Throwback Thursday – A brief history of the world’s longest cave system in our own backyard

One of southern Kentucky’s coolest features is hidden underground. If you’ve ever done any exploring in your backyard, you may have noticed this area is home to the world’s longest cave system. Mammoth Cave National Park was established over 80 years ago. Covering over 45 thousand acres above ground across Edmonson, Barren, and Hart counties, there are also 420 miles of cave mapped out to date. The cave has thousands of years of history and we can’t touch all of that in just one segment, so we’ll start with the milestones.

Based on the park’s history according to the National Park Service, over a million years ago, the large passages that are the namesake of “mammoth” began to form. Moving forward to about 5000 B.C. to 2000 B.C.., there’s evidence that Native Americans explored and mined the caves. Time marched on, and legends say the first European to find the cave was John Houchin, who moved from Virginia to settle on the Green River in 1790. The first known record of caves being sold was in 1798, when Valentine Simons bought 200 acres containing saltpeter.

The first published use of “Mammoth Cave” was in a Richmond, Virginia newspaper in 1810. In 1815, Nahum Ward made the first known map with detailed descriptions of the cave, and the first formal tour was recorded in 1816. By the 1830s, the enslaved Stephen Bishop was not only exploring and recording new parts of the cave, but also leading tours—and he decided to stay at the cave even after he was given freedom. 

Some very famous names in their day visited the cave in its early tour days—poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, opera singer Jenny Lind, violinist Ole Bull, John Muir, actor Edwin Booth, the Emperor of Brazil Dom Pedro, and many others. There was a Civil War skirmish about half a mile from the cave. The first photographs ever taken in the cave were in 1866, by Charles Waldack. Notorious outlaw Jesse James and his gang even robbed a Mammoth Cave stagecoach in 1880, 12 years after robbing the Old Southern Bank in Russellville. 

It wasn’t until the 1920s that Floyd Collins explored the cave, and was lost to Sand Cave in 1925. But it was in 1924 with the Mammoth Cave National Park Association was formed, and it took 17 years for them to make the cave officially a National Park area. Civilian Conservation Corps efforts during the Great Depression built a lot of projects thru 1942 that helped the association achieve this success. July 1, 1941, Mammoth Cave National Park was officially established. Then WWII began. The park’s dedication was not official until September 18, 1946, a year after the war ended.

Mammoth Cave is a huge tourism driver for all of southern Kentucky. So many organizations have been birthed out of its existence. Cave life is very unique in its own ways. The latest effort to bring adventure tourism to the area was the establishment of Cave Country Trails in 2017, a nonprofit lead by members from Warren, Hart, Edmonson, and Barren counties, to showcase not just the underground trails, but the hiking, biking, greenway, blueway waterways, and horseback trails along the thousands of acres of trails above ground. More on that soon.

Throwback Thursday is brought to you by Hart County Tourism.