Today, I’m going to ask you to close your eyes and imagine. But I don’t need you to picture anything in your imagination this time. Instead, just imagine you’re in a dark place. It’s chilly and a little damp. The walls are cold and hard, like they’re made out of rock. You say something, and you hear your voice echo off the walls and back to you. Finally, you find a flashlight in your backpack and turn it on.
Where are you?
If you guessed that you’re in a cave, you’re right! If you’ve ever wanted to go spelunking–that’s what it’s called when you explore a cave–then this episode is for you. And we’re not just exploring any old cave. We’re going deep into the history of the longest cave system in the world: Mammoth Cave in the state of Kentucky, in the USA. Mammoth Cave became a National Park in 1941, but it had a long and fascinating history before that.
Caves like Mammoth form when water slowly wears away at the rocks underground, creating underground caverns and tunnels. Mammoth Cave has over 400 miles of tunnels and caverns, and it’s still being mapped. In fact, explorers recently found 8 more miles of passages! The cave is also home to some unique animal life, such as bats, salamanders, and blind cave fish. Did I mention there are actually rivers inside the cave?!
Not only are there rivers in the cave now, but 300 million years ago, the whole area was a sea! Limestone formed slowly from fine sands at the bottom of the ocean and created fossils of ancient sea creatures. So today, scientists and visitors can find fossils of everything from small shellfish to giant, ancient sharks, even though the oceans are thousands of miles away now! Later on in the cave’s history, other animals were fossilized in the cave as well.
Mammoth Cave isn’t just interesting for what it can tell us about Earth’s past though. It’s a part of many fascinating stories about human beings too!
The first humans to explore Mammoth cave were Native Americans. Woodland Native Americans explored and used the cave over 4,000 years ago. There’s evidence that they explored at least 19 miles of the cave’s passages. They mined minerals from the cave walls, which they may have used for medicinal or religious purposes, but scientists aren’t really sure. They left many items behind in the cave, like gourd bowls, torches used to light the way, and sandals. They also made artwork by carving into the rock walls or drawing on them using charcoal.
European Americans discovered Mammoth Cave in the 1790s. They discovered that the cave contained saltpeter, which was used in making gunpowder. They began mining for saltpeter using enslaved laborers. This went on through the war of 1812, but after that, the need for saltpeter for gunpowder decreased. Within a few years, the owners of the cave started giving tours to curious visitors.
In the 1840s, one owner of the property, Dr. John Croghan, built a small hospital for tuberculosis patients inside the cave. He had noticed that logs and artifacts inside the cave didn’t seem to break down like things left outside on the surface. He reasoned that maybe something about the cave had the power to keep things from decaying. Maybe the cave air could help people suffering from the disease to recover. If the cave worked as a treatment, he planned to set up a whole hotel inside for treating sick people. Unfortunately, the cave didn’t turn out to be a magical cure for tuberculosis: his patients got worse instead of better, and he closed it down after a few months.
It wasn’t a total loss for Dr. Croghan though. By this time, the cave had become a very popular tourist destination, and Dr. Croghan, like the previous owner, sold tours of the cave in addition to having his hospital. This was still before the Civil War that ended slavery in America, and sadly, most of the tour guides were enslaved African American men. This brings us to one of the most interesting parts of Mammoth Cave’s history.
The most famous of these tour guides was Stephen Bishop. He explored many new areas of the cave, using ropes to find his way back and torches to light the pitch-black passageways. He built a bridge over one of the caves’ deepest chasms, known as the Bottomless Pit, so that tour groups could see more parts of the cave. He also drew one of the first maps of the system based on his explorations.
But Stephen Bishop wasn’t just a brave explorer. He had an expert-level knowledge of geology and mineralogy. Professors of geology who visited the cave were astounded by his knowledge. Bishop was famous well beyond Kentucky. Well-known and influential visitors to the cave spread the word about his brilliance and recommended that others request him as their guide should they visit.
Two other early guides were Nick and Mat Bransford. Nick and Mat weren’t brothers but instead shared the same last name because, sadly, they were both owned by the same man. It was a common practice for enslaved people to be given their owner’s last name. Mat was one of the earliest tour guides. He was eventually freed and continued to work at Mammoth Cave as a guide, but paid. His son Henry and his grandchildren, Louis and Matt also worked as paid tour guides at the cave well into the twentieth century. The family tradition didn’t stop there though: his great-great-great-grandson works there as a park ranger now!
Nick Bransford was also an enslaved tour guide and may have also done other work above ground on the cave property. Nick didn’t want to wait to be freed: he made a plan to buy his freedom. He asked his master how much it would cost to buy his freedom. When he finished his required tours and other work each day, he went back to the cave and captured eyeless fish from the underground springs. He then sold the unusual fish to tourists to earn extra money. After years of doing this, he was finally able to buy his freedom. He went on to become an important person in his community, donating land for a school. He stayed on at Mammoth Cave as a tour guide for over 50 years!
Some of the visitors to Mammoth cave were famous and powerful–writers, politicians, even royalty. Though outside the cave, Stephen, Mat, and Nick were viewed as property as slaves, tourists inside the cave relied on them to keep them alive and safe during their visit. The cave could be a dangerous place for people who weren’t familiar with its layout and hazards. There were chasms and underground rivers that tourists could fall into if they weren’t careful. This included dead ends, slippery pathways, and loose rocks that could fall. Lamps and candles could blow out, leaving people in total darkness. Stephen, Mat, and Nick made sure their guests were safe by knowing the routes and the dangers, and being alert and prepared for any accidents. Most visitors respected these men for their bravery, knowledge, and skills because without them, going into the cave would have meant risking their lives.
Though they all eventually gained their freedom and ended up working at the cave as paid workers, their lives as enslaved workers were unfair and, at times, harsh. Conditions in the cave were dangerous, as we’ve seen. Three of Mat Bransford’s children were sold away from him to different owners. But all three men, as well as other enslaved guides who worked at the cave, showed that they were brave, capable, and accomplished individuals who deserved respect and admiration. The same might be said for millions of other people who endured slavery in the United States, but whose stories we don’t know. Stephen, Mat, and Nick all wrote their names on the walls of Mammoth Cave in candle smoke. Even when people are forced into terrible situations, they are still capable of rising up–or going deep in the case of Mammoth Cave–and leaving their mark.
Mammoth Cave is an amazing natural wonder, but people like Stephen Bishop, Mat Bransford, and Nick Bransford give it an important human history as well. The world is full of natural places that also have interesting human stories–stories with twists, turns, and strange surprises, just like Mammoth Cave. So grab your flashlight and go exploring!
Bradbury, Jennifer, 2015. River Runs Deep. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York.
Hensen, Heather, 2016. Lift your Light a Little Higher: The story of Stephen Bishop: slave-explorer. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York.