Mammoth Cave: An Underground Attraction That Sparked a War in Kentucky
No remains of mammoths have been found in the underground maze called Mammoth Cave - the name refers to the sheer size of its entrance. Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, USA, is a remarkable cave system, the largest in the world, and also one of America’s earliest tourist attractions as caves have intrigued humans ever since our earliest ancestors lived in them. Mammoth Cave is now known to be connected to many other cave systems in the state of Kentucky and is a World Heritage Site.
The Immense System of Limestone and Sandstone Caps
Part of the Girkin Geological formation in Kentucky, the geology of Mammoth Cave is fairly unique. It was formed from limestone and topped by a layer of sandstone rock, which has made it stable throughout the eons. The sandstone cap , however, means that there are not as many stalactites in the caves as would be expected.
The caves were formed over 300 million years ago and are some 400 miles (643.74 km) long. It has taken over a century to explore the systems because of its long labyrinthine nature and spelunkers ( potholers) are constantly discovering new passageways in this remarkable geological wonder.
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The Frozen Niagara portion of Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. ( Brian /Adobe)
Mammoth Cave system is nearly twice as long as the next longest cavern which is in Mexico . There is one wide entrance to these caves and some 10 miles (16 kms) of it are open to the public.
The maze has several notable features: Grand Avenue is a long and impressive passageway which is accessed by the main entrance to the Mammoth Cave, Frozen Niagara is a spectacular array of stalactites that has been likened to a waterfall petrified into stone, and Fat Man's Misery is a very narrow passageway. Other features include Sidesaddle Pit, Bottomless Pit, and Mammoth Dome, a truly remarkable 200-foot (60.96-meter) sinkhole. There is even an underground river in the system that has been named after the River Styx , which can be traveled upon by boat.
The River Styx emerging, Mammoth Caves, Kentucky. (Daveynin / CC BY 2.0 )
The Rare Ecosystem of Mammoth Cave
The huge cave system has a unique ecosystem and as a result of its particular geology and size, there are several rare species of bats, such as the Indiana bat, and a species of cave salamander inhabiting the passageways. Several reservoirs of water have been discovered in the labyrinth and these are home to two species of cavefish and endangered shrimp. Thankfully, conservation projects protect the many rare species in the underground maze.
Cave crayfish (Orconectes pellucidus). ( National Park Service )
The History of Mammoth Cave’s Human Inhabitants
The caves were well-known to archaic populations of Native Americans . Based on the many artifacts that have been uncovered, the theory is that they once lived in the caves. A study of the dietary remains indicates that at one time the cave was home to a society of Native Americans who were transitioning from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one that was more settled and based on agriculture.
The underground labyrinth of Mammoth Cave was also used as a burial ground by ancient Native American societies and several mummies have been found in the dark depths. For reasons unknown, the caves do not appear to have been used by Native Americans in the few centuries prior to the arrival of the Europeans.
According to legend, the system of passageways was rediscovered by settlers in the late 18th century by a man fleeing a grizzly bear. A local entrepreneur purchased the land above the cave system, hoping that it contained vast mineral wealth. Indeed, the system contains large deposits of saltpeter which African-American slaves mined during the War of 1812 when America fought Britain over maritime rights.
Inside Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky, USA. ( Tristan / Adobe)
By the 1830s the caves had become a tourist attraction and many slaves worked as guides. One of them, Stephen Bishop, explored the cave and produced the first map of the system. By the early 20th century, the caves were one of the most popular tourist attractions in the US.
At that time it led many tour guides and owners of smaller, local caves to fiercely compete for customers which led to the ‘Kentucky Cave Wars’. Luring customers away from rivals, and fights between rival operators, became common. In 1941 the Federal government made the area a National Park.
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Misleading signs were placed along the roads leading from Cave City to the Mammoth Cave to misguide tourists during the cave wars. ( Appalachian History )
Getting to Mammoth Cave National Park
The National Park can be accessed by Interstate 65 at Exit 53 to Cave Town. The Park is 10 miles (16 kms) from this town via Route 70. Accommodation near Mammoth Cave and the National Park is plentiful. There is a car park and a visitor center in the park and there are other attractions such as a Wildlife Museum and a Dinosaur Park. There are also a number of tours of the cave system whereby individual sites can be visited. There is simply too much to see in one day and visitors who want to see as much of the underground marvels as possible are advised to stay several days.
Top image: Entrance to Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, USA. Source: PhotoElite /Adobe Stock
By Ed Whelan
Algeo, K. (2004). Mammoth Cave and the making of place. Southeastern geographer, 44(1), 27-47. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/26222126?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
Barr Jr, T. C. (1968). Ecological studies in the Mammoth Cave system of Kentucky. International Journal of Speleology, 3(1), 10. Available at: https://scholarcommons.usf.edu/ijs/vol3/iss1/10/
Bailey, V., Bailey, F. M., & Giovannoli, L. (1933). Cave life of Kentucky. Mainly in the Mammoth Cave region. American Midland Naturalist, 14(5), 385-635. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/2419906