History's Smallest Underground War
The public's zeal for sensationalism over facts can sometimes have deadly consequences.
To those of a skeptical bent, it comes as no great surprise that rival companies would cross the line into sensationalized falsehoods when it's time to write a sales pitch. Sometimes such false claims are that this product is newer or better; sometimes it's a false slander against the competition; sometimes it's a word salad of hyperbole and embellishment that means nothing at all but sounds impressive to the layperson. We've come to take these distortions in stride; but doing so can set a dangerous precedent. The zeal to outdo the competition often takes precedence over honesty, but it can also trample safety. In one case, a century ago, this battle became deadly — and then, as if that wasn't bad enough, it became sickeningly macabre. It was a little footnote in history from the limestone halls of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, and I call it the tragedy of history's smallest underground war.
Mammoth Cave is best known today as the world's longest cave system, with nearly 660 kilometers discovered so far, and it's one of the crown jewels of the US national park system. The cave was first discovered in 1791. It very soon became well known — not for its majesty and natural wonder, but for its wealth of saltpeter — a component of gunpowder, and of which nearly half a million pounds were excavated to feed the guns of the War of 1812. But not long thereafter, its owners found a new way to capitalize on it, and the cave became a tourist attraction beginning in 1816. It passed from owner to owner throughout the 1800s, each of whom had a clever marketing plan to excite the public interest. 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.
Things changed in the 1920s when owners of properties throughout the Mammoth Cave Ridge and Flint Ridge regions realized that caves were everywhere, and that there was no reason Mammoth Cave should be making all the money. Soon other caves were opened for tourism, and given grandiloquent names to deceive tourists into thinking theirs was the greater spectacle. Besides already-established caves like Salt Cave and Colossal Cave, these competitors came up with 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.
To get to any of these caves, tourists had to drive along the same few roads, and these roads became the front lines for what history has named the Kentucky Cave Wars. This war was fought not with arms, but with deceptive advertising by a new species of grifter who were known as cappers, after the caps they wore. They dressed in official-looking uniforms and wore police-looking caps — intended to fool motorists into thinking they were acting in some official capacity — and they flagged down any vehicle that drove by. Sometimes they set up roadblocks and directed motorists into the parking lots for their own competing caves. Sometimes they said Mammoth Cave was closed or flooded, but not to worry, Diamond Cave was open and right here. If their own cave was farther up the road, the cappers might say that due to the Mammoth Cave's flooding, tourists were being advised to visit the other cave instead, and would sell them tickets on the spot; so that when the tourists got to Mammoth Cave and found it open, they'd already been taken in and it was too late. Little ticket sheds called capper shacks popped up all along the road, selling tickets and misinformation. Sometimes this competition turned ugly, with owners burning down enemy capper shacks on several occasions.
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, 37-year-old William Floyd Collins 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, on a prime piece of property much closer to the beginning of the road, owned by someone willing to split any profits with the Collins family. Floyd was blessed with a diminutive body ideal for this purpose. 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 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 with a rope, 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. Floyd was about 16 meters underground.
Clearly his situation was desperate. He had no companions. He could not move either up or down, and had already exhausted all his strength trying. 35 meters of sharply zig-zagging passages separated him from a surface he could never reach.
Luckily Floyd was no idiot, and well understood the risks involved in burrowing into new caves; so he had left detailed word with his friends telling where he'd be and when he expected to be back. Accordingly, the search for Floyd was prompt and successful. His cries were heard by his friends the next day. Only the smallest among them could work their way down to him, 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 the helpless rescuers as Floyd's own situation must have been to him.
Within two days, Floyd was on the front page of newspapers all across the country. Within ten 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. Newspaper photographs show that it was basically a carnival, an unsurprisingly exploitative treatment of a personal tragedy. One reporter, a small man named Skeets Miller, was among the few thin and nimble enough to reach Floyd. For over a week, Skeets made countless trips down the shaft to Floyd, bringing him coffee and sandwiches, hand feeding him, keeping him alive. Floyd's brothers and other small local cavers did all they could to keep the passage clear, as it deteriorated every time someone went through.
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. Three days of superhuman digging by teams of miners were all it took to sink the shaft to Floyd. 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.
Not only that: Floyd's body was once stolen, but was recovered and returned to the cave, where it remained for decades, his family having failed in all their legal actions to get his body returned so it could be properly buried. Not until 1989 — 64 years after Floyd's death — were his remains finally laid to rest.
In 1972, speleologists proved what had long been 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 remain the world's largest known system.
Even back in the 1920s, the cave owners knew that many of these caves were linked. But the courts had ruled that rights to caves belonged to the property owners above; so everyone acted like theirs was a unique cave, enterable only through their own admission gate. I don't pretend that this is anything other than a fantasy, given the general public's zeal for sensationalism; but what if all those property owners had instead formed a unified company dedicated to the cave and found an equitable way to share profits from showcasing the world's biggest cave? Or — so as not to stifle the healthy capitalist competition — at least acknowledged that Mammoth Cave was a single system, and sold access to their own convenient entrances, cafeterias, tickets to specific sections, and so on. Either way, the cappers and the lies would have been unnecessary, and Floyd Collins might not have been driven to such extremes in order to meet the public's demand.
The "wow" factor in the headlines of poor Floyd Collins's death, and the fantastical false claims of Onyx Cave and Diamond Cave and Colossal Cave, 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.
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