Mammoth Cave in Kentucky is the largest known cave system in the world and one of the United States’ oldest tourist attractions. Because of its unusual geological characteristics, the cave has been a backdrop for downright odd aspects of human endeavors. Even nature has tossed in some weirdness for good measure.
The first time I visited Mammoth Cave National Park was as a child. What I remember most are the odd tales told by the tour guide. Of course, the vastness of the various chambers and the narrow squeezes of passageways between them did add a mysterious awe to my experience but the guide’s stories are what have resonated.
When I revisited Mammoth Cave as an adult years later, the weird details I remembered were still part of the tour guide’s routine. If you visit the cave, depending upon the tour you take, perhaps these details will stay with you also. Tours range from 30 minutes to more than four hours.
For 10 weird things about Mammoth Cave, keep reading.
Weirdness 1: This is more unusual than weird but it is information that you can pull out at a party. If you put the second and third longest caves together, Mammoth Cave would still be the world’s longest by 100 miles.
Weirdness 2: In 1830, a preacher would gather people together for church in the cave. He would take all their lanterns, set the lanterns at the edge of the rock ledge where he stood, and preach about good and evil and the fear of God. The people couldn’t leave because he had the lanterns.
Weirdness 3: Stephen Bishop, a 17-year-old slave, gave tours of the cave to wealthy white people until he was sold (along with the cave) to a new owner. Under his new owner, Bishop became one of the cave’s greatest explorers and, even after he gained freedom, was unable to move away from the cave’s pull despite his plans to move to Liberia. He died from unknown causes a year after he became free.
Weirdness 4: Because large portions of Mammoth Cave are dry, items left there can remain intact for years and years and years. This includes dead bats and bodies of Native Americans who lived in the area thousands of years ago. (Keep this weirdness in mind; it is connected to Weirdness 5.
Weirdness 5: The mummified bodies of the Native Americans were taken outside of the cave to be used as traveling shows.
Weirdness 7: In 1843, a doctor set up a tuberculosis ward in the Main Cave near the Star Chamber where he treated 16 patients. The idea was that because the cave was dry, it would help the patients’ lungs heal. It was a decent idea that didn’t work. Because of the cave’s cool temperatures, plus the fires from cooking and heating, the patients didn’t get better. After patients started to die, the doctor gave up the idea of a cave holding a cure. He died of TB a few years later.
Weirdness 8: In the early 20th century music concerts were held in certain chambers of the cave. This included bringing in food to set up a festive atmosphere.
Weirdness 9: Because of Mammoth’s Cave popularity in the 1920s, people who owned other caves in this part of Kentucky would stop travelers on the road to tell them lies about Mammouth Cave in order to get visitors to come to their caves instead.
Weirdness 10: There is a river that flows through part of the cave. Because of its darkness, the fish that live in it don’t have eyes. Depending upon the tour of the cave you take, you can travel by boat on this river.
Bonus weirdness: Up until 1976, the remains of a Native American named “Lost John” was on display in one part of the cave at the spot where he died. In 1976, it became illegal to have dead bodies on display in national parks so he was buried near where he was found.
The blind fish, Lost John and the TB hospital are the three things I remember the most. These recollections add to my thoughts about why it’s important to travel with children.
The details of the places children visit can instill a sense of mystery, curiosity and wonder that can last for a lifetime. Those feelings can keep you traveling.