While the national park system will not readily volunteer ghostly shenanigans at the location they are hosting on their watch there are enough stories from countless tourists and employees—past and present—to give credence that all is not as it seems. In the case of Mammoth Cave located in central Kentucky it does appear that the paranormal might lurk just below the surface.
Mammoth Cave is the largest known cave system in the world, presently containing close to 400 miles of passages, ranging anywhere from large amphitheaters down to smaller finger width meanderings. It is an intricate web of the unknown, weaving its way through a maze of five levels. The cave has had its surge of human inhabitants throughout the years, some six thousand years worth, and they keep coming to this day…only now wearing shorts and logo tee-shirts, carrying cameras dangling about their necks and a nervous look upon their faces.
Back in the day, it was a consistent flow of folks parading through torch light and then eventually lantern, but always with a purpose in mind; was it temporary shelter; long term housing; a work environment? Most likely it was a combination of all of the above and then some! It is a known fact that saltpeter used in the production of gunpowder to aid in the War of 1812 was manufactured in the cave; at least for a short time. Native American remains have been found…and mummies. It would appear there were intentional burials conducted in the cave. The years rolled forward and so did the accumulation of artifacts. There have been found remnants of cave torches, wall drawings and signatures, crude tools, gourd fragments, and even a pair of woven grass moccasins.
However you slice it, fragments of the human race felt the need to dip below the surface—with an agenda all their own.
The area in which the cave resided went through a succession of owners, eventually purchased by Dr. John Croghan from Louisville, Kentucky, who in turn inherited the cave exploring talents of slave Stephen Bishop and for all intents and purposes turned the man loose to do what he did best—map out the cave’s interior. Stephen was a stubborn soul…giving up was not in his vocabulary. When the mere obstacle of a seemingly bottomless pit impeded any further exploration of the cave Stephen, with careful thought, placed a wooden ladder across the abyss and proceeded on. After conquering this hole that dropped into the bowels of the earth, the cave opened up in ways that Bishop would never have imagined. He described this new section beyond what is now referred to as the ‘Old Cave’ as…”grand, gloomy and peculiar.”
Dr. Groghan was a forward thinker and briefly ran an ill-fated tuberculosis hospital in the cave. Very brief…. He believed the caves constant 54 degree temperature and continuous supply of fresh air could cure “consumption.” He moved fifteen patients into the cave, placing them into eleven huts he had built. All of the patients got worse—two died within the caves, the rest soon after their evacuation—and within ten months the experiment ended in failure. Much of this TB hospital still remains and can be seen on the present day cave tours.
Tuberculosis would ultimately claim the lives of both Dr. Croghan and Stephen Bishop just a few years later.
“Let’s make a little money on the side.” The “Kentucky Cave Wars” was a period of bitter and cut throat competition. Tourism had always existed to some degree (during the Civil war it wasn’t unusual for a wagon load of finely dressed men and ladies to visit a battlefield just hours after a major skirmish), but it came into its own during the dawn of the 20th Century. Suddenly everyone was up for a good time and they weren’t afraid to travel to do it! It was the automotive vacation era. Farmers in Kentucky lived on land that harbored cave systems just below their feet, and it only made an odd sort of sense to take advantage of that fact. After all, the poor hilly soil was a daily struggle to pull some kind of living out of and there was this gravy train of cave tourism right in their own backyard! And the tourists came….
Deception became the order of the day: divert the tourists hungering for a cave experience from the hollowed “King Mammoth” and give them a cave experience. Take their money with a smile and send them on their way. It was the mantra of all cave owners and they found innovative ways to divert this tourist flow into their own caves; always with a smile. And the tourists continued their journey into rural Kentucky.
It is most probable that these caves that lay dormant beneath the farmer’s fields and homesteads did have a tie-in with Mammoth Cave just a few ridges over. This realization had to lie in the back of their minds. However at the same time, these farmer/cave entrepreneurs were bound by their land boundaries—at least on paper—that included the vast cave systems that ran underneath their property. After all, who truly owned a cave? And just how far did their ownership of the underground extend? It was a perplexing “gray” area.
In the spirit of former slave Stephen Bishop, Floyd Collins, a local area farmer, as a child spent years exploring the Flint Ridge cave system that lay in the near proximity of the now privately owned Mammoth Cave. Caving developed into a passion in his youth as later did the dream of discovering a link to Mammoth and a driving goal of managing a successful cave “hot spot.” It would sure beat farming! While Collins did discover and develop Crystal Cave--known for its vast array of gypsum flowers and lying just below his family’s homestead--it couldn’t compete with Mammoth Cave; too small, too far off the beaten path, and lacking civilized lodging. Collins’ journey continued as the cave wars built a momentum and blanketed the area. 1n 1925 while exploring several ridges over from Mammoth in Sand Cave Collins became trapped in a narrow crawlway, his leg pinned by a fallen rock.
