Sand Cave

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Floyd Collins
Floyd Collins

William Floyd Collins (July 20, 1887 – c. February 13, 1925) was a celebrated pioneer cave explorer in central Kentucky, an area that is the location of hundreds of miles of interconnected caves, including the Mammoth Cave National Park. On January 30, 1925, while trying to discover a new entrance to the system of underground caves that were a popular tourist attraction in Kentucky, Collins became trapped in a narrow crawlway 55 feet (17 m) below the surface. The reports about efforts to save Collins became a nationwide newspaper sensation and among the first major news stories to become a major sensation on the new technology of home radio.[citation needed] After four days during which Collins could be brought water and food, a collapse in the cave closed the entrance passageway to everything except voice contact. Collins died of exposure, thirst, and starvation after about fourteen days underground, three days before a dug rescue shaft could reach his position. Collins’ body was recovered two months later.

The History of Sand Cave
The Rescue Site - photo by, Richard J. Rawlings

On January 30, 1925, after several hours of work, Collins managed to squeeze through several narrow passageways; he claimed he had discovered a large chamber, though this was never verified. Because his lamp was dying, he had to leave quickly before exploring the chamber. He became trapped in a small passage on his way out. He accidentally knocked over his lamp, putting out the light, and in the dark he dislodged a rock from the ceiling, pinning his left leg. The rock weighed only 26½ pounds (12 kg), but it was wedged in where neither he nor rescuers could reach it.

The Entrance into Sand Cave
The Entrance into Sand Cave - photo by, Richard J. Rawlings

Collins was trapped just 150 feet (50 m) from the entrance. After being found the next day by friends, crackers were taken to him, and an electric light was run down the passage to provide him light and some warmth. Collins survived for over a week while rescue efforts were made. On February 4, the cave passage used to reach Collins collapsed in two places. Rescue leaders, believing the cave impassable and too dangerous, began to dig a shaft to reach the chamber behind Collins. The 55-foot (18 m) shaft and subsequent lateral tunnel intersected the cave just above Collins, but when he was finally reached on February 17, he was already dead from exposure and hunger. As they did not reach him from the rear, the rescuers could not free his leg. The rescuers left his body where it lay and filled the shaft with debris. A doctor estimated he had died three or four days before he was reached, February 13 being the most likely.


Floyd Collins Grave
Floyd Collins Grave

With Collins’s remains left in the cave, funeral services were held at the surface. Homer Collins was not pleased with Sand Cave as his brother’s grave. Two months later, Homer Collins and some friends reopened the shaft. They dug a new tunnel to the opposite side of the cave passage, and recovered Floyd Collins’s remains on April 23, 1925. The following day, the body was buried on the Collins family’s farm near Crystal Cave (now known as Floyd Collins Crystal Cave). In 1927, Floyd Collins’s father, Lee Collins, sold the homestead and cave. The new owner placed Collins’s body in a glass-topped coffin and exhibited it in Crystal Cave for many years. On the night of March 18–19, 1929, the body was stolen. It was recovered, but the injured left leg was missing. After this, it was kept in a secluded portion of Crystal in a chained casket. In 1961, Crystal Cave was purchased by Mammoth Cave National Park and closed to the public. The family had objected to Collins’s body being displayed in the cave, and at their request, the National Park Service re-interred him in Flint Ridge Cemetery on March 24, 1989. It took a team of 15 men three days to remove the casket and tombstone from the cave. There was some objection from cavers in Europe, where notable explorers are often buried in caves they discovered.


Newspaper reporter William Burke “Skeets” Miller of the Louisville, Ky.Courier-Journal reported on the rescue efforts from the scene. Miller also talked with and interviewed Collins in the cave, receiving a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage. Miller’s reports were distributed by telegraph and were printed by newspapers around the country and abroad, and the rescue attempts were followed by regular news bulletins on the new medium of broadcast radio (the first broadcast radio station KDKA having been established in 1920).

Sand Cave Path
Path to Sand Cave - photo by, Richard J. Rawlings

Shortly after the media arrived, the publicity drew crowds of tourists to the site, at one point numbering in the tens of thousands. Vendors set up stalls to sell food and souvenirs, creating to a circus-like atmosphere. The Sand Cave rescue attempt grew to become the third-biggest media event between the world wars. (The biggest media events of that time both involved Charles Lindbergh—the trans-Atlantic flight and his son’s kidnapping—and Lindbergh actually had a minor role in the Sand Cave rescue, too, having been hired to fly photographic negatives from the scene for a newspaper.)

Sand Cave
Sand Cave - photo by, Richard J. Rawlings

The attention over the rescue attempt of Collins created interest in the creation of Mammoth Cave National Park, which Sand Cave now is a part. Fear and superstition kept cavers away from Sand Cave for decades. The National Park Service has sealed the entrance with a steel grate for public safety. Expeditions into Mammoth Cave showed that portions of Mammoth actually run under Sand Cave, but no connection has ever been discovered. In the 1970s, cave explorer and author Roger Brucker and a small group entered Sand Cave to conduct research for a book about Floyd Collins.

Sand Cave
Sand Cave - photo by, Richard J. Rawlings

The team surveyed Sand, and discovered an opening in the tunnel collapses through which a small caver could crawl, showing that it would have been possible to feed and heat Collins after February 4, 1925. They proceeded as far as the passage where Collins was trapped; it was choked with gravel and unsafe to excavate. In April 1983, George Crothers led an archaeological investigation that documented many 1925 artifacts in the cave. These were removed for preservation.


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