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How the Kentucky Cave Wars Reshaped the State’s Tourism Trade | Historical past

How the Kentucky Cave Wars Reshaped the State’s Tourism Trade | Historical past

2023-07-31 16:58:19

Tourists in Kentucky's Great Onyx Cave in 1925

Vacationers in Nice Onyx Cave, now a part of Mammoth Cave Nationwide Park, in 1925
Public domain via U.S. Geological Survey

Within the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, guests to south-central Kentucky’s cave region had been probably certain for Mammoth Cave, a seemingly never-ending community of passageways providing cool air and luxurious underground areas. As soon as close by, vacationers would spot billboards for rival caves and listen to hucksters’ accompanying pitches. They could be besieged by leaflet-bearing locals encouraging them to go to opponents. A few of these “cappers,” because the visor-wearing roadside advertisers had been referred to as, tossed studying materials into vehicles or climbed onto the autos’ working boards—slim platforms hooked up to automotive doorways—to information drivers away from Mammoth Cave.

Few vacationers realized simply how a lot was at stake as cappers vied for his or her consideration. Behind the billboards, guarantees of onyx troves and cavalier advertising and marketing techniques lay a fancy internet of lawsuits, violence and tragedy. By the point the Kentucky Cave Wars ended within the Nineteen Sixties, the “competitors and battle” had broken “lives, assets and reputations,” based on the National Park Service (NPS). Nonetheless, the drama had at the least one constructive consequence. It drove “the folks of cave nation to actively discover the area for practically a century,” the NPS notes, laying the groundwork for what’s now the world’s longest identified cave system: Mammoth Cave National Park.

Solicitors for the Great Onyx Operating Committee at work, circa 1940

Solicitors for the Nice Onyx Working Committee at work, circa 1940


Native People found Mammoth Cave as early as 5000 B.C.E. However it wasn’t till the 1790s that the cave system caught the eye of white settlers. The primary formal tour of the cave occurred in 1816; over the subsequent 5 a long time, luminaries starting from Ralph Waldo Emerson to opera singer Jenny Lind to naturalist John Muir visited the positioning. As Mammoth Cave’s reputation skyrocketed within the late nineteenth century, builders took steps to capitalize on the vacationer growth, opening rival caves and redirecting motorists to their very own points of interest.

“The folks [in the region] had been fairly poor farmers,” says David Randolph Kem, writer of The Kentucky Cave Wars: The Century That Shaped Mammoth Cave National Park. “By the point the early twentieth century got here alongside, they [had found] a lot of the assets and caves within the space. The rich individuals who had been touring to see Mammoth Cave offered a chance that [locals] in any other case wouldn’t have. There was an entire lot extra money to be made within the tourism business than there was … in just about another a part of life. There was a lot competitors that for those who weren’t keen to go above and past, you actually wouldn’t stand an opportunity [at being] profitable.”

Summarizing the cutthroat atmosphere for the Chicago Tribune in 1925, reporter Tom Killian wrote, “Each boy rising up is aware of that it’s both a case of going out among the many ‘furriners,’ getting a job as a cave information or, better of all, discovering a cave for himself.” Finally, the aim was to “cool down and ‘hustle’ vacationers, a neighborhood expression.”

Copy of an 1894 photograph of a guide and a group of visitors to Mammoth Cave

Copy of an 1894 {photograph} of a information and a gaggle of tourists to Mammoth Cave


Some cappers threw rocks when vacationers approached a rival caver, or they masqueraded as fellow vacationers who had simply realized that Mammoth Cave was too full of kerosene smoke to get pleasure from. One other tactic was telling vacationers that each one the caves had been related, so regardless of which one they entered by way of, the expertise could be similar.

Tensions between cave operators may flip lethal. Because the Richmond Daily Register reported in 1921, an argument broke out after Len Ferguson, Mammoth Cave’s 30-year-old postmaster, knowledgeable Clell Lee, a 26-year-old related to the Nice Onyx Cave, that “there was no mail for him.” (One other account reported that each males had been “engaged within the taxicab enterprise.”) Ferguson shot Lee twice within the again, killing him immediately. The violence, based on the Register, was “mentioned to have been an outgrowth of rivalry between workers” on the two vacationer points of interest.

