Friday, July 7, 2006
The Haunted Mammoth Cave of Kentucky
The Haunted Mammoth Cave, Kentucky
Hidden among the forests and hills of southwest Kentucky is Mammoth Cave National Park. It is the largest cave in the world and impossible for any casual visitor to see in one day, or probably even in one week. There are many passages, paths and tunnels that are not open to the general public, thus adding to the mystery of this place. But in addition to the secrets of nature, there is much in the way of legend and lore about the cave. The place has a strange and unusual past and there are thousands of secrets in the dark corridors of the cave and according to some --- a myriad of ghosts as well.
There have been many stories of ghosts at Mammoth Cave, spanning several generations of visitors, guides and service personnel. This isn’t surprising considering that caves can be very spooky places, filled with dark corners, shadowed crevices and odd noises. But are the stories of Mammoth Cave merely figments of overactive imaginations? That remains to be seen, although we should take into account that ghostly tales have been told about the place almost from the time when the first cave tours roamed the darkened corridors with only a small lantern to guide the way.
These eerie stories tell of unexplained sounds, strange lights, bizarre noises, disembodied footsteps and of course, apparitions and spirits. However skeptics maintain there are explanations for these things. A person so imagination can play tricks on them in the dark and footsteps and voices can seem ghostly when there are echoes from other parts of the cave. They also state that stories of encounters with ghosts in Mammoth Cave are told by tourists and visitors who have no previous experience with caves and with the natural phenomena that accompanies them. But there are others who would say that this isn’t true. While many of the stories are indeed accounts told by visitors to the cave, others are not so easy to explain away. Many of the tales are experiences shared by park rangers, cave explorers, spelunkers and even geologists who are fully aware of what strange things a cave can do.
Believers in the resident ghosts can cite a number of reasons why the cave might be haunted. The long history of the place includes accidents from the days of the saltpeter operations, Native Americans who wandered into the cave and never found their way out, stranded travelers, missing cave explorers, tragic tuberculosis victims and even those who loved the place so much that they have never left --or so the stories go.
One story, told by an experienced tour guide named Joy Lyons, tells of a tour that was taken a few years ago in the company of a large group and two guides. When they reached a point on the trail called the "Methodist Church", they usually turned out all of the lights so that visitors could experience what the cave was like in pitch blackness. She was standing at the back of the group when the lights went out and she could hear the lead ranger talking about the experience. Then, she felt a strong shove against her shoulder. The assault was hard enough that she had to step forward to keep from falling over. She turned to another ranger, who was supposed to be standing next to her and she whispered to him to stop clowning around. A moment later, the lead ranger ignited the wick on a lantern and she saw that the other ranger, she had thought was close to her, was actually about 70 feet away. There was no way that he could have shoved her and then walked so far in complete darkness.
"There was no one near me," she said, "but it was a playful shove. There are a number of us who feel things in various parts of the cave. It’s not frightening -- but it’s something else."
An additional story comes from Charlie Hanion, a former cave guide who became a nature writer. He and a friend were leading a "Lantern Tour" of the cave (a historic tour designed to give the visitor an idea of how early tourists saw the cave) and as his friend was talking to the assembled group, a girl of about 14 years-old turned to Hanion and asked who the man standing near the rocks was. Hanion looked about 40 feet away and saw a man in old-fashioned, formal attire. He was dressed in a fashion that tourists from decades past would have dressed to tour the cave. The man quickly vanished!
"But the really weird part came the following week when we were on the same tour," Hanion added. As the tour group reached the same point in the cave, a guide asked if there were any questions. A woman raised her hand and asked if strange things were ever seen in this part of the cave? The woman was a tourist and claimed to be a psychic. She pointed over to the place in the rocks where Hanion had seen the man the week before and she asked who that person was.
"It was the same spot where we’d seen it before. I didn’t see it at all that time," Hanion recalled. He also admitted that while he hadn’t seen anything, the entire experience gave him chills to think about.
