Entering into my final week here, I have really seen and done a lot! My mom came down to visit on Saturday and we did all things Floyd Collins related (see my last post!) much to her delight. Floyd’s sad story has captivated her imagination since she was a child. I was only too happy to indulge!
On Sunday, I was faced with a day alone and decided to get out of the park a bit and take in some of what lies beyond the boundaries of Mammoth Cave. I settled on Diamond Caverns due to their historic relationship to mammoth and because it wasn’t too far afield. It is a lovely little cave filled with all sorts of formations you won’t find in the majority of Mammoth. It is most definitely worth a visit. I was incredibly inspired by surface textures and all of nature’s sculptures.
Diamond Caverns is located in Park City which itself is filled with all sorts of Kentucky cave related history. One such historic hot-spot is Bell’s Tavern. Now in ruins, it was once the last stop before the final rough trudge into the wilderness where Mammoth Cave was located.
Mammoth Cave is one big ol’ long cave. It has awesome geologically and ecologically relevant stuff that could keep scientists busy forever. But to quote my new friend Joy Lyons who heads up the rangers in charge of interpretation, it’s the history that makes Mammoth Cave special in the long run. That history is everywhere. From the way you could tell where the homesteads had been on my hike to the Big White Pine by virtue of what trees had been planted and where, to Bell’s Tavern, to my adventure today to Pensaco.
Here’s the back story. In 1842, physician John Croghan decided too try an experiment inside Mammoth Cave based upon observations he had made of people working inside of the cave. These workers, mainly slaves, seemed so robust for all of their time spent underground. The temperature and humidity was very stable in the cave. These notions led Dr. Croghan to believe that he could potentially cure Tuberculosis in his patients and set about finding willing participants for an extended stay underground in Mammoth Cave. To put it plainly, the experiment was a huge failure. Some patients died while in the cave, others eventually left to try and find relief for their ailments in other circumstances. The stories of these patients became part of the history that makes Mammoth Cave the American gem that it is. Some of the nameless are buried here in the park. Who were they? Mostly, we do not know.
We are left with some clues though. A few of the patients left behind letters to loved ones about their experiences and journals of their time here. One such man was Oliver Hazard Perry Anderson. OHP for short. OHP was the one patient cave historians seemed to know the most about and were therefore delighted when his great-great grandson arrived with some old journals to share. Today I had the honor and privilege to go on a specially guided cave tour, off the normal tourist route, with OHP’s family to walk in his footsteps and locate his signatures inside the cave and where he is believed to have lived.
Below are some pictures from our trip.
We walked in via the regular historic entrance, one of my favorite places in the park, and through now familiar landmarks such as “The Church” where services were often held inside the cave on warm days. A little bit further on, we encountered the stone tuberculosis huts where Dr. Croghan had his office and patients took meals.
The Anderson’s began looking for clues. The rangers had been in a few days earlier and located some of the evidence of OHP having been in certain areas of the cave. Soon, we were upon the first signature.
After the first signature, we turned off of the main trail onto Pensaco Avenue which is no longer traveled by tourists.
Using flashlights and lanterns we admired wonderful canyons and tube passages.
We found evidence of old tours from before Mammoth Cave was a national park.
We even spotted some bats here and there.
There is plenty of what is called ‘historical graffiti’ in the cave. (Rangers like to say ‘now it’s called a felony’). One name that came up a lot among the signatures was that of Alfred who was apparently a very lively slave guide who from all accounts was a good deal of fun to be around. I’d like to have met him.
We found a Bransford signature as well. These folks all knew each other and knew the cave well.
Often times there were so many signatures that I was surprised any sense was ever made of them.
But eventually, we came to signature number 2 by OHP, written Dec. 23, 1842. It’s two days before Christmas and he must have been missing his wife and three kids at home. But he was in the cave to try to improve his health. Maybe he joined a cave tour that day with Stephen Bishop or another guide. OHP may have been ill, but it seems that when he felt up to it, he was quite an adventurer, content to live well away from the smoky and crowded TB hospital area where the other patients were. This particular signature had an emotional effect on our entire group as we pondered what it must have been like to be Mr. Anderson.
We eventually came to the end of Pensaco Avenue and a third signature by OHP. There may be more in the cave but they have not been identified as of yet. One thing I love about Mammoth Cave is that the discoveries and research just keep happening, and there is always something interesting to discover.
History is a funny thing. So much of it is taught via books or videos and, at least in my school days, it all seemed so far removed from our modern human experience. A friend of mine is a history teacher and he has been utilizing a series of books called “you wouldn’t want to be…” Recently his use of these books was called into question due to a parent’s (not a student’s, mind you) difficulty with how ‘real’ these books make certain historical scenarios for kids. To me, the more real, the better. If we can humanize historical figures, whether they are distant relatives or the people who shaped our world today, then perhaps we can walk this world as kinder, wiser human beings. I wish all teachers would use the ‘You wouldn’t want to be’ series.
I’m pretty certain you wouldn’t want to be a tuberculosis patient living in Mammoth Cave in the 1800’s. It must have been terribly lonely and difficult. But hope springs eternal in the human spirit and I found myself genuinely intrigued by Oliver Hazard Perry Anderson. It was an honor to meet his offspring and accompany them on this journey back in time.