Early Writers Flocked To Mammoth Cave


By Bob Thompson - 2000

More has been written about Mammoth Cave National Park than any other cave system in the world. Since the beginning of guided tours in 1816, the cave has hosted a number of prominent writers, doctors, surveyors, preachers, naturalists, and historians. The one thing they all had in common was the desire to see, learn, and write about the cave. Each individual penned personal and detailed accounts of the cave, which were published in books, magazines, and newspapers.

One of the earliest accounts was by Dr. Robert Montgomery Bird (1806-1854) of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Bird came to Mammoth Cave in the summers of 1833 and 1835 and stayed at the Gatewood House. Mr. Gatewood, who owned the cave at the time, built a log house tavern about 100 yards from the cave's entrance (where the Mammoth Cave Hotel is today).

Bird's description of Mammoth Cave was published in 1838 in the book, Peter Pilgrim, or A Rambler's Recollections. Quoting from his book, "The Mammoth Cave is still the monarch of caves. None that have ever been measured can at all compare with it. Even in extent, in grandeur; in wild, solemn, severe, unadorned majesty, it stands entirely alone. It has no brother; it is like no brother."

A year before Peter Pilgrim, Bird also wrote about the 1780s settlement of Kentucky, in what is considered his best-known novel, Nick of the Woods. Bird complemented his literary career as a professor of medicine, an editor, a farmer, and a politician, as well as an accomplished artist. He actively made sketches and drawings of his travels of America (including Mammoth Cave) and Europe.

In 1839, the Rev. Robert Davidson (1808-1876) visited Mammoth Cave and wrote, not only about the cave, but also about the early history of Kentucky. In his 1840 book, The Mammoth Cave And The Barrens Of Kentucky, with some notices of the early settlement of the state, he talks about the new owner of Mammoth Cave, John Croghan (1790-1849); a physician from Louisville, Kentucky; and Stephen Bishop (1821-1857), the famous cave guide, who came to the cave in 1838 with Franklin Gorin (1798-1877) of Glasgow, Kentucky, then owner of Mammoth Cave.

In 1844, Alexander Clark Bullitt (1807-1868), of Louisville, Kentucky, came to Mammoth Cave and wrote one of the classic books about the cave, Rambles In The Mammoth Cave, During the Year 1844, By A Visitor, 1845. Bullitt had worked as a journalist for the Louisville Journal and was friends with cave owner John Croghan.

Even though Mammoth Cave was mentioned in books before this time, this was the first book that was written exclusively for the cave. Also, in the book was a map of the cave drawn by Stephen Bishop, and it was one of the first books to feature engravings of the cave.

The Rev. Horace Martin saw Mammoth Cave in 1851 and wrote the book, Pictorial Guide To The Mammoth Cave. In the first part of the book, he wrote a chapter about Jenny Lind (1820-1887), "the Swedish Nightingale," who visited the cave on April 5, 1851. Martin also describes the new hotel that was built under the ownership of John Croghan, who passed away in 1849. The manager of the hotel and cave during Martin's visit was William S. Miller, Sr.

From Martin's writings, "The hotel is two stories high and 200 feet long, with brick buildings at each extremity showing their gable ends in front. The space between is occupied by a long wooden building, with a piazza and galley over it. At the end of the hotel runs a long row of log houses with colonnades in front, the entire length, which must be near 200 feet."

In June 1852, Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806-1867) arrived at Mammoth Cave. As an editor and author from Portland, Maine, he won great popularity in his time for his even, sentimental style of writing. Willis' two favorite writing subjects were home and travel. His 1853 book, Health Trip To The Tropics, included five letters addressed to George P. Morris, talking about Mammoth Cave and his trip through it with guide Stephen Bishop. Included in these letters was a description of the proper dress for the cave.

From Willis' book, "There is an extraordinary uniform provided by the hotel for visitors to the cave. At one end of the long hall is a row of pegs, where hang the articles for ladies, and at the other end are pegs for gentlemen. A stuffed skull cap, of mustard-colored flannel, is worn by ladies. Short-skirted petticoats, of the same mustard-colored flannel, are provided to be worn with trousers of the same. Gentlemen wear the skull cap, sometimes, and a short devil-may-care is generally worn."

Willis' book gave the profiles of his life. He contributed material to various early periodicals, including The Home Journal, and wrote some original poetry.

The world traveler, Bayard Taylor (1825-1878), visited Mammoth Cave in May 1855. He was a realistic writer from Pennsylvania. Early in life, Taylor had two ambitions: to travel and become a poet. In his 1860 book, At Home And Abroad, Taylor describes his walk to the cave:

"Turning around the hotel, to the northward, we entered a rocky ravine in the forest, and in a few minutes were made aware by a gust of cold wind that we had reached the entrance to the underground world. Taking each a lighted lamp, we descended some rocky steps to the floor of the cavern, passed behind the tinkling cascade, and plunged into the darkness."

