By Bob Thompson - 2000
In the summer of 1990, Mammoth Cave National Park reopened to the public an historical, upper-level passage of the cave called Gothic Avenue. In this passage is a formation called the Bridal Altar. The altar is made up of three separate stalactites, which form a canopied, triangular chamber, beneath and between them. These three pillars symbolize the officiating clergyman, the bride, and groom.
Approximately, 16 weddings were held at the Bridal Altar, during the mid-1800s to early 1900s. The first Mammoth Cave wedding was conducted on April 29, 1851, and the last occurred on November 6, 1915.
In reference to some dated Mammoth Cave guidebooks, there were nine weddings between 1851-1892 (including a double marriage ceremony on November 12, 1879), three weddings between 1893-1897, and four weddings between 1898-1915. Guidebooks of the cave, as late as 1924, gave the number of weddings as 16.
Of the 16 weddings, only the last three were captured on camera: one was taken in 1908; the last two were photographed by Alfred V. Oldham, in 1912; and Mary D. Bullock, in 1915. Both photographers worked for the Royal Photo Company, of Louisville, Kentucky.
The following excerpt was taken from the book, "The Mammoth Cave of Kentucky: An Address Delivered Before the Young Men's Association of Burlington, New Jersey, January 1852," by Joseph Parrish, M.D., 1852. The book describes Parrish's 1851 visit to Mammoth Cave and briefly mentions the first wedding in the cave, which was held a month before his visit:
"Next, we enter a large elliptical-shaped room, called Gothic Chapel, with the richest stalactites festooning the ceiling, and falling in heavy columns to the floor of the apartment. In the center of the chapel, four columns unite at the top and seem to be designed to support the great arch.
"Under the principal arch stands the arm chair, a union of stalactite growth of this shape, in which a person may sit with tolerable ease; the pillars of the chair uniting at the top and forming an irregular canopy, reaching to the ceiling.
"The cave guide takes away the lights, ascends to a high gallery, and illuminates the whole apartment with a Bengal light. Its arched ceiling, fluted walls, and heavy pillars, blending together to perfect the style, are brought out in full view, and the beholder can scarcely realize that nature has been so bountiful in her displays of wonder, so far down, below the surface of the earth.
"But, so it is, the hand that clothed the landscape with beauty to gratify the eye and improve the taste has arched out of the bosom of the earth the richest architectural designs, to exalt the soul of man above himself and inspire his heart with gratitude. During the last month, this place has, for the first time within our knowledge, been appropriated for the accomplishment of the marriage ceremony. The following, from the Louisville Journal, is presented as evidence of the fact:
"Married, on the 29th of April, in the Gothic Chapel of the Mammoth Cave of Kentucky, by the Rev. Dr. Edgar, of Nashville, Tennessee: the Rev. J. H. Hall, of Bourbon County, to Miss Wealthy F. Pettingill, of Winthrop, Maine. The ceremony, we are told, was exceedingly solemn and impressive. After it was over, some beautiful verses by Mrs. Lydia H Sigourney, written for the occasion, were sung by the party, consisting of some 50 or 60 ladies and gentlemen."
At the Bridal Chamber, early cave guides shared the legend describing the circumstances of one wedding. A young girl is said to have made a promise to her dying mother that she would marry no man on the face of the earth. The service was held in Mammoth Cave at the Bridal Altar location, so that she could marry her beloved beneath the face of the earth and still keep the promise she had made to her mother.
Weddings ceased in the cave in 1941, when Mammoth Cave became a national park. A few years ago, one wedding party requested to be married inside the cave, but were informed that only a surface wedding could be performed. However, when violent weather threatened the spot selected on the surface, permission was granted to move the ceremony into the cave.
Today, there are commercial caves across the U. S. that will perform weddings to anyone who desires to be married underground. Many of them have their own "Bridal Altar."
Mammoth Cave was one of the first caves in the country to offer this unusual setting.