Based on these accounts, it would seem that apparitions are fairly common at Mammoth Cave and this is especially true when it comes to the most famous ghost connected to the cave. It is said to be a fictional account but many wonder if the story might contain elements of the truth, especially those who believe they may have encountered the main character in the story.
In February 1858, an article appeared in Knickerbocker Magazine called "A Tragedy in Mammoth Cave". The story tells of a girl named Melissa, who confessed the entire tale on her deathbed, having succumbed to tuberculosis. Melissa was a southern girl who lived in the vicinity of Mammoth Cave and she had fallen in love with her tutor from Boston, a young man named Beverleigh. The tutor had ignored Melissa's affections and began courting a neighbor girl instead. Melissa plotted her revenge.
Having grown up in the area, she knew well the twists and turns of Mammoth Cave and with careful planning, she lured Mr. Beverleigh to the cave. She conducted him on a "tour" to the depths of the cave and to a place called "Echo River". Here, she vanished into a side passage and left the poor man to find his own way out. Days passed and Beverleigh did not return. Melissa had only meant the whole thing as a cruel joke and so in despair, she went back to the cave to look for him. She made daily treks underground, searching and calling out to him -- but Beverleigh was never seen again.
Melissa was later diagnosed with consumption and died a short time later, never recovering from her guilt over the tutor's death. Many believe that her ghost is still seen and heard in Mammoth Cave, desperately searching for the missing man.
While the story sounds incredibly melodramatic, the reader is warned not to dismiss it too quickly. According to Gary Bremer, a former Mammoth Cave guide, there may just be something to the tale.
Several years ago, Bremer and four others were in a boat on Echo River, an underground stream that lies deep in the cave. One of the men had left to get another paddle for the boat. Bremer remembered what happened next: "The three of us in the boat all heard a woman calling out. It wasn’t screaming but it was as though she was looking for someone."
The next day, they asked some of the other guides if anyone else had ever had such an experience. One of the older guides told him about a murder that was supposed to have taken place in that area and told him the story about Melissa. Bremer had never heard the story before that time.
Strangely, it would not be his last encounter here either. A short time later, he was again on the Echo River, this time with a new employee who had never seen the river before. She suddenly turned and grabbed his shoulder. "Did you hear a woman cough?" she asked him.
Bremer felt a cold chill. Melissa had died of tuberculosis, he remembered.
The other employee would later verify Bremer's version of their experience and would also add that she had also heard garbled voices in the cave and on one night, believed that she heard someone whisper her name.
Not all of the accounts of Mammoth Cave come from parts of the cave that are accessible to the public. Many of the strangest tales come from Crystal Cave, which was once believed to be a separate cave and was once operated as a private attraction. This cave is located along Flint Ridge; now well within the boundaries of the national park. It is not, at this time, open to the public and yet the stories that surround this portion of the cave are too mysterious to not be included here.
Most of these legends involve the ghost of a man named Floyd Collins, the former owner of Crystal Cave. Collins was not only an avid cave explorer but an established businessman too, always on the lookout for new caves that could be developed and put into service as a moneymaking enterprise.
Floyd had grown up in the area around Mammoth Cave and through his early years, his family eked out a living with a farm on Flint Ridge. He had been fascinated with caves as a boy and spent most of his childhood crawling in and out of holes that were scattered over the farm. His life as a professional caver began in 1912 though, when he met Edmund Turner. The enterprising young man roomed with the Collins family for a time and he paid young Floyd to act as a guide and to help him find caves that could be explored and developed. Turner gave him more than just money though and instilled in Floyd a knowledge of cave formations and geology. Turner's discoveries and initial success only heightened Floyd's interest in developing his own caves and by World War I, he was spending little time on the family farm and was instead mining onyx and exploring the caverns of the area. In the winter of 1916 - 1917, he made his greatest discovery by accident.
One day, while slipping into a crevice that he described as breathing (meaning that air was coming out of it from a cave below) he uncovered a crawlway that led deeper into the earth. After two weeks of digging, he emerged into a huge cavern that was encrusted with white and cream-colored gypsum flowers. Delirious with excitement, Floyd rushed back to the house and even though it was well past midnight, he roused the family and rushed them to the cave while they were still in their night clothes. The stunned family members did not emerge until after dawn.
