Articles & Stories

Mammoth Cave Hotel Destroyed

By Early Morning Fire In 1916

Twelve Original Hote Registers From 1853 To 1897

Were Mysteriously Saved From The 1916 Fire

By Bob Thompson - 2002

Mammoth Cave has been one of the outstanding scenic attractions of America since it was first shown commercially in 1816. Millions of visitors from all over the world have viewed the impressive natural features of the cave. Mammoth Cave was Kentucky's first tourist attraction and the second oldest in the United States, preceded only by Niagara Falls.
The journey to the cave was extremely difficult, until the completion of the L&N Railroad between Louisville and Nashville in 1859. The L&N Railroad brought visitors to Cave City or Glasgow Junction (now Park City), and from there by stagecoach to the cave. The earliest stagecoach line to Mammoth Cave was from Glasgow Junction (Bell's Tavern). A stage line from Cave City to Mammoth Cave was operated by a man by the name of Andy McCoy. He operated two coaches named the Florida and the John E. Bell.

These visitors of Mammoth Cave were guests at old Mammoth Cave Hotel on July 21, 1915. At this time the hote was considered one of finest hotels in thestate. the hotel originally started out as log cabins. (Photo courtesy of the author).

In an effort to get visitors to the cave, a more favorable and rapid means of transportation was needed. The L&N Railroad built a branch line of 8.7 miles from Glasgow Junction to Mammoth Cave and was opened on November 17, 1886. The Mammoth Cave Railroad purchased four secondhand dummy-type Baldwin locomotives for use on its railroad line. The Hercules (#3) claimed the greatest fame among the four locomotives. With the arrival of the first automobile on October 7, 1904, the last steam driven locomotive went over the Mammoth Cave Railroad in the 1920s and was replaced by a railbus until September 1, 1931, when service was discontinued.
The building of locks and dams on the Green River around 1906, brought steamboats and towboats from Bowling Green and Evansville to the cave. The Evansville & Bowling Green Packet Company had an "All River Excursion Route to Mammoth Cave" during the summer months on the steamboat Chaperon. The Myers Packet Co. also had a trip to the cave on the boat Leona.
Upon arriving at the cave, guests stayed at the Mammoth Cave Hotel, which was considered, at the time, one of the finest hotels in the state. The old hotel originally started as log cabins that were built and used by saltpeter miners around 1812. The cabins formed the core of the building. Then the cabins were connected and weather-boarded under the ownership of Franklin Gorin (1837-1839). Under the ownership of John Croghan (1839-1849), a larger two-story building was built, including a first floor dining room and a second floor ballroom. All the buildings were connected.
Mammoth Cave has had its share of hotel managers during its operation. After owner John Croghan died in 1849, he requested, in his will, to rent out the lands and buildings (except the cave) for terms of five years. Some of the hotel lessees include: William S. Miller, Sr., 1850-1856 and 1874-1878); Larkin J. Procter, 1856-1861 and 1866-1871; E. K. Owsley, 1861-1866; David L. Graves, 1871-1874; Francis Klett, 1878-1882; William Charley Comstock, 1882-1887; Henry C. Ganter, 1887-1902; and Willis W. Renshaw, 1902-1911. On December 9, 1916, the old Mammoth Cave Hotel was destroyed by fire. According to a newspaper article, all of the old hotel registers were destroyed in the fire.

Hercules at Mammoth Cave. From 1886 to 1929 a series of small trains called Hercules transported visitors from Glasgow Junction (now City Park) to Mammoth Cave. With the invention of the automobile and improved roads, Hercules became a memory of the past. (Photo courtesy of the author.)

