CAVE CITY — Two new exhibits at the Mammoth Cave Area Welcome Center in Cave City are revealing what life was like before Mammoth Cave National Park was founded.
The exhibits tell the story of fierce competition among cave owners during the 1920s, popularly known as the “Cave Wars,” and the death of cave explorer Floyd Collins, whose entrapment in Sand Cave became a national sensation.
Sharon Tabor, who heads the Cave City Tourist and Convention Commission, said the exhibits are meant to show the link between both stories and “tell a story before it’s forgotten.”
“There’s a whole generation that’s dying out that remembers the Cave Wars,” Tabor said. “We’re just trying to convey the rest of the story.”
The exhibits are tucked into two corners of the welcome center and feature historical photographs with lengthy captions, old documents and newspaper clippings and a “lamb leg”-shaped rock said to be similar to the rock that trapped Collins, among other artifacts.
Exhibit hours are from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. on Sundays through October. Admission is free.
“You can’t hardly tell one story without telling the other,” Tabor said while pointing out objects on display. “The Cave Wars are very integral to the story of Floyd Collins.”
Formal guided tours began in Mammoth Cave as far back as 1816, according to an information pamphlet available at the exhibit. Reportedly the world’s biggest cave, it was privately owned for 125 years and became quite lucrative.
Its success tempted rivals to seek out their own caves to make their own fortunes. Rivals would place misleading signs for tourists, pose as policemen to divert visitors and heckle rivaling tours, among other ploys. A popular tactic involved “cappers” who would stand by the road and flag down automobiles with their hats, ultimately aiming to lead them away from Mammoth Cave to their own attractions.
It was this promise of fortune that got Collins into caving, Tabor said.
“His whole goal was to make his family rich,” she said.
The family cave, called Crystal Cave, was too far from the main road and didn’t bring in much money. That pushed Collins to find a more profitable “show” cave, so he explored Sand Cave in 1925.
Collins became trapped in the cave after knocking over some stones while climbing back out. Collins, who went alone without telling anyone, was eventually found by family, and the rescue effort stretched into an 18-day publicity circus. Rescuers tried digging, hacking and drilling a new shaft, but a second collapse sealed Collins in his tomb. His body was later put in a glass-topped coffin in Crystal Cave for display, only for it to be stolen and later recovered, missing one leg.
David Kem, a former Mammoth Cave guide, found a passion for studying history after finding the name of a relative carved on a cave wall.
“The history of Mammoth Cave is definitely what makes it special,” he said. “The marks that they’ve left on the cave are preserved forever.”
His interest prompted him to write “The Kentucky Cave Wars.” He recently did a book signing at the exhibits.
“It’s nice that they’re taking effort to not only tell the story of Floyd Collins … but they’re also tying in the story of the lesser known Cave Wars, which explains what Floyd was up to.”
Mammoth Cave’s unique history, he said, only makes it more worthy of preserving.
— Follow education reporter Aaron Mudd on Twitter @BGDN_edbeat or visit bgdailynews.com.