Floyd called this discovery "Wonder Cave" but William Travis Blair, his next-door neighbor, suggested that he call it Crystal Cave instead, referring to the wondrous gypsum flowers. Floyd's father, Lee, and his brothers helped him to enlarge the entrance and they smoothed the floors and made trails during what ended up becoming more than 12 months of hard work. While all of this was going on, Floyd was exploring new passages and chambers and continued to make discoveries that made the cave one of the showplaces of the Flint Ridge.
In 1918, the Floyd's opened the cave and hired a manager and with that, formally entered the Cave Wars. The family began prowling the highways looking for tourists because unfortunately, the cave was located off the beaten track and could be reached by an almost impassable dirt road. Floyd and his family fought for their share of the local traffic but the odds were against them, which was too bad. Crystal Cave was reportedly amazing and tourists were given an especially rare treat if Floyd himself showed them through. He often told them of adventures that were beyond the tourist trail or would, in his enthusiasm, reach over and break off one of the gypsum flowers and hand it to the astonished visitor. Those who came loved the cave, but few made the trip and Crystal Cave refused to make money, no matter how much work was put into it.
In the lull between tourists, Floyd continued to relentlessly explore the cave but this did nothing to alter the poor business situation. The cave was only occasionally profitable and the Collins still had to rely on farming and other activities to remain in business. In 1920, Floyd even invested in a still and for a short time before Prohibition made legal whiskey to supplement the cave's income. Some say that he continued this after Prohibition was passed as well. The rough economic times, as well as family problems, caused a division between Floyd and his father, who wanted to sell off the cave and get out of the business. Floyd refused and in fact, the arguments between them stiffened his resolve. He was convinced that Crystal Cave's many passages led to connections with surrounding caves. He had already explored five or six miles of passageways and had uncovered many leads, some of which ran toward Mammoth Cave. He wanted to, like George Morrison, find a commercially exploitable opening -- and one that was found in the right place could even displace Morrison's New Entrance and ensnare the largest share of the tourists.
Floyd carefully researched his plans. He talked with old-timers and cavers about their experiences and looked over old charts and maps. From all of this, he concluded that the most likely spot for a new opening was just over the line in Barren County on the narrow piece of land that connected the Mammoth Cave Ridge with Flint Ridge at the latter's southeast corner. An opening here just might, Floyd thought, connect Crystal Cave with Mammoth.
Floyd recalled from his past explorations that a sand hole existed on the farm of Beesley Doyle. Since Doyle was only one of three farmers controlling this area, Floyd began negotiations with him, as well as Edward Estes and Jesse Lee, the other owners. Of the three of them, only Estes was a caver, often raiding local caves for the onyx, which he sold to tourists. Floyd offered to search their land for caves in return for one-half of the profits and the three farmers could split the other half. Only Estes originally balked at the deal but finally, prodded by the others, he also agreed.
Floyd began his explorations, starting with the hole on the Doyle farm. The press later called this hole, "Sand Cave", but this was a misnomer. It was not so much a cave as a narrow, twisting crevice that led downward. It had been opened due to the collapse of a larger cavern centuries before and the passageway skirted the edge of an overhanging shelter's back wall. Floyd chose this route, which was covered with sandstone debris, because he thought it might be a shortcut to what he hoped was solid limestone below. He had no idea where it might lead but hoped for either a new passage to Mammoth Cave, a back door to his own Crystal Cave or even an entirely new cave altogether.
Floyd stayed with the Doyle's for the next two weeks as he began to dig out an entrance and to begin a descent into the crumbling passage. He returned home to his parent's house on weekends and his father constantly chastised him for the time and attention that he was paying to his new project. Not only that, Lee Floyd insisted, but the hole was dangerous and he warned Floyd that he was liable to get caught in it. His mother also chimed in. She confided to her son that she had dreamed that Floyd would get caught in a rock fall and would be rescued by angels. She was convinced that the dream had been a warning from God. She begged him not to return to the cave -- but Floyd did not listen.
