When Stephen Bishop pressed his way through a rambling maze of rock and darkness that would eventually become Mammoth Cave National Park—clutching an oil fed lantern that broadcast a weak cone-shaped illumination before him—he was aware of the gamble. There was one of two options…he would either continue to inch forward, or ultimately come to a dead end.
Those of us, like Bishop, possessing an adventurous spirit, will hardly consider inconvenience. Stephen was one of those—always pushing forward with a drive and determination that would put most explorers to shame. He was a spelunker’s caver, pulling on his big boy pants and diving head first into a mysterious underground world, magnified by lingering echoes of dripping water and shoe against rock, and a constant spectrum of flickering light playing shadows in a subterranean capsule of possibilities. Life as he had known it had taken a peculiar twist.
It is a known fact that most of the early explorers of Mammoth Cave were African American slaves. Perhaps the reasoning of the time was they were “expendable?” After all, no one knew quite what to expect. The cave area was purchased in 1839 by Dr. John Croghan and he consequently acquired with the purchase a handful of slaves, including Stephen Bishop. Croghan was impressed by Bishop’s calm demeanor and encouraged his continuing explorations of the cave. Most folks would not have had a particularly good feeling about rooting about in the bowels of the earth like a common mole. What was to be gained? Stephen Bishop had a completely different view on the subject—he loved it!
On a recent guided tour of Mammoth Cave (the Historic Tour) Ranger Jacob—a wiry man with a wispy Bob Dylan beard and dressed immaculately in pressed national park green—offered his own interpretation of Bishop’s zeal in exploring the inner regions:
Slaves, of course, were bound by duty, and an eye was always upon them. I would imagine that with Stephen Bishop…well, this was his time to take control and be truly free.
The story goes that even on Bishop’s days off from exploring he would continue to make headway through the underground labyrinth, losing track of time and being gone for hours upon end. Another story states that when he was officially released from his obligations to serve a master he chose to stay, not wanting to leave the cave system that had become an integral part of his life.
Shifts in your thought process have a way of hitting one when they least expect it, and as John Lennon once so aptly stated…”Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” Stephen Bishop and Mammoth Cave became tied for life, and some feel even in death.
The national park system will never readily admit to paranormal activity existing on their grounds-- at least not officially--and Mammoth Cave is no exception. We are, after all, adults and aren’t ghost stories just for children? One would think with the proliferation of paranormal television shows that are currently greasing the rails of our imagination the park system would embrace and build upon it for the tourism clientele. Not so much…at least not yet. Somebody has to be professional about all of this, and by God, the boys and girls in green are not going to step across the line. Ghosts…a good story, but let’s carry on. We do have the tourists from Japan and India to consider.
Andersonville Civil War Prison, located in Georgia, is a national historic site run by the National Park Service. It was set up to house Union prisoners of war and a horrible place, with almost as many Confederate dying because of the conditions as the Union soldiers it interred. Death, despair and misery…all common elements of a potential haunting, and stories of paranormal occurrences within its former walls have circulated for years. Escaping the hot mid-summer Georgia sun I approached a ranger in the air conditioned visitors center and bluntly asked him about the stories. The smile ran away from his face and I got “the look.” The questions stopped there. Fifteen feet away, a book display in the gift shop included a book on ghostly happenings in Georgia. The man in green did not budge.
In the conclusion: A brief history of Mammoth Cave; strange rumblings and turf wars in Cave country; the desperate saga of Floyd Collins; ghostly happenings.
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