Park History: Mammoth Cave National Park

Though there are many ways to enjoy Mammoth Cave National Park, you no longer can tour the underground rivers by boat, as these folks did on the Echo River in 1915. Photo by M. D. Bullock/ Royal Photo Co./ Louisville, Ky, via NPS Historic Photograph Collection.

Long before anyone thought of national parks, folks were heading down into Mammoth Cave to see the sights. And if you've ever visited this incredible underground labyrinth, you understand why.

For six hours or so I crawled on my hands and knees, clambered up slight pitches, down-climbed into rooms, and somehow squeezed my 6-foot-1 frame through a 9-inch high passage while on a "wild cave" tour in Mammoth Cave National Park, all the while following the bouncing beam from my headlamp.

It was a riveting tour, one that quickly raised Mammoth Cave high on my list of favorite national parks. It didn't matter that the ranger was essentially leading us in circles in a very, very localized area of Mammoth Cave. As we worked through Hawkins Pass, down Becky's Alley and over to the Lion's Head, our small group quickly became hooked on what this cave offers.

Park historians will tell you that the first humans ventured into this Kentucky wonder about 4,000 years ago. Why? Who knows. Perhaps to get in out of the rain, maybe simply to see what was inside. There's even a debate over what led John Houchins into the cave in the 1790s. One version is that he shot and wounded a bear while hunting and tracked it into the cave. Those who disagree with that story say it couldn't be so, for if Houchins really were a Kentucky hunter, he would have killed the bear with one shot.

Saltpetre was commercially mined from the cave as long ago as 1811 and in 1816, after the conclusion of the War of 1812, some entrepreneuring souls began leading tours into Mammoth Cave. Some thought the dark, mostly dry, passageways also had health benefits, for that's what led Dr. John Croghan in 1842 to have stone huts built for his tuberculosis patients. Unfortunately, the curative benefits never materialized. Indeed, the good doctor himself died of TB in 1849.

Slaves were among the cave's first guides, and more than a few built impressive reputations for their knowledge of the cave.

Stephen Bishop was unquestionably one of the greatest explorers Mammoth Cave has ever known. He was in his late teens when he was brought to Mammoth Cave in 1838. He learned the toured routes from white guides Joe Shackelford and Archibald Miller Jr. However, Stephen Bishop ventured beyond the toured areas and discovered many miles of the Mammoth Cave no eye had ever seen. The gateway for modern exploration of the cave could be attributed to Stephen's crossing of a deep vertical shaft known as the Bottomless Pit. The areas he discovered beyond the Bottomless Pit can still be viewed by visitors today. Places such as Fat Man's Misery, Cleaveland Avenue and Mammoth Dome are among the most notable.

Stephen was a showman and visitors wrote of his speech and singing voice. Perhaps visitor Bayard Taylor described what today's perception of Stephen Bishop was when he wrote,

"He is a slight, graceful, and very handsome mulatto of about thirty-five years of age, with perfectly chiselled features, a keen, dark eye and glossy hair, and mustache. He is the model of a guide - quick, daring, enthusiastic, persevering, with a lively appreciation of the wonders he shows, and a degree of intelligence unusual in one of his class...I think no one can travel under his guidance without being interested in the man, and associating him in memory with the realm over which he is chief ruler."

Today not only can you trace his footsteps through the cave, but you can pause by Mr. Bishop's grave in the Old Guides Cemetery, which can be found near the Mammoth Cave Hotel. Some of Dr. Croghan's patients are buried there as well.

While Congress deemed Mammoth Cave to be worthy of national park status as long ago as 1926, the politicians required that the property be donated to the federal government. That requirement didn't bear fruit until July 1, 1941, when the park formally was established.

Geology is justifiably king at Mammoth Cave. There are stalactites, stalagmites, flowstones, rimstones, cave bacon, and even cave popcorn to be viewed. There are ballrooms where banquets once were held, a massive formation that appears to be a frozen waterfall, and even actual waterfalls. There are delicate and fanciful crystalline formations known as angel hair gypsum.

But there's more than a little human history tied up in this national park as well. The land that was acquired for the national park displaced small communities that left their mark in today's cemeteries (more than 70), churches, and homesteads that can be found within the park's borders. The Little Hope Cemetery, for instance, marks the final resting places of James Adair and James Robinson, two who fought in the War of 1812 and who traced their birth dates back to the late 18th century.

But it's the sheer size of this hole in the ground that continues to this day to confound visitors and lure researchers, who not only are still mapping the cave's twists and turns but arriving to study its geology, the bats that use it, and other matters. Ever steadily, albeit slowly, dissolving by running water, Mammoth Cave today features at least five interconnected levels that span more than 350 miles, easily making it the world's longest cave.

Understandably, with a "modern" history that can be traced back nearly 200 years, Mammoth Cave's passages have been tagged with quite a few monikers. There's Rose's Pass, Hell-Hole, Bishop's Dome, Miller Avenue, Emerson's Pass, Dollar Pass, Cleveland's Avenue, and Fly Chamber. Why, there's even a formation not far in from the Carmichael Entrance known as "Rocky Mountains." Stop by Register Hall and you'll be able to read names from some of the 19th century visitors who stopped to "write" their names on the snow-white ceiling with soot from their candles.

You don't have to tackle claustrophobia to enjoy Mammoth Cave National Park. True, the wild cave tour is thrilling. But if that's a bit much you can sample the cave by taking the Discovery Tour, which ventures less than a mile inside the cave. If you're more daring, sign up for the Grand Avenue Tour, which takes almost half a day and is a tremendous sampler of what Mammoth Cave offers. History buffs no doubt will be interested in the Violet City Lantern Tour, which recreates the feeling of a mid-1800s trek into the cave.

Unfortunately, you no longer can take a boat ride on Echo River, as they were discontinued in the 1990s to protect the resources.

Above ground you can tour the old churches and their accompanying cemeteries; check out Cedar Sink, a sinkhole that helps explain the park's plumbing; cruise the Green River on the Miss Green River II or via canoe; or pitch your tent.


We were there in May 2008. There are no more tours on the Green river, the Captain and owner died. The cave tour is awesome. I have never been in a "wet" cave before. There are a lot of caves in the Cave City area, we tried to get four of them in 3 days.

I have family who lived in the Mammoth Cave Park territory before it was made into a park. I would like to see a map ot the area that would designate who owned parts of the land before the park was formed. I know that some sold the land to the park and some of the land was confiscated by emminent domain. Some of my relatives still live in Brownsville today. I have always been fascinated with this area and its history. My dad grew up in part of ths area. He lived in the area back of the old Lincoln school. Years ago, we drove back as far as we could go. It was closed off by the park. My grandfather worked for the CCC in Camp 4 who did work in this area. His name is Elijah (Lige) Meredith. If anyone has any information that may be useful to me, please email me.

I found this page very helpful, i am working on an essay about mammoth cave. thank you for your great info!

Does anyone remember the ld hotel at Mamoth Cave ? I stayed there as a young girl when my family was on a Spring Field Trip. The Park Service was very proud that the hotel was 'nautrally air conditioned' from the air in the cave. Then sometime in the late 70s or early 80s the hotel was closed because the air from the cave contained radon gas.

I would like any information on the hotel. Does it still exist? Did they remove it? Anyone have any pictures of the old hotel? Thanx in advance.

I hope we can visit this park this summer...

Kids are really excited about it...

Anyone, would like to share experienced visiting this park with kids?