The headline and story from The Louisville Times newspaper from Saturday, December 9, 1916, reads, "Mammoth Cave Hotel Destroyed By Fire, Historic Structure Caught Fire From an Unknown Source Early Saturday Morning. The original Mammoth Cave Hotel, a part of which was built in 1811, was entirely destroyed by fire, of unknown origin, which started at three o'clock this morning, consuming the hotel in two hours. There were no injuries sustained by the guests or employees, but many of the employees of the hotel lost all their personal belongings. All the registers of the hotel and cave, which contained perhaps the greatest collection in existence of the autograph signatures of famous men and women of this country and other parts of the world, were destroyed. The registers of the Mammoth Cave and the Mammoth Cave Hotel, which in part were more than a century old, contained the names of such famous personages as the late King Edward of England, Jenny Lind, Edwin Booth, the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia, and Don Pedro of Brazil."
Twelve of the "destroyed" Mammoth Cave Hotel registers have materialized and exist today in collections at the Kentucky Library, Western Kentucky University, in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and at Mammoth Cave National Park. These original hotel registers give us a glimpse into the day-by-day operations at Mammoth Cave over 100 years ago.
Two original hotel registers were donated to the Kentucky Library from an unknown source and at an unknown date. The earliest register dates from July 21, 1858, to December 22, 1860. The second register dates from March 15, 1862, to September 4, 1866.
Mammoth Cave National Park has 10 original hotel registers that date from 1883 to 1897. They were donated to the park by Ellis Jones of Cave City, Kentucky, in 1982. The registers and the years they cover are as follows: 1883-1887, compilation of all guests from this time period; August 19, 1883, to June 25, 1884; February 26, 1885, to August 6,1885; August 7, 1886, to December 31, 1886; January 1, 1888, to July 31, 1888; January 1, 1890 to August 31, 1890; July 11, 1891 to August 31, 1891; September 1, 1891 to February 19, 1892; and August 1, 1895, to December 1896 and 1897.
In August of 2002, I examined the two original Mammoth Cave Hotel registers in the Kentucky Library. They are in good condition, considering their age. They were printed by John P. Morton & Company, printers and binders, of Louisville, Kentucky. Some of the earliest books on Mammoth Cave were printed by Morton (with Griswold), including Rambles in the Mammoth Cave by Alexander Clark Bullitt in 1845 and The Mammoth Cave of Kentucky, An Illustrated Manuai by Horace Carter Hovey and Richard Ellsworth Call in 1897; with numerous reprints until 1912. Howard Clifton Griswold (1866-1941) headed the John P. Morton Company at the time Hovey and Call Manuai was published. There was also one piece of hotel stationary mixed between the pages of one of the registers that was also printed by Morton & Company.
The manager of the Mammoth Cave Hotel was written in the top header of the two registers. From the register of 1858-1860 was written, "Cave House, L. J. Procter, Proprietor." From the register of 1862-1866 was written, "E. K. Owsley." At the top of both hotel registers in a zebra wood font are the words, "Travelers' Register." Subtitles going across the register page from left to right are: "Arrival, Names, Residence, Destination, Room, and Remarks." The arrival dates of all visitors were put in the registers. There were days when the hotel did not receive any visitors, especially during the colder months of the year. For example, on April 13, 1862, was written "no arrivals on this day." Other days the hotel had maybe one or two visitors. Summer visitation at the cave was good, but there were also slow days for the usually busy months of June, July, and August. One of the best days found in the registers was on July 3, 1865, when the hotel received 59 guests.
Each of the guests signed the register and put in a place of residence, but rarely a destination. For most guests at this time, Mammoth Cave was the main destination for them. Because the hotel received few guests during this time, room numbers were rarely put in the registers, except for days when visitation was high. The remarks column of the 1858-1860 register was left mostly blank, whereas the 1862-1866 register had notes written in the column. The remark column was mostly used to state what trip the visitor took in the cave. At the time, there were only two different trips into the cave, the short route (about four hours) and the long route (about 10 hours). Each of the two trips took place in different parts of the cave. Sometimes when visitation was slow, the current weather would be placed in the column. For example, Saturday April 22, 1862, "cloudy and heavy rain." Other times, cave admissions ($2.00) were placed in the column. Other interesting notes in the 1862-1866 register include: "E. K. Owsley left for Bowling Green," and "Sent Mat (Bransford, cave guide) to Cave City today." Occasionally, poems were written by guests in the registers to express their experiences at the cave.
The two Mammoth Cave Registers at the Kentucky Library clearly show the diversity of visitors to the cave. There were many visitors from around Kentucky, as well as other states and Europe. Many of the signatures in the registers were from Civil War soldiers. Surprisingly, some visitors stayed at the hotel, but did not visit the cave. The $2 admission fee was considered a large sum of money at that time.