Cave guides Stephen Bishop and Mat Bransford escorted Taylor through the cave. Taylor produced his first novel in 1863. In the latter part of his life, he wrote volumes of poetry.

In the spring of 1867, Dr. William Stump Forwood (1830-1892) visited Mammoth Cave. As a physician and local historian from Darlington, Maryland, he published articles in medical journals on a variety of subjects. Forwood's interest in history spread south to Mammoth Cave, as he wrote the 1870 book, An Historical And Descriptive Narrative Of The Mammoth Cave Of Kentucky. Included in the book were 12 engravings that were taken from the first photographs ever made in the cave. They were taken in 1866, by Charles Waldack of Cincinnati, Ohio. In the book, Forwood quoted, profusely, from past books, letters, and newspapers, written up until the publication of his book.

Forwood delayed the book for three years in order to gather as much information on the cave as he could. He also had to settle a lawsuit involving the book before it could be published. At the time, Larkin J. Procter was manager of the hotel and cave, and guide Charles Meredith escorted Forwood through the cave.

John Muir (1838-1914) was America's most famous and influential naturalist and conservationist. Originally from Dunbar, Scotland, Muir visited Mammoth Cave on September 6, 1867. Unfortunately, in his 1916 book, A Thousand-Mile Walk To The Gulf, he only briefly mentions the cave, before moving on:

"Arrived at the great Mammoth Cave. I was surprised to find it so completely natural. The cave has been unimproved, and were it not for the narrow trail that leads down the glen to its door, one would not know that it had been visited. There are house-rooms and halls, whose entrances give but slight hint of their grandeur."

Muir taught the people of his time the importance of having and protecting our natural heritage. His words have raised our awareness of nature and the need to conserve it.

Horace Carter Hovey (1833-1914) was considered to be the father of modern American cave exploration. He was an explorer, geologist, and author, as well as a Presbyterian minister from western Indiana. His writings and lectures on caves stimulated wide enthusiasm across the country.

Hovey visited Mammoth Cave in 1878 as a correspondent for Scribner's Magazine. He wrote an article for the magazine about the cave in 1880, but the bulk of his work was published in the 1882 book, Celebrated American Caverns, which featured not only Mammoth Cave, but also caves across America. Also, during this time, his descriptive guide book on Mammoth Cave was published and reprinted numerous times though 1895.

Hovey co-authored, in 1897, with Richard Ellsworth Call (1856-1917) for the guidebook, The Mammoth Cave Of Kentucky, An Illustrated Manual. It was reprinted until 1906, including a revised edition in 1912.

Even though there were other books published on Mammoth Cave between this time, Hovey's guidebooks on Mammoth Cave were around for approximately 30 years. Included in these books were great photos by photographer Ben Hains of New Albany, Indiana. He explored and visited hundreds of caverns around the world during his lifetime, but Mammoth Cave was his favorite. He spent more time visiting and writing about it than any other cave.

During Hovey's years at Mammoth Cave, his main cave guides were Tom Lee and John Nelson. The managers of the hotel and cave, during Hovey's visits, were Francis Klett (hotel circa 1878-1882), William Charley Comstock (hotel circa 1882-1887), and Henry C. Ganter (hotel circa 1887-1902, cave circa 1878-1902).

Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952) is believed to have been the first woman to have produced photographs underground. Her primary work consists of magazines, portraits, and social and architectural documentation. She began experimenting with photography in 1885 and opened a professional studio in Washington, D. C., in 1890.

Although she is best known for her photography, Johnston was also a noted writer. From Grafton, West Virginia, she came to Mammoth Cave in 1891 on a commission from Demorest's Family Magazine. She wrote the text and took the photographs for the June 1892 Demorest's article, and for her 1893 book, Mammoth Cave By Flash-Light.

Wearing a bloomer outfit that was provided by the management of the cave, she and her companions were escorted through the cave by guide William Garvin. Later in life, Johnston photographed prominent members of Washington's political and social circles. She also did a series of articles on women photographers for the Ladies' Home Journal.

Other important 19th century authors of Mammoth Cave include Lewis Collins (1850), Charles W. Wright (1860), Adam D. Binkerd, M. D. (1869 and 1888), Thomas Knox (1879), John Thompson (1879), and James Hoyes Panton (1890).

Even before the 20th century, the interest to write about the cave was overwhelming. The 20th century authors brought even more attention to Mammoth Cave, but that is another story.


Bob Thompson, P. O. Box 20, Kings Mills, OH 45034-0020, phone: 513-459-9275, email: bhthompson@aol.com, shares this story and photographs with our readers.