Mammoth Cave: Weird stories of fish, TB, mummies and more

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.

10 Weird (or unusual )Things about Mammoth Cave

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 6: The traveling mummy shows helped grow interest in Mammoth Cave. When the cave started its reign as a tourist site, it was considered to be exotic.

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.

Mystery Hill–America’s Stonehenge?

In the quiet woods of New Hampshire, there lies a mystery. Strange monuments of stone are interspersed among the trees. Some look like squat houses, others like enclosures of some kind, and there’s a large, flat stone with a channel cut around it that looks perfect for some bloody ritual.

This is America’s Stonehenge, also known as Mystery Hill, and it’s been attracting the curious for generations. The owners claim it could be 4,000 years old, built by a lost Native American tribe or some unknown civilization. Others think that druids or Irish monks sailed across the sea and built this as a ceremonial center. Researchers claim to have found that some of the standing stones have astronomical alignments and would have helped the ancient builders schedule their harvest and plowing as well as religious rituals.

It’s not all ancient mysteries either. The site has 105 acres of woodlands open to snowshoeing in winter, and there’s an alpaca farm where you can pet the friendly creatures or even take one home if you’re willing to plunk down a few grand.

But is this really “America’s Stonehenge”? Professional archaeologists tend to dismiss the claims on several grounds–no ancient European artifacts have been found at the site, the structures aren’t all that similar to ones found in Europe, and in fact look more like Colonial period storage buildings. The “sacrificial altar”, according to one archaeologist, looks like a Colonial apple press. There’s also the problem that the man who bought the site in the 1930s allegedly moved around many of the stones to make it look more impressive.

But that doesn’t stop a devoted subculture of enthusiasts who believe this was one of the major religious centers of an advanced civilization whose remains can be found all over new England and beyond. Championed by the popular writer Barry Fell in his book America B.C. and a host of other authors, these folks are conducting research into America’s past that tells a widely different story than those of professional archaeologists. Their theories range from lost civilizations, visits by European civilizations before the Vikings, to stranger ideas involving Atlantis and aliens.

As a former archaeologist, I have to say I lean strongly toward the “reworked Colonial era farm” theory. Yet America’s Stonehenge is a strangely evocative place, and one cannot help feel an eerie tingle when wandering amidst the silent stones. There’s something about them that creates an air of mystery that is hard to dismiss.

And everyone loves a good mystery.


The Midwest capital of the albino white squirrel

Next time you wake up in the morning, and decide that you’d love to visit some albino white squirrels, get in your car and make the drive to Olney, IL.

I’m serious – there is a town in Illinois who’s sole claim to fame is their population of albino squirrels.

Once you get to Olney, be careful of the squirrels – they have the right of way on any street and squashing one of the poor critters will cost you $200.

In 1997, the town banned dogs and cats from running at large, and an official squirrel count is held each fall.

Their chamber of commerce, town information site and newspaper all proudly display white squirrels, and their cop cars show a police badge with what else – a white squirrel.

Unfortunately, Olney doesn’t have that much more to offer, so making the 254 mile drive from Chicago is only worth it if you really, really like albino squirrels.

SkyMall Monday: Powerlung

I am not what many would call fit. Sure, I look thin enough. I go hiking and kayaking and, on occasion, I even drink juice. I do leave the SkyMall Monday headquarters from time to time to burn a calorie or two. But I also sweat when I get out of bed. I get winded taking the elevator. And I like my ham wrapped in bacon. In other words, I’m your typical American. So, I recently decided that I need to improve my health. But I also decided that I wanted to do so while in a seated position. And I want took as weird as possible. That is, after all, the American way. Rather than do crunches or push-ups or change my diet, I want to to just blow. Whoa, whoa whoa. Get your mind out of the gutter. There’s a way for me improve my health, stay seated and look like a complete jackass. Yes, SkyMall has given me the gift of Powerlung.

Finally, I can improve my cardiovascular health and my French kissing skills. My lung capacity will improve while I sit on my ass. What could be more amazingly American? Stationary exercise. It’s a beautiful thing.

