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The Tragedy of History's Smallest Underground War

by Brian Dunning

September 26, 2014

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Donate Kentucky's Mammoth Cave has been known since the late 1700s, and exploited for its saltpeter wealth through the War of 1812. Thereafter it became a tourist attraction, passing from owner to owner throughout the 1800s, each of whom had a clever marketing plan. First it was promoted with the display of a mummified Native American woman (imported from another location), nicknamed Fawn Hoof. Later, cottages built half-a-kilometer inside the cavern were offered as a cure for consumption and other ailments; and after the Civil War, a counterfeit Fawn Hoof took the place of the original counterfeit. Visitors were encouraged to snap off a stalactite as a souvenir. Mammoth Cave was not the only commercialized cave around, but it was by far the best known; and by the opening years of the 20th century, its proprietors were banking substantial profits.

But to reach Mammoth Cave, tourists had to drive through not only the Mammoth Cave region, but also the Flint Ridge cave region. Both were full of competing caves. In about 1920, this competition turned ugly in what became known as the Kentucky Cave Wars.

The Kentucky Cave Wars were fought not with arms, but with deceptive advertising, road solicitors who fraudulently directed cars down to their own caves, and the sabotage of one another's signs. "Cappers" was the name given to these roadside solicitors, after the official-looking caps they wore, intended to fool motorists into thinking they were the police, or otherwise acting in an official capacity to divert traffic.

Besides already-established caves like Salt Cave and Colossal Cave, these competitors came up with grandiloquent names like Great Onyx Cave (which claimed its limestone formations were actually of onyx) and Diamond Cave (because if onyx formations were good, diamond would be even better). Some even flagrantly stole Mammoth's name, like Mammoth Onyx Cave and Morrison's New Entrance to Mammoth Cave.

Way out on the end of the road was the Collins family's Great Crystal Cave, which almost nobody visited because of all the cappers. In 1925, 38-year-old Floyd, one of the Collins boys, decided they needed a cave closest to the main highway, so he set out to do what he did best: find a cave. Find one he did. Entering a small hole under a limestone ledge, Floyd wriggled his way down a passage barely large enough for his body. He wormed his way down, zig-zagging deeper and deeper, through squeezes no more than 25 cm in height, until he found himself staring down a narrow chute into a large, empty room. Floyd lowered himself down the chute and touched bottom after a 20-meter free-hanging descent. He explored the room until his lantern flickered, at which time he climbed back up the rope, squeezed into the chute, and began inching his way up it. But just short of the top, a dislodged rock tightly pinned Floyd in his place. He wriggled and writhed without room enough to raise his arms above his head, until dirt and gravel flowed down on all sides of him, firmly cementing him in place. He could see less than a meter beyond him, for the narrow passage above made five sharp zig-zags along its 35-meter length. Floyd was about 16 meters underground.

Fortunately, he had left word where he'd be, and his cries were heard by searchers the next day. Only the smallest among them could work their way down to Floyd, where they were horrified to discover the evident impossibility of his plight. The first efforts at rescue were obviously hopeless, and probably as sickening to thehelpless rescuers as Floyd's own situation must have been to him.

Within 48 hours, Floyd was on the front page of newspapers all across the country. Within 10 days, a media circus was encamped all around the cave, so large that the National Guard joined them to keep order. A whole tent city was erected, with vendors serving thousands of gawkers. After 13 days, the Lt. Governor personally ordered and supervised the drilling of a rescue shaft, all by hand to prevent disturbing Floyd's precarious position. Throughout all of this, diminutive reporter Skeets Miller, along with Floyd's brothers and other small cavers, made countless trips through the deteriorating squeezes and zig-zags to keep Floyd alive and try in vain to get him out.

On day 16, the miners reached Floyd with their rescue shaft. The nation held its breath and awaited their report. Floyd Collins was dead.

Sadly, that the Kentucky Cave Wars had finally claimed a life did not end the hostilities. That unfortunate aspect of human nature that draws us toward sensationalism fed upon Collins's horrifying death like fire upon gasoline. The dejected Collins family sold their Great Crystal Cave to an entrepreneur who had a sure-fire plan to exploit the attention-grabbing tragedy for profit: he displayed Floyd Collins's corpse within the cave in a glass-topped casket. Thus the tourists continued to drive to the cappers, road signs continued to be sabotaged, and commerce continued to be squabbled over.

It wasn't until 1972 that a team proved what many had long suspected: these caves were all one and the same. Probing through narrow passages recently discovered in the Flint Ridge system, expedition leader John Wilcox waded through a flooded channel and suddenly entered a vast room. "I see a tourist trail!" he cried when his light fell upon a metal handrail. The Flint Ridge and Mammoth systems were linked, and at 650kilometers (discovered so far), remain the world's largest.

The "wow" factor in the headlines of poor Floyd Collins's death, and the fantastical false claims of onyx and diamond caves, were mere sensationalism that obscured the majesty of this sublimely complex and intertwining cave system. In such a way hide many of our world's true wonders, buried under false sensationalism that, like the cappers, attempt to divert us from the real treasure of knowledge.

by Brian Dunning

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