J. Nathan Couch explores the depths of Kentucky’s treacherous Mammoth Cave, a place so menacing it inspired HP Lovecraft’s first story.
Wisconsin paranormal researcher J. Nathan Couch recently took a “legend trip” to Kentucky. Legend tripping is the act of visiting an allegedly haunted location to try and experience the legend for yourself. This is the third and final article in the series following Waverly Hills Sanatorium and the Pope Lick Monster.
The Mammoth Cave System is without a doubt the world’s greatest subterranean wonder. Located in an area that’s roughly only a few miles in diameter, the cave twists and turns and stretches to a length of some 400 miles and a depth of 30 stories, and that’s only the explored tunnels. It’s suspected hundreds of miles of cave remain to be discovered. Every weekend more exploration occurs and new mileage is recorded. The world’s longest cave system literally becomes larger every single week.
Mammoth Cave is an astounding place that’s definitely worthy of anyone’s leisure time but what makes it worthy of a legend trip? The fact that’s it reputedly the world’s largest haunted place, with a macabre history stretching back to pre-history.
The first evidence of human beings exploring the pitch black halls of Mammoth Cave dates back 4,000 years ago when pre-historic Native Americans first dared to venture under the earth. There, with primitive stone tools and no light beyond what their small torches could cast, they mined the cave walls for its minerals. At some point these people began burying their dead inside the cave, as at least four bodies have been excavated since the 1800s. The dry mineral-rich environment of the cave turned each into perfectly preserved mummies, many of which were on display for certain amounts of time during the Cave’s history of being a privately owned tourist attraction. The Natives continued to delve into the darkness for 2,000 years until their presence abruptly stops. No one has yet concluded why they abandoned the cave after two millennia.
In the late 1700s a member of the Houchin family found the cave while bear hunting. During the war of 1812 the cave was used as a saltpeter mine to aid in the production of gunpowder. After the war ended the cave became one of the nation’s first tourist attractions once the mummies were discovered. This was a period in history when the mummies were believed to be members of a lost race of people, rather than Native American ancestors which added to the mystery of the place. Affluent citizens from all over the country would come to tour the caves.
In 1839, the cave was even witness to good-old fashioned 19th century Quackery. A medical doctor from Louisville named Frank Gorin established a small village for tuberculosis patients inside the cave. At this point in history, no one had the slightest clue how to treat this fatal respiratory illness. Gorin believed that the pure air of the cave would help the lungs to battle infections. Those who didn’t leave the cave after a few weeks of the stale, gloomy darkness of the cave, died. Some of those who did die were discovered by tourists, as the tour routes wound right through the TB village. Much of this TB “hospital” still stands and can be seen on certain present-day cave tours.
In 1905 legendary cosmic horror author H.P. Lovecraft wrote one his earliest stories using Mammoth Cave as a sitting. In “The Beast in the Cave” a tourist gets separated from the group and finds himself stalked by a vicious albino hominid.
The Ghost of Floyd Collins
During the early 1920’s most of the caves were privately owned and more and more people were flocking to the area to vacation. So many entrances to the cave system had either been discovered or made, that dozens of caves were now competing for tourist dollars. A man named Floyd Collins owned a section called “Crystal Cave” but was losing out in what has now become known as the Kentucky Cave Wars. His cave was hard to get to and lacked lodging. He was losing money. Collins began excavating an entrance to Sand Cave, which he hoped would steal visitors from the then-privately owned Mammoth Cave. While excavating, an enormous boulder shifted, pinning him by the leg. He was found a day later and what followed was one of the nation’s first and most morbid media frenzies. Radio and newspapers carried regular updates on Collins’ predicament, and soon gawkers and well-wishers from all over were flocking to Central Kentucky to follow the drama. Hamburger and Hotdog stands popped up, and souvenirs were sold. Meanwhile rescuers were at a loss to move the boulder. Eventually, another cave-in occurred, blocking Collins off from all help. Now, he couldn’t even be saved by amputation. After two weeks, Collins died alone from exposure.
Sad, huh? Collins’ story doesn’t end there. Floyd was eventually removed from the cave after several years and interred in a family cemetery. Floyd’s father Lee sold the cave and property to a local dentist named Thomas, who somehow obtained permission to exhume Floyd’s body and put it on display in a glass-lid coffin in the entrance to Sand Cave, where hundreds of tourists could gawk at his decaying corpse. It gets weirder. Eventually, Floyd’s body was stolen—presumably by rival cave owners who were angry at the amount of tourists the body was attracting. After a few days his body was discovered in a field, minus one leg which was never recovered, and he was put back in his coffin in Sand Cave—now sans the viewing lid, though people still peeked inside. The National Park System bought Sand Cave in 1961 and closed the cave to tourists, but surprisingly, didn’t give Floyd a proper burial until 1989.