Don’t believe that such a weirdly American contraption can improve your lungs and your life? Maybe you’re the one that blows. If you don’t want to suck, check out the product description:

What makes PowerLung different from the other products? The most important difference is PowerLung is the ONLY product available that will improve the muscles that support your lungs for both INHALING and EXHALING all in the same breath.

Inhaling and exhaling? That’s, like, all of the breathing! Now I can eat my pork, wear my stained sweatpants and be all the American that I can be. So, breathe easier, America. You, too, can be healthy and unhealthy simultaneously. And have your mouth taste like plastic.

Check out all of the previous SkyMall Monday posts HERE.

The mail jumpers of Lake Geneva

For the residents who live on waterfront property in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, the daily mail delivery comes by boat. The U.S. Mailboat Walworth makes the delivery every morning at 10am from June 15 to September 15, stopping at over 60 lakefront homes. At each dock, the mail girl – or the occasional mail boy – jumps from the boat, races to the mailbox while dodging rafts and dock furniture, grabs the outgoing mail (hoping that the owners haven’t played a prank and tied the mailbox shut!), drops off the incoming envelopes, and then runs back to the boat, which – and here’s where it gets interesting – never stops moving (check out a video here). It’s a process that takes as little as ten seconds, and leaves no room for error.

The mailboat delivery began in the late 1800’s out of necessity. The roads around the Lake were not well developed, so delivering the mail by boat was quicker and more efficient. The tradition continues today, but now tourists can tag along for the delivery on daily mailboat tours run by the Lake Geneva Cruise Line. While watching the girls work, passengers listen to information and anecdotes about the area and the historic mansions on the lakefront.

The mail girls, or “mail jumpers”, are not postal employees – they work for Lake Geneva Cruise Line – but they work closely with the U.S. Post Office. The mail jumper work day begins at 7am with the sorting of the mail and ends around 1pm, after the 2.5 hour delivery tour. Of the hundreds of houses on Lake Geneva, only 60 or so receive their mail by boat because many are summer houses that are only inhabited part-time.

For young adults in Lake Geneva and the surrounding towns, being a mail jumper is a coveted job, and one that requires an unusual application process. Elle Vogt, a two-year veteran mail jumper and a sophomore at UW-Madison, said that when she first saw a video of the mail jumpers, she knew right away she wanted to try out. The tryouts are hands-on: the applicants will make several jumps, first at the pier and then out on the lake, and then give parts of the scripted tour. To get the job, applicants need to show that not only can they quickly make the jump from boat to dock, but that they can also deliver an engaging presentation to the passengers.

Elle says that she really enjoys being a mail girl, but the job isn’t without its challenges. The biggest one of course, is falling in the Lake. Captain Neal has been driving the mail boat for almost 50 years and has seen at least one mail jumper get soaked every season. It’s nearly guaranteed for each mail girl to fall in at least once in her career. Elle had her turn this summer. One wet and rainy day, she was running a little slower than usually down a particularly long and slippery pier. As she made the jump, the boat passed by and she just missed it, landing in the water with a splash. When a jumper misses the boat, they have no choice but to finish out their shift soaking wet. It’s no surprise then that jumpers also need to be strong swimmers to get the job.

The job does come with perks though. This summer, Elle met Andrew Zimmern when he visited Lake Geneva and filmed a segment of his Travel Channel show aboard the Walworth. Andrew jumped mail and received a special package from a fan, a bag of “bizarre food” left for him in a mailbox.

In addition to the mailboat tours, Lake Geneva Cruise Line offers several other lake tours, including an ice-cream social tour, champagne brunch cruise, and a full lake tour that cruises past the stately lakefront homes. Mailboat tours cost $27 for adults and are conducted every day in the summer, including Sundays when the newspaper is delivered.

Disclosure: My ride on the U.S. Mailboat Walworth was covered as part of my stay at The Abbey Resort and Spa, but my opinions of the Resort and the lake cruise are my own. Even without a gratis tour of the Lake, I’d be pretty impressed with the antics of these mail jumpers.