At the beginning of his third week of work at Sand Cave, Floyd moved over to stay with the Estes family but left his work clothes at the Doyle farm because it was closer to the site. His progress in the cave was rapid, especially after his use of dynamite on Monday. On Thursday, he hauled some stalactites out of the cave to show to Doyle and Estes as evidence of the wonders that he was sure were waiting below. On Friday morning, January 30, 1925 -- Floyd Collins entered Sand Cave for the last time.
When Floyd did not return to either the Doyle or Estes homes by Saturday morning, it was realized that someone should go and check the sand hole and to make sure that he was all right. Unfortunately, he was not. While winding his way through the narrow passage, a rock worked its way loose from the shattered stone and fell on his left foot. He became wedged in against the wall and was unable to work himself out. He was lying on his right side and his right leg was locked at an awkward angle. His left arm remained free but in the cold dampness of the cave, it quickly became numb. During the night, Floyd had fallen asleep and when he awakened, he discovered that his lantern had gone out. He could only wait and hope that someone came to his aid.
When Floyd’s family and friends arrived on Saturday, they immediately set to work trying to free him. They managed to work his upper body loose and to warm him up with a gasoline lantern but that was all. With Floyd still trapped, they began widening the narrow opening into the cave and removed two bushels of rocks but even this did not help. Floyd’s brother, Homer, climbed down into the passage to spend the night with his brother as rescue attempts were called off for the day. Not sure of what else to do, Lee Collins offered a $500 reward to anyone who could free his son. It was becoming clear to the crowd that was beginning to gather outside that the rescue would not be a simple one.
By Monday morning, newspapers across the United States had begun to report his predicament. Hundreds of people congregated outside Sand Cave. Members of the Louisville Fire Department were on hand, as well as experienced cavers, concerned locals and many who simply meant well but had no real experience with such predicaments. Many of them tried to reach Floyd with supplies and comfort and while many of them made it, most turned back, paralyzed with fear at the narrowness of the passageway.
As mentioned, newspapers all over the country reported on the trap that Floyd had gotten himself into. A number of reporters tried to reach Floyd for interviews but the most successful was a cub reporter from the Louisville Courier-Journal named William Burke "Skeets" Miller, who later won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage. Miller so nickname came from his diminutive size, which enabled him to slide down the narrow path and sit with Floyd where he was trapped. He made eight descents into the cave and conducted a series of interviews that were quickly relayed to his readers as a first-hand account of what it was like to be literally buried alive.
Days passed and began to turn into several weeks. There had been attempts to bodily hoist Floyd from the cave (he had requested it -- even if his foot was pulled off) and an assortment of wild schemes, but none of them had worked. The local attempts soon became a national crisis involving dozens of miners, the National Guard, the Red Cross and a number of engineers. Thanks to the inclement weather, the crumbling walls of the cave passage, and often just confusion, Floyd could not be freed.
Many would later claim that Floyd became secondary to the scene on the surface. Fascinated by the daily reports from the reporters on the scene, an estimated 20,000 onlookers streamed into the area. Some of them hoped to help or catch a glimpse of the now heroic Floyd but others simply wanted to exploit the event by selling food, drinks and souvenirs. The circus-like atmosphere reached its peak in mid-February and the steady stream of curiosity-seekers continued.
Finally, a group of men managed to work their way into the cave and began trying to pry loose the rock that trapped Floyd’s leg. They had widened the passageway and as they worked, the rock finally came free -- then immediately slipped back into place wedging Floyd’s leg even more securely into place. The worked it back and forth but it was no use. Then, to make the situation even more dire, a series of small cave-ins occurred, crashing down onto Floyd and cutting him off from the surface. His would-be rescuers, after discovering that Floyd was still alive, scurried back to the surface. From that point on, none of the workers would return to the cave, fearing that the entire shaft might collapse. Homer Collins was enraged that no one would attempt to save his brother and he clashed with the authorities. Eventually, he was banned from the site.
