Original publish date: August 22, 2019
Last month Rhonda and I once again traveled the route of the World’s Longest Yard Sale along Highway 127 in Kentucky and Tennessee. Once again we started just south of Cincinnati and made our way to Crossville Tennessee. We set out on Wednesday morning and by Friday morning we had had enough. It has been our experience that after noon on Friday it becomes a frustrating route of diminishing returns. Traffic slows to a crawl, parking becomes a problem and our patience becomes frayed like an old pair of blue jean cut offs. Don’t even get me started on Saturday. You’re a better man than me if you can survive a Saturday on the 127.
So this year we decided to veer off to Cave City, Kentucky on Friday afternoon and chase the ghost of old Floyd Collins. I’ve always found myself drawn to antiheroes. The men and women who manage to achieve notoriety and great things while orbiting around the fringe of establishment. Some of these personalities seem to be predestined for greatness while others seem to succeed in spite of themselves. Not to be confused with an underdog, an antihero is often doomed to be critiqued (and sometimes ostracized) by people whose achievements would never stack up over a lifetime.
Floyd Collins is one of those people. Collins was long, lean, logical and legendary. He remains history’s most famous spelunker. Not only because of the way he lived, but also because of the way he died. William Floyd Collins was born on July 20, 1887 in Auburn, Kentucky. He was the third child of Leonidas Collins and Martha Jane Burnett. Collins had five brothers and two sisters, including another brother named Floyd. Which was not uncommon for the time as frontier families often feared that a child might not survive to adulthood.
Central Kentucky, nestled firmly in America’s limestone belt, is not the best for farming. The soil is poor and thin and the bluegrass it produces is best for livestock grazing rather than crop production. However it does produce some of the best caves in the world.
Floyd’s Central Kentucky home rested smack dab in the middle of a region riddled by hundreds of miles of interconnected caverns, most notable of which is Mammoth Cave National Park, the longest cave system in the world. Mammoth Cave became an unlikely tourist attraction after the War of 1812 when British soldiers ventured into it. Soon several other caves opened to serve the adventure seeking tourist. At that time the region represented the far westernmost frontier and a trip to an underground cave system was the capstone to a thrill seeking adventure. The roads, little more than livestock paths back then, were in rough shape and accommodations were scant. Eventually a train was put in that would stop at the various caves and a series of grand hotels were constructed.
The biggest business in the area was Mammoth Cave, but there were others: Great Onyx Cave, Colossal Cavern, Great Crystal Cave, Dorsey Cave, Salt Cave, Indian Cave, Parlor Cave, Diamond Cave, and Doyles Cave. These holes were all owned and operated by men who charged admission to the visiting tourists who were more than happy to pay for the privilege. At the center of it all was Cave City. Here was the depot that brought wealthy visitors in on the hour, all hungry for adventure. And Cave City residents were more than happy to assist these gullible visitors by relieving them of their cash. As we will see later in this article, not much has changed in 200 years.
From his earliest days, Collins spent his time crouching, crawling and slithering on his belly through holes that a groundhog would find challenging to navigate. Floyd learned early that “there was money in them-there holes.” Floyd spent his time through those damp, dark holes collecting arrowheads, “Tommyhawks” and moccasins to sell to the visitors by the pocketful. In time, visiting professors from American colleges and universities discovered the young spelunker’s talent for acquisition and offered good sums of money for any Native American Indian artifact that Floyd would send them. Some of Floyd’s discoveries can be found in the Chicago Field Museum to this day. Floyd was particularly active in the wintertime. He would walk for miles up and down the bluegrass hills looking for telltale puffs of smoke rising from the ground. Floyd knew it was steam rising from an underground passage that just might lead to the next great cave.
Floyd, a loner, would often disappear into the underground mazes for hours to explore cracks, crevices and sink-holes, only to unexpectedly pop up in a field or woodlot several miles from his point of entry. Collins usually took along a lantern, a can or two of beans, 70 feet of rope, and a compass on those solitary expeditions. The compass wasn’t to guide him, he claimed, but instead was a good luck charm. Although known as history’s greatest spelunker, Collins broke every rule of caving. He always traveled alone, never told anyone where he was going, always covered his tracks, often caved at night and followed water and, to his ultimate doom, to Floyd every discovery was kept a closely guarded secret.
Collins first tasted celebrity when he discovered Crystal Cave in 1917 when he discovered Crystal Cave (now part of the Flint Ridge Cave System of the Mammoth Cave National Park). Twenty-seven year old Collins had chased a ground hog down a hole on his father’s farm. The hole turned out to be a passage to a large cavern Floyd called “White Crystal Cave”. He owned one half and his father owned the other. They went into business, selling options on the cave to a neighbor named Johnny Gerald who’d made a little money buying and selling tobacco. Johnny and Floyd took turns; one of them stood on the side of the road and tried to talk the tourists inside; the other guided them through the cave’s.
