The unusual history of Kentucky's Mammoth Cave

Josue Torres

The COVID-19 pandemic struck Mammoth Cave, Kentucky’s only national park and the world’s longest cave structure, hard, as it did many other locations.

More than half a million visitors visited the 53,000-acre park in 2019, but that figure dropped to just 290,000 in 2020. Precautions against the coronavirus played a role.

The park reduced its usual lineup of nearly 20 cave tours to a single self-guided tour for groups of no more than 32 participants and offered timed tickets to groups of no more than 32 people. All tourists and staff are disguised inside federal buildings and the cave system, as per existing federal regulations.

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Mammoth Cave National Park.Shutterstock

However, according to Airbnb, which identified Mammoth Cave National Park among its top 10 trending destinations in March, the continued quest for outdoor activities may boost its popularity this year. The park’s variety of activities, according to Molly Schroer, is one of the park’s biggest attractions for visitors: 100-plus miles of aboveground paths and riverways for climbing, walking, horseback riding, and paddling, as well as 400-plus miles of limestone labyrinths underground.

Since humans first found Mammoth Cave about 4,000 years ago, a lot has improved. Seven groups affiliated with the ancient usage of the parklands, including the Cherokee Nation and Shawnee Band, used mussel shell scrapers collected from the Green River to mine resources like gypsum in the cave system. They left behind mummified bones and petroglyphs, pictographs, and burials that revealed their own tales.

In the late 1800s, settlers started to discover the caves. Black settlers shaped several discoveries; some were enslaved in saltpeter mines producing black gunpowder, while others worked as maids and cooks in local hotels. In 1838, as a youth, Stephen Bishop arrived at Mammoth Cave and soon established himself as one of the park’s most famous geologists and guides.

Bishop was “almost as well-known as the cave itself,” according to one tourist. Bishop, like Indiana Jones of a bygone age, explored new subterranean portals, such as Mammoth Dome and the Ruins of Karnak, by overcoming challenges such as the Bottomless Pit.

Bishop remained enslaved throughout, eventually acquiring his independence just before the Civil War. Bishop once described the cave system he cherished as “a grand, gloomy, and peculiar place,” despite his decision to remain and serve as a paid guide.

Kentucky’s sole national park is Mammoth Cave.

When the National Park Service took over Mammoth Cave in 1941, the importance of Black guides, who had served alongside white cave guides for a century, was reduced. The federal government refused to employ all of the park’s Black guides, including those who had been with the park for four decades.

Any of these guides is descended from Materson Bransford, an enslaved man’s son who was “leased” to the owner of Mammoth Cave while he was in his early twenties. Jerry Bransford, Materson’s great-great-grandson, carried on the family tradition in 2004 when he was employed to work at Mammoth Cave half a century after his last ancestor quit the park.

It’s impossible to say how many people would tour Mammoth Cave in 2021. The future crowds, on the other hand, are merely walking in the footsteps of others who have come before them to marvel at these incredible underground wonders — this time, with improved safety precautions.

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