Since no one would go back into the hole, a new plan was devised. A vertical shaft was started a short distance away with plans for it to intersect with the spot where Floyd was trapped. Friends, family and volunteers worked feverishly and on February 16, the shaft finally reached Floyd. Tragically though, he had died three days earlier -- on Friday the 13th -- from exposure and exhaustion.
People all over America had been riveted to the story of Floyd Collins and his plight had been front page news in newspapers and the source of constant updates on the radio for weeks. The press had descended on the Mammoth Cave area and had turned the region upside-down. What was not reported so widely was the fact that it took an additional two months to finally remove Floyd’s lifeless body from the cave.
The tragedy brought national attention to the Kentucky cave country, but it also created a backlash, leading many to wonder if the caves were safe. The tourist trade was temporarily affected, with the small commercial caves suffering the most. This was at the height of the previously mentioned "Cave Wars" and now the smaller caves were fighting one another for an even smaller piece of the pie. Even Crystal Cave, which should have still managed to draw business thanks to the Floyd Collins name, was hurt by the slump. As a result, Floyd’s father, Lee Collins, was even more anxious to sell the place than he had been when Floyd was alive.
In 1927, he accepted an offer from Dr. Harry B. Thomas, a local dentist, to take Crystal Cave off his hands for $10,000. Dr. Thomas already owned two other commercial caves in the area, Hidden River Cave and Mammoth Onyx Cave. In the transfer of property, Thomas was authorized to move Floyd Collins' body from its resting place and re-locate it in Crystal Cave, where it would be given a new burial spot. The Collins family, of course, objected to this, but it was too late. Lee Collins had already signed the deal.
Thomas wanted to move Floyd’s body because he was sure that it would be a huge moneymaker for Crystal Cave. He had the body exhumed and then placed it in a glass-covered, bronzed metal coffin, opening it for public viewing in June 1927. It was placed in the middle of the tourist trail leading to Crystal Cave's main concourse. Here, visitors could pass by and look at him as they walked deeper into the cave. He had a large granite tombstone placed at Floyd’s head. Granted, the stunt was ghoulish but it worked. Hundreds flocked to see Floyd’s body and in his death, he became the cave's greatest advertisement. The guides would lecture solemnly about the exploits of the "world's greatest cave explorer" while the tourists gawked at the white, waxed face of the man in the coffin.
The Collins family sued Thomas and the case was battled out in court for several years. In 1929, the courts ruled (hopefully reluctantly) that Collins' body could stay where it was. Dr. Thomas had the legal right to the macabre display. Floyd would remain where he was in Crystal Cave --- or at least that was the general idea.
At some point on the night of March 18, 1929, Floyd’s body was stolen from its glass coffin and spirited out of the cave. The theft was discovered the next morning and authorities from three counties were enlisted to help in the search. The casket was dusted for fingerprints and bloodhounds, after being given Floyd’s scent, scoured the surrounding area. Before the day was over, the missing body was discovered (minus the left leg), about 800 yards from the cave's entrance. It had been wrapped in burlap bags and hidden in the brush along the Green River.
The cadaver was back in its coffin the following day, a little worse for wear, although the missing leg was never found. The identity of the thieves was also never discovered, although many of the local folks had their suspicions.
The prime suspect was Dr. Thomas himself. Although he maintained that he could not guess the motives of the body-snatchers, there were those who believed that he had stolen the body himself in an effort to boost business at Crystal Cave (which it did). Others, however, blamed competing cave owners, jealous over Thomas' newfound success and some believed that the Collins family had nabbed the corpse, or had hired it done, and they had lost the body before they could get away.
Regardless, after the attempted theft, the casket was covered each night with a metal lid and was securely locked. As time passed, the body was shown infrequently, although tourists were still asked to pause at the casket and listen to a short spiel offered in memory of the fallen cave explorer. The body continued to be displayed on occasion as late as 1952, although it remained in the cave for years after, long after it was closed to the public.
