Throwback Thursday – Mammoth Cave’s First Tour Guide: Stephen Bishop

This week Throwback Thursday tells the story of one of southern Kentucky’s most influential African Americans—Stephen Bishop, a slave, the first tour guide at Mammoth Cave, and cartographer who mapped the area’s cave landscape almost 200 years ago.

People have been fascinated with the Mammoth Cave system for thousands of years, as evidence of Native American visitors can still be found. The first modern tours began more than two centuries ago. Cave tours back then were an all-day event, sometimes running 18 hours or longer.

Stephen Bishop was a slave owned by Franklin Gorin, who bought the cave for $5,000 to turn it into a bigger tourist attraction. Starting in 1837, Bishop’s labor was giving cave tours and exploring more unknown passages, drawing them into a new cartography map in 1844. Geologists and cavers used this map for nearly 40 years.

Smithsonian magazine and the National Parks Service have published stories of Stephen Bishop’s intelligence. He became more educated in science the more he explored, learning Greek and Latin. He explored over eight full miles of cave, and began the tradition of naming parts as he discovered them—like the Bottomless Pit, Fat Man’s Misery, the River Styx, and Charlotte’s Grotto—named for his wife. Stephen trained two other slaves to give tours, Matison and Nick Bransford—and his nephew Ed Bishop was also a guide.

Bishop called Mammoth Cave “grand, gloomy, and peculiar.” In 1856, he and his wife were emancipated, and sold their 112 acres of land they’d acquired through tips working there. It was presumed he died of tuberculosis a year later. His grave at the Old Tour Guide cemetery is still marked by a stone gifted by famed millionaire James Mellon in 1878, and his story is still told by every tour guide today.