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Mammoth Cave

Listed under Caves & Caving in Appalachian States, United States.

  • Photo of Mammoth Cave
  • Photo of Mammoth Cave
  • Photo of Mammoth Cave
  • Photo of Mammoth Cave
  • Photo of Mammoth Cave
  • Photo of Mammoth Cave
Photo of Mammoth Cave
Photo by gregorybrick
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The Mammoth Cave of Kentucky is the longest cave system in the World, with 367 miles (591 km) of surveyed passages as of 2006. Several million years old, it occupies half a dozen levels in a 300-foot thickness of flat-lying limestones. Each successive level was dissolved out by groundwater along bedding planes in the rock, as the neighboring Green River cut down further, providing lower outlets. Mammoth Cave National Park has been designated a U.N. World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve.

There are several different tours available, but you should book them in advance, especially at the height of the tourist season, or the only one you will be able to get is the very brief, self-guided Rotunda tour. If you want to get the guts of the matter, be sure to pick a tour that includes at least the Historic Entrance, through the Main Cave, and including the lower level, with the Echo River boat ride. Beyond that, a tour that includes the Frozen Niagara entrance, where the best formations in the cave are found. There are Wild Cave Tours, Lantern Tours, etc, for those who have more time.

HISTORY. While there are various apocryphal accounts of how the cave was discovered, usually involving a chased bear, land records show that it was in fact known in the 1790s when the first settlers arrived on the Green River, and was early used as a source of nitrates for making saltpeter, one of the ingredients of gunpowder. It was not until at least 1810 that the cave acquired the name “Mammoth,” used for promotional purposes. In the War of 1812, saltpeter derived from the cave played a significant role in helping fight that war. In 1816, it was shown to visitors, thus becoming a show cave. It was not until Nahum Ward displayed the Indian mummy Fawn Hoof, however, that the cave became widely known. Ironically, the mummy came from neighboring Short Cave. It was not until the discovery of “Lost John” in 1935 that Mammoth Cave had a mummy of its own.

Most famous of the early guides was the slave Stephen Bishop, who in 1838 crossed the Bottomless Pit and discovered Echo River, and the blind fishes which live there. In 1839, Mammoth Cave was purchased by Dr. Croghan, a Louisville physician, who built stone huts in the cave for the cure of tuberculosis patients. While the experiment was a failure, the cave remained in his family for many years.

By the mid nineteenth century, Mammoth Cave had a worldwide reputation, being visited by the fashionable Paris Hiltons of the day. There were two options available for tourists back then, the Short Route and the Long Route. Many guidebooks were published, one of the best known being Horace Hovey’s “Celebrated American Caverns,” in 1882. Hovey is known as the “Father of American Speleology” for his manifold writings on the subject of caves, especially Mammoth.

In the early twentieth century, a series of new entrances were opened into the cave by competing landowners. Rival caves in the vicinity also entered the fray for tourist dollars. The cave officially became a National Park in 1941. Mammoth Cave was connected to Flint Ridge Cave in 1972, and other nearby caves thereafter, hence it is now called a cave system.

Written by  Greg Brick.

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