Different enterprise battles had been fought in courtroom. Within the early Nineteen Twenties, George Morrison, a former oilman, tried to steal enterprise from Mammoth Cave by opening an alternative entrance. He illegally surveyed the encircling space in hopes of discovering a passageway to the cave system past the bounds of the land owned by the Mammoth Cave Property. In 1921, he blasted a sinkhole on a neighboring property, then despatched a crew to discover the caverns beneath. The search effort was profitable, and Morrison opened his “New Entrance to Mammoth Cave” the next spring.

Cave guides at Mammoth Cave, circa 1939

Cave guides at Mammoth Cave, circa 1939

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Rival cappers dug holes within the highway to stop vehicles from accessing caves and drive landowners to make pricey repairs. In addition they broke into one another’s caves and broken rock formations, says Kem, who has labored as a information at Mammoth Cave since 2010. In courtroom in 1928, a witness alleged that Andy Lee Collins, supervisor of Collins’ Onyx Cave, paid him $2 for every competitor signal he destroyed. If the person burned down a rival firm’s workplace, the payout would rise to $10.

In his ebook, Kem quotes Joe Duvall, a former capper who remembered pretending to write down down vacationers’ license plates as they drove by. When the customer stopped to research, Duvall directed them straight to his employer’s cave. “Most of them had been apologetic,” the capper recalled, saying they hadn’t realized they had been presupposed to cease. In response, he instructed them, “I’m right here to … aid you and provide you with official details about the cave, the park and the realm.”

Cave homeowners usually borrowed cash from bankers so they might construct ticket cubicles and present retailers, wrote Robert Ok. Murray and Roger W. Brucker of their 1982 ebook, Trapped! The Story of Floyd Collins. “In heat climate, they herded these they might discover into their caverns, down makeshift stairways and previous misspelled indicators. In chilly climate, they hunted extra caves.”

Roadside solicitors, circa 1940

Roadside solicitors for the Nice Onyx Working Committee, circa 1940


Lawsuits introduced by the competing property accused Morrison of utilizing “intimidation, threats, drive, violence and different illegal means” to cease Mammoth Cave workers from attracting guests, based on the Louisville Courier-Journal. The fits additionally sought to stop Morrison from utilizing the identify “Mammoth Cave” in any advertising and marketing supplies. However whereas these efforts had been partially profitable, prompting a choose to order Morrison so as to add a disclaimer to his pamphlets, makes an attempt to drive the operation to close down failed, and Morrison maintained possession of the property till 1932.

Morrison’s rise to prominence arrived at a turning level for Kentucky’s cave business. In 1925, a neighborhood caver named Floyd Collins (brother of Andy Lee Collins, the supervisor later charged with paying somebody to burn rival caves’ indicators) bumped into bother whereas exploring Sand Cave. Collins’ household owned the close by Great Crystal Cave, which he had found in 1917. However the enterprise struggled to draw guests as a result of its distant location, so on January 30, 1925, Collins got down to discover one other tourist-worthy cave nearer to the principle highway.

Interior of White's Cave, 1925

Inside of White’s Cave, 1925


In keeping with the NPS, Collins needed to squeeze by way of tight passageways, “at one level … [inching] by way of on his abdomen, with one arm stretched out forward of him, pushing his lantern, and the opposite arm at his facet.” By the point he reached a extra open part of Sand Cave, his mild was faltering, so he rotated. Whereas pushing by way of the slim house, he knocked over a 27-pound boulder that pinned his ankle in place.

The son of Sand Cave’s proprietor discovered Collins the next day. However preliminary rescue efforts failed, and shortly, journalists, locals, would-be rescuers and volunteers alike flocked to the positioning. As gawkers arrived on the scene, tensions mounted between locals advocating one rescue technique and outsiders pushing for one more. Finally, the state’s lieutenant governor introduced in troopers to maintain order.

Floyd Collins

Floyd Collins


On February 2, William “Skeets” Miller, a small-statured reporter on the Courier-Journal, crawled by way of the collapse hopes of speaking to Collins. Miller, who ultimately gained a Pulitzer Prize for his sequence of interviews with the doomed man, discovered Collins’ face lined by a small piece of oilcloth. When Miller eliminated the material, Collins cried, “Put it again. Put it again—the water.” As Miller recounted, “I observed a small drip-drip-drip from above. Every drop struck Collins’ face. The primary few hours he didn’t thoughts, however the fixed dripping nearly drove him insane. His brother had taken the oilcloth to him earlier within the day.”

