After our Frozen Niagara Falls tour, we asked about additional things to do at this wonderful visitor center. We learned of two free opportunities (most tickets sale tours were sold out): a 45 minute long Porch Talk by a Park Ranger and a walk with a Ranger on the Heritage Trail. We love listening to their stories, so we enjoyed both. The Porch Talk conversation was with about 20 others and the Heritage Trail walk with two other couples. Their talks were open for questions and answers. They seemed to fill in the blanks from our tour and added to each others knowledge. Below are the interesting tidbits I picked up from these talks, from our Frozen Niagara Falls tour, as well as from materials provided at the visitor center. Most of the areas discussed below are available to see on various tours.
So let’s continue with more history about this fascinating Mammoth Cave National Park, started in our last post, which you can read here if you missed it. Evidence uncovered in the cave reflects the Late Archaic Period (3000 – 1000 BC), noted for it’s organized agriculture in the eastern United States. The evidence left behind showed they ate a variety of native plants, including hickory nuts, dandelions, sunflowers, wild berries, acorns and more. And they supplemented their diet with deer, turkey, raccoon, other small mammals, mussels and fish. Life transitioned into the Early Woodland Period (1000 – 200 BC), where the exploration for minerals continued. But for reasons unknown, ceased afterwards. So where evidence disappears, legends appear!
According to legend, about 2,000 years later, in 1797, a hunter named Houchin rediscovered the cave while chasing a bear. Interesting! Anyway, it was quickly discovered the cave contained saltpeter, which is used in making gun powder. During the war of 1812, Charles Wilkens and Hyman Gratz established a commercial saltpeter leaching factory near the cave. Vats and wooden pipes used during this operation are still visible today, just inside the mouth of Mammoth Cave, now known as the historic entrance.
Beginning in 1816, the public began to appreciate the geologic and biological importance of Mammoth Cave. One owner, Frank Gorin, initiated the tours to capitalize on the interest. But it wasn’t until 1838, when a new owner, Dr. John Croghan, extensively developed and explored the cave, exploiting it commercially as one of the great wonders of the world. He built roads and even a large hotel to house the tourists. He also established an underground hospital in the cave. He believed the stable temperature and apparent dryness could help cure tuberculous. Volunteer patients lived in the cave in small stone structures with canvas roofs. Sadly, the experiment was a failure, and six years later, the doctor also succumbed to the dreaded disease.
The most notable cave explorers are Stephen Bishop and Max Kämper. Bishop was one of the early cave explorers. He achieved world wide fame for his discoveries and knowledge of the cave, in addition to his wit and charm. He began a tradition of excellence among the cave guides which continues to today with the Park Rangers. Sadly, Bishop died of unknown causes at age 36. His life was honored with his burial in the Old Guides Cemetery located off the Heritage Trail. Kämper was a German mining engineer, who arrived at Mammoth Cave during the late 1800s and left in 1909. His 1908 survey and map of Mammoth Cave, represents the first accurate instrumental survey of portions of the cave system. To learn more about the legendary Bransford family of guides and others, click here to go to the NPS.gov site.
While it is the 100th anniversary of the National Park System and the 75th for this particular park, it is the 200th anniversary of cave tours being given! On any one given day during the summer, there are about 40 park rangers on duty, talking to visitors. They are all assigned various tours, while also serving time in the visitor center to answer questions and help visitors. At a minimum, each one talks to about 150 people. Sadly, they are going to have to cut staff due to budget constraints, so that means fewer tours will be given. They will be looking for more volunteers and civilians to staff the park.
We also learned it took $5 million to repair the “Historic Tour.” So that may explain the budget cuts! There are five different entrances for the cave tours. I showed a picture of the entrance for the Frozen Niagara Tour we took, linked here from our last post. But there are a total of 27 entrances, some used by researchers of the Cave Research Foundation, a non-profit established in the late 1940s which grew out of the efforts of cave explorers. Their most notable find was about 15 years ago when they found another cave that had not been explored since 1816. They also found footprints and artifacts that were carbon-dated to 2000 – 5000 years ago: cut bones, iron, rock shoulders, baskets, charcoal, and torch fragments used while searching for minerals and flint. They also found bodies there from 2,500 years ago. They have been left in place out of respect for the possibility it was their burial grounds. The cave entrances are locked at night.
After our talks with the Rangers, we were encouraged to walk to the Historic Entrance, which we also did. And in doing this, we discovered an additional area to walk, which added up to nearly a three-mile day in this beautiful park. There is just so much more to learn here, how these caves were formed, etc. But I just focused on what was new information to us. We’d recommend you go visit this national treasure!
The pictures below end our first day at Mammoth Cave National Park! Next up, is a trip to Bowling Green to see the Corvette Museum and Shaker Village.
But ask the animals, and they will teach you,
or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you;
or speak to the earth, and it will teach you,
or let the fish in the sea inform you.
Which of all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?
In his hand is the life of every creature
and the breath of all mankind.” Job 12:7-10