Mammoth Cave History

Here is a short history of Mammoth Cave, the longest cave system in the world. We are preparing a longer article on Mammoth Cave’s history, which we will post when it is available.

The large passageways that have made the cave famous began to form 1,000,000 BCE, as the limestone below sandstone and shale caprock began to erode. The first European settlers to find the cave did so in the 1790s, but they weren’t the first to enter the caves. Native Americans explored and mined Mammoth Cave for minerals between 2,000 and 5,000 BCE.

Since the caves had saltpeter, now known as potassium nitrate, they were used by Kentucky settlers in the manufacturer of their gunpowder. Mining would expand, as Mammoth Cave was used as a saltpeter mine during the War of 1812. The saltpeter was sent to gunpowder factories which were used in the American war efforts against the British.

The first known commercial tour of Mammoth Cave was in 1816. In 1838, slave Stephen Bishop became a cave guide. He was in his late teens when he started as a guide and would go on to become one of the caves greatest explorers. Bishop crossed the Bottomless Pit and discovered such famous places as Fat Man’s Misery, the Mammoth Dome and Cleaveland Avenue. He was given his freedom in 1856 and died in July 1857 at the age of 37. He is buried in the Old Guide’s Cemetery at Mammoth Cave National Park.

Mammoth Cave also had other uses back then. In 1834, religious services were held in the cave by George S. Gatewood at a spot later known as Methodist Church. In 1842, tuberculosis patients were housed in the cave as part of an experiment speculating that the cave air could cure TB.

The first photographs taken in the cave occurred in 1866 by Charles Waldach. Later, Frances Benjamin Johnston extensively photographed Mammoth Cave in 1891 using a new technique of pyrotechnic powders mixed with newspaper which were lit prior to snapping the picture.

The old Mammoth Cave Hotel was destroyed by fire in the late 1910s when it was around 100 years old. Located outside of the historic entrance, the current Lodge was built in the 1960s. The name was changed because most of the guest rooms have been closed and lodging occurs in cabins instead.

In 1917, the first electric lights in Mammoth Cave were installed in Cleaveland Avenue. Cave guides now turn on the lights as a tour reaches each section and turn off the lights from the previous section. In some cave tours, like the Great Onyx tour, guests carry oil lanterns to light their way instead.

At one time, the park also offered the opportunity to eat a meal underground. In 1935, the first all day tour from the Natural Entrance to the Frozen Niagara Entrance was conducted, with the Snowball Dining Room opened to serve food for these tours. The dining room is no longer open, due to the environmental impact on the cave, but is the location of a stop on the Grand Avenue Tour.

The national park was established with 45,310 acres on July 1, 1941. The park was dedicated on September 18, 1946. More than 2 million visitors enter the park annually now and the park provides tours to around 500,000 people a year.

In 2009, procedures to contain the spread of White-Nose Syndrome were started at Mammoth to prevent the spread of the illness to the cave’s bat population. In 2013, the park’s superintendent confirmed the first case of symptoms of white-nose syndrome in a northern long-eared bat in Long Cave in the park. Long Cave was not open to the public at the time. Since, some bat species in the park declined as much as 80 percent in the following two years. The little brown bat and the tricolored bat populations have now declined over 90%.