Throwback Thursday – The Kentucky Cave Wars

Southern Kentucky has been known for its underground adventures for over 200 years. Around the turn of the 20th century, there were at least 20 other cave developers trying to capitalize on Mammoth Cave’s appeal, some with their own sneaky, moneymaking ventures. This week we take a deeper look at the Kentucky Cave Wars.

Entrances into underground caverns can show up nearly anywhere—sinkholes, watersheds, or even in people’s backyards. With Mammoth Cave’s labyrinth being at least 400 miles explored, the cave maze weaves under the region’s surface. According to the National Park Service, by the time of the Civil War, Diamond Caverns, Indian Cave, and Hundred Domes Cave all added nearby thrills for Mammoth Cave seekers.

More caves and passageways soon popped up all over southern Kentucky, as owners tried to snag dollars from tourists visiting the privately-owned Mammoth estate, the mother cave. By the 1920s, the highway was a road sign circus directing new automobile driving travelers to these attractions. Developers like George Morrison, Larkin Proctor, Lyman Hazen, and railroad agents for the Louisville & Nashville line, all tried to nab cave business.

During the Cave Wars, some owners lacked scruples when it came to attracting visitors. Some snuck into other caves, literally breaking off or hammering away unique formations to move into their own tours. Some set up cave information stops along the highway with “cappers” directing drivers. Some plastered roadsides with billboards on top of billboards. When the tragic Floyd Collins death story from Sand Cave hit national news in 1925, a final push for national park establishment was made to end the Cave Wars.

At last count, there are eight other show caves offering tours in the Mammoth Cave area: Cub Run, Crystal Onyx, Lost River, Hidden River, Onyx, Outlaw, Mammoth Onyx, and Diamond Caverns.