Many years after his actual death, Floyd Collins was finally buried at the Baptist Church cemetery up on Flint Ridge Road. His grave can easily be found here today. The last time that I visited here, I found a plastic bag that had been left behind on his tombstone with a note that was inscribed "To Floyd". Inside of the waterproof bag were a handful of matches and a candle-- the best friends of an old-time cave explorer. Even after all of this time, Floyd Collins has not been forgotten. Could that be because his ghost is still around?
Over the past several years, Crystal Cave has not been accessible to the public, although it has been charted and explored by national park employees and by a limited number of spelunkers. The fact that these veteran cave explorers have encountered weird phenomena in the cave dismisses the idea that the ghost stories here are merely the result of the overactive imaginations of tourists who are unfamiliar with the ordinary happenings in a cave.
A few years back, a group of Mammoth Cave employees were on an after-hours excursion in Crystal Cave and they noticed an old whiskey bottle that was resting on a rock ledge. One of the men in the group picked it up and looked at it and then placed it back on the ledge where he had found it. The group walked on deeper into the cave.
Later on in the evening, one of the men was walking back toward the cave entrance and was just passing by the old whiskey bottle when he heard a strange sound. "It was just behind my ear," he stated. "I heard a sound as though someone had flicked a finger against glass... a clink. I turned around just in time to see the bottle hit the ground."
Another man who was with him jumped back in shock. He claimed that the whiskey bottle had not just fallen, but that it had come straight out from the wall and had just dropped! "The little clink was loud enough to make me look back toward the ledge," he remembered, "and as I did, the bottle actually came out and then went right down in front of me. It was very bizarre."
Could the ghostly activity in the cave be attributed to the ghost of Floyd Collins? If there were an identity to be given to this ghost, he would certainly be everyone's first choice.
Another tale from Crystal Cave is attributed to a former employee named George Wood, who filed it as a report back in 1976. He wrote that he and another employee, Bill Cobb, had spent a day in June checking springs for a study on groundwater flow in central Kentucky. They didn't make it to the last spring until after dark and it was located near the old and abandoned Collins house on Flint Ridge.
Cobb went to the spring while Wood waited near the truck. After a few moments, he heard the sound of a man crying out in the darkness. At first, he thought it was his friend calling for help, but the voice seemed too high-pitched. It was also so faint that he had to listen carefully to hear what it was saying.
The voice cried: "Help me! Help me! Help me, I'm trapped! Johnny, help me!" It called out over and over again.
As he stood there on the edge of the dark road, he felt a cold chill run down his back. He vividly recalled hearing and reading about Floyd Collins and how he was trapped in Sand Cave --- which was located just a short distance from where he was standing!
A few minutes later, Cobb returned and Wood asked him if he had been calling for him. The other man had heard nothing while at the spring, but after hearing Wood's account, admitted that he was spooked. In fact, they both were and didn't waste any time in getting back in the truck and driving off.
Could the spectral voice have really belonged to Floyd Collins? And if so, could the "Johnny" that was heard in the mysterious cry have referred to Johnny Gerald, a friend of Floyd’s and the last person to speak with him before the cave collapse sealed him off from rescue? Is his spirit still trapped in the cave, or could the sound have been merely an eerie echo of yesterday?
So, are they really ghosts in famous Mammoth Cave? If the stories of witnesses and guides from almost the past two centuries can be believed, there are. Combine these accounts with hesitant reports from scientists and trained skeptics, who can't explain what they have encountered in the cave, and you certainly have an unusual situation on your hands!
But if nothing else, the cave is certainly ripe for a haunting and the legends alone draw thousands of eager visitors each year. The mystery, the history, the cave explorers who have never returned, the tragedy, the terror and the death have created just what may be one of the most haunted places in the world!
Mammoth Cave is located twenty miles northeast of Bowling Green, Kentucky in the southwest part of the state. Don't look for the body of Floyd Collins when you go there... he is now resting in the Flint Ridge Baptist Cemetery, which is located on the park grounds.