Collins died earlier than rescuers reached him on February 16, a full 17 days after he first entered Sand Cave. Specialists steered he’d succumbed to exhaustion and hunger between one to five days earlier however couldn’t pinpoint his actual time of loss of life. Both means, he’d survived longer than anticipated by Miller, who believed he’d died as quickly as February 5. Within the a long time that adopted, the 37-year-old’s tragic demise impressed books, songs, a musical and at the least one movie.

When Collins grew to become trapped, observers had been so accustomed to the infinite battling over the area’s caverns that some accused him of staging the accident for publicity. “The cave area folks have lots of the traits of the mountaineers of Kentucky and Tennessee,” famous the New York Times on February 15. “It’s mentioned that feuds and factional feeling amongst Collins’ kith and kin and others had been liable for failure to extricate him when he was first discovered.” One rumor cited by the Chicago Day by day Tribune claimed that Collins stayed within the cave for a quick interval, then snuck out and went into hiding. A county lawyer instructed reporters he would examine the accusations towards the Collins household.

A February 6, 1925, newspaper article about Floyd Collins' predicament

A February 6, 1925, newspaper article about Floyd Collins’ predicament

Lexington Herald-Leader via

The willingness to consider that individuals would go to such horrifying lengths for publicity stemmed partly from how outsiders noticed Kentucky. “The ‘cave males’ of Kentucky at the moment are reverting to the chief pastime of their ancestors—warfare,” wrote one reporter in 1928. “They scorn common work,” argued the writer of the February 15, 1925, New York Instances article. “They’re with out ambition to go to the cities. … With little schooling within the faculties however a lot within the methods of untamed issues, they’re impatient of restraint or self-discipline.”

Melanie Beals Goan, a historian on the College of Kentucky, says that stereotypes of Kentuckians are widespread. The area constantly intrigues outsiders, she provides.

“Kentucky—nonetheless to today—is a very fascinating place as a result of it’s so paradoxical,” Goan says. “You’ve gotten this polished picture of the mint julep [cocktail] and the [Kentucky] Derby juxtaposed with this image folks have of it being a extra violent, backward place, and people two issues collectively make it attention-grabbing and thrilling.”

A pair of cappers sit on a vehicle, circa 1940

A pair of cappers sit on a car, circa 1940


The infamous feud between the Hatfield and McCoy families, which unfolded partly in jap Kentucky within the nineteenth century, acquired loads of national coverage, Goan says. However that battle, just like the cave wars, wasn’t nearly turbulence for its personal sake. As a substitute, the historian explains, “The Hatfield-McCoy feud is de facto about substantive issues, and in the same means, the cave wars are about establishing one’s financial future in a [place] the place small-scale farming wasn’t working anymore. The cave wars, like Hatfield and McCoy, are over the land and the assets and one’s capability to stay solvent.”

By 1938, Mammoth Cave advertised that its tour guides had been “rigorously chosen from households within the neighborhood who by way of generations have handed on from father to son Mammoth Cave lore,” based on the Instances. The positioning’s paramountcy over rival caves was firmly established in 1941, when Mammoth Cave grew to become a nationwide park. In June 1953, nonetheless, Collier’s journal ran an article about “Kentucky’s loopy cave warfare,” detailing the continued rivalry between the park and native, privately owned caves. The conflict solely ended within the Nineteen Sixties, when “cave homeowners started searching for methods to cooperate and cross-promote,” based on the NPS.

See Also

A 2009 photograph of the interior of Mammoth Cave

A 2009 {photograph} of the inside of Mammoth Cave

Nationwide Park Service

Immediately, greater than two million people go to Mammoth Cave yearly. And privately owned websites like Crystal Onyx Cave signify a welcome various for guests seeking to discover off the well-trodden path.

As Kem says, caves demand ardour. “I can’t clarify how the cave makes you’re feeling,” he provides. “It’s a unique atmosphere. We name it getting [bitten] by the cave bug. You simply can’t get sufficient of it.”

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