The pair worked unceasingly and spent every dime they had to open their new White Crystal Cave and make it accessible to visitors. It was Floyd who came up with the colorful names for the interior cave formations designed to dazzle visitors. In the decade after World War I, many generations of cavers followed Floyd down the Valley of Decision to the Devil’s Kitchen, left though the Gypsum Route to the Scotchman’s Trap to where the cave REALLY begins, eventually leading through the bowels of Flint Ridge to the surrounding caves. Floyd’s tour led his guests down Grand Canyon Avenue to see Nanny Ramsey’s Flower Garden of gypsum crystals and, much to the dismay of its owners, Floyd’s route eventually connected to Mammoth Cave.
Soon the Collins family found themselves smack dab in the middle of the “Cave Wars” of the early 1920s, where Central Kentucky cave owners and explorers entered into a bitter competition to exploit the bounty of caves for commercial profit. Trouble was, Crystal Cave was the last cave on the road from Cave City. By the time tourists discovered it, they were out of money and interest. During the Cave War years, cave owners competed bitterly among each other in order to bring in visitors. The most common tactic was to deploy a man, referred to as a “capper”, who would suddenly rush out of the bushes, hop onto your car’s running board along the rugged road out to Mammoth to excitedly inform you that Mammoth had collapsed or was under quarantine from Consumption (now known as Tuberculosis) and would persuade you to visit their cave instead.
During the Cave Wars era, if someone finds an entrance to your cave on their property there was nothing to prevent them from exploiting that entrance and making money off of your find. So Floyd, who’s Crystal Cave was the back door entrance to Mammoth, was constantly on the lookout for an undiscovered “new front door” to Mammoth Cave. In the winter of 1925 Floyd decided to take a gamble on an overhanging sandstone ledge that contained a small, already known cave on the property of Bee Doyle. The site would be the first cave tourists would see on the road to Mammoth from Cave City. Collins and Doyle had agreed that, if a new entrance could be found, they would split the profits 50/50.
On January 30, 1925, true to form, ventured alone into “Sand Cave” in search of that new entrance. Floyd had known of this spot since his childhood days and had already done some preliminary work with a stick of dynamite to dislodge a couple of huge precariously perched boulders that guarded the entrance. The Sand Cave site is nestled in a wooded surrounding, hidden by sandstone ledges of overhanging rock, each sheltering a crescent-shaped spot. The constant dripping of water leeching through the sandstone keeps the moist soil cool and plantless. That day, Floyd, with rope and lantern, entered the tight, mud-lined passage alone and unnoticed. The 150 foot claustrophobic mud slick tube could only be slithered through in most spots, with little room to crawl, let alone sit up or stand. It was absolute darkness and the damp, rock-strewn passage turned, narrowed or switched back underneath itself, and at times, Floyd, unable to turn around, was forced to wriggle upside down to traverse its depths.
Floyd had been down this far before, having earlier removed some large stones and other obstructions that revealed a 10-foot-long chute so tight and steeply sloped, that Floyd knew he had to drop into it feet first for risk of being unable to push himself up and backward to a turnaround spot. Floyd dropped down the chute, where, at the bottom he worked his hobnailed boots into a narrow crevice, referred to as a “pinch” by cavers, met the chute horizontally at 90 degrees. Collins believed this spot to be the final secret link into a much larger cavern below, as he could feel the cave winds blow as he inched his feet farther into it. The coffin like crevice rose only about six inches above Floyd’s chest, tight on each side, and perhaps ten feet long before it opened onto a wide ledge overlooking a 60-foot drop.
Floyd was encased under a 4′ x 4′ square, two ton block of solid limestone ceiling, the sidewalls of the tunnel were composed of loose stones, pebbles, sand and mud. Floyd was careful to avoid bumping or displacing anything likely to cause a collapse. Collins made it through, muddy, soaked and sweating, after leaving his securely attached rope for a future trip into the 60-foot precipice he had yet to see. He wriggled head first back into the tight gravelly crevice leading to the steep, serpentine chute he’d just come in by. Pushing the kerosene lantern ahead of him as far as he could, he would then twist and squirm, shrugging ahead inch by inch till reaching the lantern before repeating the pattern by pushing ahead. Suddenly, Floyd’s lantern fell over, broke and went out.
Normally, the cave-savvy Floyd would take it in stride, but this development was unnerving. On his way into the tight pinch Floyd had noticed a peculiar hanging stone and had been particularly careful not to disturb it. Now, while he “crawfished” backward in the dark, his knee dislodged the 27-pound rock which dropped, wedging his left foot into v-shaped groove in the floor of the passage like a guillotine. His progress halted, Floyd lay on his back, tilted to his left at a 45 degree angle, his arms pinned down to his sides, and a solid limestone block five inches above his face. With lime water dripping maddeningly onto his face, Floyd discovered that the more he struggled, the more loose stone and dirt settled around him. Soon he was frozen in place. Floyd Collins was trapped in a narrow crawlway, 55 feet underground, and to make matters worse, no one knew he was there.
Next Week- Part II- Floyd Collins-Legendary Spelunker