Attempts to free him turned into a morbid media spectacle, rapidly becoming a carnival of newspaper and radio reporters, curious bystanders, tourists, food and drink vendors, and souvenir hackers.. Ranked the third largest news story sandwiched between the two World Wars, it was only topped by Charles Lindbergh’s crossing of the Atlantic in 1927 and the kidnapping of his baby in 1932 . My late grandmother, who resided in southern Kentucky all her life, remembered the hysteria and hoopla of the Collins incident when she was a child. It was just one of those things you didn’t forget.
Floyd Collins died of exposure while trapped in Sand Cave and it was quite some time before his body could be extricated. And then the story gets weirder. Floyd Collin’s story alone could comprise several articles. The best book on the subject of his life and ordeal is Trapped! The Story of Floyd Collins by Robert K. Murray and Roger W. Brucker. But, in a quick nutshell--Collin’s body was buried and then exhumed to be displayed in a glass coffin for tourist pleasure in Crystal Cave. Then the body was stolen (rival cave owners?) until it was found nearby, only minus the left leg. The body was put back in a sealed coffin, only this time sealed with chains and a padlock. And there the body rested for years and years….
The National Park Service bought Sand Cave in 1961 and closed it to spelunking. The entrance is currently blocked by a welded gate. The trail to the cave is just before the park entrance sign leading from Cave City, Kentucky. Collins did not get a “proper” burial until 1989. He is buried in the Baptist Church Cemetery on Flint Ridge Road. If I were Collins…I’d be pissed and looking for payback!
The resulting publicity and backlash from the Collin’s saga was one small cog on the wheel that initiated a movement that would ultimately affect the tourist trade to the area. The times, they were a changing. Dr. Croghan’s heirs had died…the land was available and a momentum brewed for the establishment of a national park in the central Kentucky. Mammoth Cave National Park was authorized May 25, 1926 and officially dedicated on July 1, 1941. While it didn’t completely shut down the cave wars, it slowed them down significantly.
A new chapter for Mammoth Cave began and continues to this day.
Back in the day I used to cave…frequently visiting a series of wild caves just west of Bloomington, Indiana. I would like to think it was in the spirit of Stephen Bishop, but frankly, in those days I was not even familiar with him or his zeal for exploring in Mammoth Cave. In his spirit… probably not so much. There would be many a time when I would be inching forward through Buckner Cave, its ceiling tearing at my back and not much open space out to my sides, dragging a durable canvas bag filled with spare batteries, candles, nutritious trail-mix, and bottles of water. I was in it for the long haul! My helmet would scrape in a teeth clenching crescendo against the cave’s ceiling, prompting me to stop and ask myself out loud—“Why in the hell am I doing this?” I would do this countless times! Did Stephen Bishop ever reach this plateau in his journeys? I would like to think so.
I recently revisited this cave…it had been some 15 years. My body doesn’t seem to bend the same way it used to and the passages seem tighter. It was however, and remains, the exploration of my youth. I had led many groups--scouts and church youth--through these corridors over the years. A cave doesn’t change, it remains timeless. And as we personally move on into eternity, the cave will still be there…entertaining guests through the next cycle of life. I introduced Buckner Cave to my girlfriend Laura. Afterwards she stated that she could now cross caving off of her bucket list, but she would never…ever…do it again! When she saw the disappointed look on my face she did offer…”I think you should do it…I’ll just wait outside.”
There are countless stories of the sighting of individuals who just seem out of place. Many times it is the clothing that makes them stand out from the usual tourist clientele; many times it is the dour expressions on their face. One guide reported an experience even before she got into the cave. On the hill leading down from the Visitor’s Center to the Historic Entrance she couldn’t help but notice a man hanging towards the back of the tour group, wearing a striped shirt and denim pants with suspenders. When she tried to find him later during the tour he had simply vanished.
These sightings seem to follow a common thread—somebody is not where they belong…at least not anymore. Other sights and sounds are:
- Various sightings of African-American in period clothing; early explorers and tour guides? Some tour guides suspect that Stephen Bishop and other slave-guides are paying visits to the present day tours.
- During black-out sessions when the guides shut out the lights briefly to demonstrate utter darkness to tour groups there have been reports of these guides being playfully shoved, grabbed, and touched in the darkness. Prior to one such black-out guide Larry Pursell noticed a black family standing behind the rest of the group. The father was wearing a white Panama hat. When the lights came back on they were gone. In fact, it turns out there were no African-Americans on that particular tour. On another tour a tourist called attention to the form of a man holding a lantern atop a formation called Sacrifice Rock. He was described as wearing a long sleeved shirt and an old slouch style hat—much like the attire of early cave explorers. The rangers dismissed it as a play of shadows.
- Stephen Bishop seems to come and go, but is always there on the outer fringes. He has been spotted wearing his favorite garb in life—dark shirt, vest, white pants, and, hmmm…a Panama hat as he wanders the cave’s passages. He has been accused of blowing out the flames of candles and torches used during some of the tours. He has also been sighted hanging to the back of the often large tour groups…in the company of an unknown woman and two children. Hmmm….