Not surprisingly, a plethora of ghostly activity is said to occur here. In areas associated with Floyd Collin’s grim demise, his voice has been heard calling for help, and objects have been thrown—it should be noted that in recent decades Floyd’s caves have been found to be connected to Mammoth Cave. Throughout other areas of the cave system apparitions have been seen, usually of African Americans. The cave’s earliest tour guides and explorers were all male African American slaves, and many even held church services with their families inside certain chambers.
Mammoth Cave Tour
On July 28th, 2013, my wife and I visited the cave and I experienced… absolutely nothing—nothing paranormal anyways. Tour groups usually consist of 100 tourists and 2-4 park rangers. Though rangers have reported bizarre experiences on tours, so many people in a relatively confined space do not allow for many paranormal encounters. The cave itself however, was amazing, and though I didn’t hear Floyd Collins’ cries for help or see a ghostly tour guide from the 1800’s, I left the cave in wonder.
After eating some delicious homemade BBQ in nearby Cave City, my wife and I headed back to Mammoth Cave National Park for a free guided surface walk. The destination this afternoon was Old Guide’s Cemetery, located very near the visitor’s center. This cemetery is where many of the cave’s first slave guides are buried, along with those who died in the long abandoned subterranean TB village. When we reached the cemetery I took photos of the graves, silently saying the guides names asking for a manifestation—nothing.
When the walk ended we decided that the legend trip had been a bust—though a fascinating and beautiful bust—and we would have to settle for the unbridled beauty of Mammoth Cave National Park. After looking over some brochures we decided the trail we’d like to hike before dark was Cedar Sink Trail. The trail is a 2 mile loop located about a 15 minute drive from the visitor’s center. The cave system is formed as water is taken into the ground, and over thousands of years, carves out the granite and limestone beneath the earth. Cedar Sink is an area where the underground rivers briefly emerge before soaking back into the earth. By the time we reached the trail the sky was starting to dim. About a quarter of a mile down the trail, my wife half-joked we’d end up stranded on the trail past dark. I laughed and added, “Yeah, with a bunch of Kentucky Bigfoot and weird cave ghosts roaming around.” She didn’t think that was very funny, so I shut up and we continued on.
About 10 minutes later she spotted some unusual looking plants growing alongside the trail. Unable to decide what they were, she started on again. I lingered a moment, staring at the patch of plants and taking in the scenery, when I saw something the likes of which I’ve never seen. Suddenly, amongst the mystery plants I clearly saw a woman’s face about three feet from the trail. Though I’m writing this article a full nine days after the encounter, I can still vividly picture it when I close my eyes. The woman appeared to be Caucasian or at the very least fair-skinned. She seemed to be in her late-20’s or early-30’s. Her hair was long and black, which she wore up in a bun, with one singular curl hanging down on her forehead. Her skin was a pale gray, her nose was thin, and her chin angular. The face was solid, but appeared flat and one dimensional. She wore a disinterested look on her face, reminiscent of faces from 19th Century photographs—a time when no one smiled for the camera because of exposure times that took minutes rather than split-seconds. For all intents and purposes it seemed like in the blink-of-an-eye someone had clipped a face from a vintage photo and imposed it front of the plants.
Though my description is lengthy, I probably only saw the face for a full second. Immediately after seeing the face I turned to follow my wife. It was as though my mind couldn’t interpret what I had seen quickly enough to keep my eyes on it. I immediately turned back to the plants and exclaimed “The Hell?!” My wife turned around alarmed and asked me what I had seen. I ignored her for several seconds and continued staring at the area, while I assume, she became thoroughly concerned about my mental health. When I finally told her what I saw, she began to get frightened, so I began to downplay the whole thing and we continued on our walk. I had no clue how long it’d take us to walk an unfamiliar two-mile trail, and I didn’t want her to have something to fixate one if we ended up walking back in the dark.
Since this event occurred, I’ve thought about it over-and-over again. The only times I’ve ever thought I saw an apparition was in my peripheral vision; something one can easily explain away. Though my sighting was brief, it was extremely vivid, I was looking right at it, the face was substantial, and it occurred in more-or-less broad daylight—twilight was still roughly 45 minutes to an hour away. I suppose it could have been a hallucination. Perhaps for reasons I don’t understand my mind pulled some stock-image from my subconscious memory. I’ve an interest in genealogy and antique stores, so old photographs are something I’m familiar with. However, this woman’s face didn’t seem familiar to me at all, and I’ve no clue why my mind would choose such a seemingly random image to display. Was it because I was subconsciously thinking about the alleged ghosts of Mammoth Cave? If so, you’d expect I would have imagined a white male like Floyd Collins, or at the very least an African American since that’s what is normally reported in the caves.
We continued our walk, marveled at Cedar Sink, and narrowly avoided a confrontation with a bear—we found large, fresh tracks on the trail as we hiked back out—but we didn’t experience anything else paranormal. If there is a moral this story, it’s that ghosts appear in unlikely places.
Between this one-in-a-lifetime experience and all my experiences at Waverly Hills Sanatorium in Louisville, my trip to Kentucky will live in my memory as the greatest legend trip ever. Kentucky, I will be back.