Some of the more prominent guests in the two Mammoth Cave Registers are signatures of photographers Adin F. Styles (written in the register as A. F. Styles) of Burlington, Vermont; Charles Waldack of Cincinnati, Ohio; and his assis-tants John R. Procter of Maysville, Kentucky; and John H. O'Shaughnessy of Newport, Kentucky; and Mandeville Thum (and family) of Louisville, Kentucky.
Photographer Adin F. Styles registered at the hotel on September 25, 1865. He stayed in room 23 of the Mammoth Cave Hotel and took the long route trip in the cave. During his visit, Styles photographed cave guides Mat and Nick Bransford together in front of the entrance to Mammoth Cave.
Photographer Charles Waldack registered at the hotel on June 14, 1866, and July 26, 1866. During his visit, Waldack took the first interior photographs of the cave. They were the first successful photographs taken underground in any cave and were a vital key in showing Mammoth Cave to the world. Waldack's assistant, John R. Procter, also registered on June 14, 1866 (his name came just before Waldack's). Waldack's other assistant, John O'Shaughnessy registered at the hotel on June 16, 1866, and July 13, 1866. John R. Procter was the nephew of Mammoth Cave Hotel manager, Larkin J. Procter, and was later, a geologist for the state of Kentucky. Photographer Mandeville Thum and Family registered at the hotel on July 26, 1860. It is not clear if he took photographs of the cave during his visit. All of Thum's photographs of the cave were copyrighted on November 22, 1876. Thum may have visited the cave with his family for the first time in 1860 and then returned later in 1876 to take photographs.
Prominent writers listed in the Mammoth Cave Hotel register included Professor Charles W. Wright of Louisville, Kentucky. He visited the cave many times when writing his early guidebooks to the cave, The Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, 1858, and A Guide Manual to the Mammoth Cave of Kentucky, 1860. Wright registered at the hotel on August 19, 1858; December 4, 1859; June 6, 1866; and June 14, 1866 (the same day as Charles Waldack). During this time, Wright also was known for his cave discoveries in Mammoth Cave, as well as a new cave near Mammoth called Richardson Cave (discovered on July 15, 1859, and now called Diamond Caverns).
Other prominent names in the two registers include: W. F. Bell and John Bell, August 15, 1858, of Three Forks, Kentucky (Bell's Tavern); and Courtland Prentice, August 15 and 22, 1858, son of George D. Prentice, editor of The Louisville Courier Journal. Prentice descended the Maelstrom, a deep pit in Mammoth Cave. Others names are George Procter, July 6, 1859, owner of Bell's Tavern and Diamond Caverns, and brother of Mammoth Cave manager, Larkin J. Procter; and T. (Thomas?) L. Bransford, July 27 and 30, 1860, of Nashville, Tennessee, possibly the owner of slave cave guides Mat and Nick Bransford, before they were sold to one-time owner of Mammoth Cave, Franklin Gorin, in 1838.
I also found the signature of Abraham Lincoln in one of the hotel registers. It read, "Abraham Lincoln, President of the U. States, 1863." In doing some research on Lincoln, I found his signature to be the most frequently forged autograph in America. Lincoln wrote with a strong and bold hand and signed his letters "A. Lincoln" and official documents as "Abraham Lincoln." In authentic Lincoln letters, the handwriting is quite illegible. If the writing is easy to read, it is a giveaway that it is not genuine. Is the signature in the old register genuine? You be the judge.
There are gaps between the Mammoth Cave National Park's 10 existing hotel registers from 1883 to 1897. There were no registers found for the years 1887, 1889, 1893, and 1894. The size of each hotel register varies. Some were large volumes, whereas others were very small. The 10 registers were either printed by John P. Morton or The Courier Journal. Register headings include: Name, Address, Party, Cave fees (names of routes listed and cost), Board and Room, Room, Breakfast, Dinner, Supper, Wines and Bar, Wash Bill, Stable, Bill, Fire, Costumes, Guide Books, Date departed, and Notes.
In Margaret Bridwell's book, The Story of Mammoth Cave National Park, 1952, she mentions in one of the hotel registers at Mammoth Cave under date of Monday, November 8, 1886, there is the name of the first passenger to ride on the Mammoth Cave Railroad, "November 8, Monday, W. F. Richardson, USA, 1st Passenger on Mammoth Cave Railroad (Ticket No. 1350) $3.00."
The only indication of how maybe the hotel register(s) were saved from the hotel fire of 1916 comes from the following newspaper. According to a letter in The Courier-Journal, on April 19, 1936, William P. Kendrick and some friends were at the old hotel the night of the fire. Here is his story, "About one a.m. we were awakened by a man shouting and running up and down the porches and knocking upon all the doors. We naturally thought that he was drunk and was playing a joke on us, but opening our eyes we found that the entire dining hall was ablaze, it being only two or three rooms away from ours. The rest of us, completely dressed, rushed out to see what we could save. The above-mentioned pieces of furniture, along with several other articles, one of which was the register, were carried out by Clem D. Johnston and myself. We later heard that the late King George himself signed this register along with many other notables."
In 1919, a new 22-room hotel was built at Mammoth Cave. The major portion of the new hotel was built in 1925, with an addition in 1930.
Special thanks to Pat Hodges, Coordinator, Manuscripts, Department of Library Special Collections, Kentucky Building, WKU Bowling Green, Kentucky; Terry Langford, Consultant Curator, Mammoth Cave National Park; and to my wife, Judi.

Bob Thompson, 7351 Cayman Way, Apt. 6, Maineville, OH 45039-9472.

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