camera. We saw the remnants of the saltpeter mining operation, the huge rotunda room, a rock formation called the "giant's coffin" - among many other things! We also had to squeeze through some very narrow passages. One in particular was called "Fat Man's Misery", and it lived up to its name by having a clearance at some points of only 14-15 inches to squeeze through! We also saw the "Bottomless Pit" which for years no one knew its depth. In addition, we saw several lone bats flying just inches away from us (one advantage to going on the first tour of the day).

After our tour, we came back to our camper for lunch and to work on the Junior Ranger workbooks with our two youngest boys.

At 2:30 we returned to the park for a little while. Steve and the four older boys attended a ranger guided tour about slavery in the cave while I tended to the younger boys and helped them receive their Junior Ranger badges.

About the slavery tour:

I already mentioned that the saltpeter mining operation was carried out by slaves. But there was one slave who is worth mentioning. Stephen Bishop was a slave who was given the task of guiding tourists through the known parts of the cave back when it was privately owned and used as a money making operation. There were many slaves who had this task, but it was Stephen Bishop who took it upon himself to make a written map of the known cave. He was the first person to map out the cave. But not only did he map it, but he also discovered many new areas of the cave through his own exploration. He was so instrumental in the discovery and mapping of the cave, a group of private citizens donated a proper headstone and burial plot for him when he died.

We then came back to the camper for dinner, then headed back to the park one last time for the ranger-led campfire program. The topic for tonight was about mystical and mythical history of the cave. It was very interesting, but once we returned home, all the kids were just about beat, and our 10yo barely made it into bed before falling asleep!