- In 1843 a young lady named Melissa fell in love with her tutor William, but the love was not reciprocated. William was in love with a neighbor. Now there is nothing quite like a woman scorned and in a jealous anger young Melissa tricks gullible William into accompanying her into Mammoth Cave to a spot along the inner Echo River…a section now with the appropriate title of Purgatory. Melissa has a plan. She slips away into the darkness leaving poor William to fend for himself in a cave system he is not at all familiar with. Melissa is very familiar with the cave and wants to teach the hapless boy a bitter lesson. Later, she feels real bad about what she has done and enlists help in searching for her love. His lantern and hat are found, but not William. Through the years Melissa’s guilt literally ate her alive—her impending death from tuberculosis many years later prompted her confession. There are the tales of her spirit still wandering along the Echo River, whispering, weeping, coughing, and calling out to William. Could William still be wandering through eternity in the darkness of Mammoth Cave? Children and tour guides have reported an unknown man in the area known as Chief City, wearing the dress of the mid to late 1800s—black and white suit with a cummerbund.
- Although Floyd Collins died in Sand Cave—quite some distance from Mammoth Cave—perhaps he likes to travel. There are the stories that he is in residence in Crystal Cave, just five miles from Mammoth. Crystal Cave was his first (and only) business venture, and it had to have held a special place in his heart. That the cave was sold by the family after his death might just rub him the wrong way. Payback can be a bitch! Collins reportedly throws whiskey bottles (whiskey in the cave?) and steals tools from visiting geologists. Disembodied voices, mysterious knockings, phantom shadows, and mild poltergeist activity have all been reported in Crystal Cave. The cave is on park property and is closed to the public, yet select park employees and visiting spelunkers still can gain access. It’s in who you know.
- There are the constant reports of footsteps when a ranger is alone in the cave; the sounds of coughing and moaning (TB patients?) when no one else is around; pebbles being thrown at you from an unseen source.
- Two pairs of denim clad torsos were sighted running side by side down the grassy hill near the Visitor’s Center.
- Author and paranormal investigator, Nathan Couch, and his wife were hiking on the Cedar Sink Trail during the evening hour when he was startled by a woman’s face embedded against the foliage. In that quick second he noted vintage style clothing and hair…but what really stood out was the face—solid and expressionless, but also quite flat and one dimensional. Like a photograph from a past era. It might seem that it’s not only within the caves themselves producing activity from another time and space, but also the surrounding area.
Other causes of the purported hauntings could be lost Native Americans, misadventure from early explorations, and accidents from the days of the saltpeter mining operation. There has been quite the parade of human souls through the nooks and crannies of Mammoth Cave since its discovery and each is a chapter in a book that is still being written.
Park rangers Colleen O’Connor Olson and Charles Hanson put together a collected work of stories, entitled Scary Stories of Mammoth Cave. While the rangers are reserved in their approach to paranormal occurrences on park ground the Visitor’s Center gift shop will cheerfully sell you a copy of the book.
Miss Laura agreed to a trip to Mammoth Cave on the condition--”I don’t have to crawl on my belly and there’s light.” I gave her my promise and did not disappoint. There was however a brief moment of trepidation in her eyes as she squeezed through Fat Man’s Misery and gave me “the look.” It all worked out fine, and as we made our way through the saltpeter mining remains on the Historic Tour it indeed became a history lesson: people who had come and gone, and a way of life that a resident in today’s society would find hard to wrap their minds around. Perhaps those folks were made of firmer stock back then? Yet… they had left behind an imprint, and sometimes imprints are slow to fade.
Outside the entrance I cornered Ranger Jacob. Hell…I had to give it a try. He was smiling broadly, holding his official ranger hat to his side as he said goodbye to the tour group that had just spent the last two hours with him. His thin beard blew slightly in the afternoon wind. I notice these things. I asked him about paranormal activity in Mammoth Cave. And I watched it happen…like a film suddenly kicking into slow motion. His broad smile narrowed into a thin, tight one and his eyes glazed over…much like a cheetah in attack mode. Was he remembering his orientation training on how to respond to such questions?
His response was slow and measured…” Well…I don’t personally believe in ghosts and have not seen anything, but…there is an evening program with ghost stories…maybe even tonight. You can check at the Visitor’s Center…” I knew when it was over. I changed the subject to Floyd Collins and moved on. I noticed he was smiling broadly again. I guess you live to fight another day.
Many of the early African-American slave guides and explorers are buried in the Old Guides Cemetery not far from Mammoth Cave’s Visitor’s Center. Stephen Bishop resides there also as do several of the TB victims.
Paranormal Author and Speaker Troy Taylor covers the mystery of Mammoth Cave in his book Down in the Darkness.
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