Original publish date: September 5, 2019
After 230 hours trapped in a Central Kentucky 55 feet underground, Floyd Collins was no closer to rescue than he had been when he first entered Sand Cave on January 30, 1925. The previous 10 days were a media circus: reporters, photographers, sketch artists, telegraph operators, and radio operators from all over the country stormed Cave City. By now, Floyd’s makeshift grave was shielded by a large white tarpaulin hung over the opening with “country gutters” ringing its edges, but these makeshift rigging’s were not enough to stop the pools of frigid water from soaking the men working at the bottom. The sound of gas powered generators shook the earth as pumps struggled to keep the water from trickling down on the now world-famous spelunker.
On Wednesday, February 11, 1925, those rain showers turned into snow flurries. Now fingers, toes, noses and cave-trickle froze solid, only to thaw in time, turning the shaft, boulders and cave walls into a slimy death chute. Above ground, Lee Collins wandered through the crowd aimlessly, begging visitors for donations, which only sparked conspiratorial theories that the whole thing was a hoax. Reporters crowded the barbed wire fence surrounding Sand Cave. Over two dozens telegraph operators stood by as did seven in a nearby pasture, ready to transport dispatches and photographs to distant newsrooms.
After seventeen days trapped in the shaft, twelve without food or water, rescuers finally broke through. It was 1:30 p.m. on Monday February 16, 411 hour after Floyd Collins became trapped. Cave rescuer Ed Brenner flashed his lantern into the darkness and carefully eased himself into the cave. Skeets Miller later reported, “For the next five minutes those remaining in the shaft proper watched that hole without blinking.” Once inside, Brenner aimed his light at the trapped man and saw a glimmer. A glimmer much different from the cave crickets and crystals all Central Kentucky cavers were used to seeing. It was Floyd Collins’ gold tooth shimmering in the light, and it was not moving. Brenner turned his head back to his fellow rescuers, shook his head, and hollered “Dead.” Floyd had lost his battle with Sand Cave.
The coroner. Dr. C.C. Howard of Glasgow, declared that Collins had died of thirst and hunger compounded by exposure through hypothermia just three days before the rescue shaft reached his position. Another physician contradicted Dr. Howard by claiming that Floyd had been dead five days and noting that Floyd’s “face was sharp and pointed; he had jaws like a bulldog. A sharp nose, a high forehead. His eyes were sunk and his mouth was open. His hair was black. I took his head in my hands and … washed his face.”
On Tuesday, February 17, newsreel cameras filmed the weary Collins family as it said goodbye to their son and brother. A choir sang “Nearer, My God, To Thee” the very hymn Collins loved playing on his old stalactite xylophone. They left Floyd where he was, buried in the shaft. The people in Cave City figured there’d been sixty thousand tourists. The governor said operations had cost the state over twenty-five thousand dollars. After the reporters and tourists left, the hillside looked like a battlefield as silence returned to the Kentucky hills. After the jaws of the earth finally swallowed her prey, Cave City returned to normal. The name Floyd Collins-front page headlines for two weeks- was pushed out of the public eye by news of a mine explosion in Sullivan, Indiana, barely 200 miles northwest of Sand Cave. It was the Hoosier state’s worst mine disaster ever, killing 51 miners on February 20th, 1925. A mine was like a cave, and apparently, the world had had enough news of death down under.
Bee Doyle, the owner of Sand Cave, erected a sign on the highway proclaiming, “200 YARDS AWAY THE BODY OF FLOYD COLLINS IS IMPRISONED IN SAND CAVE.” For 50 cents, tourists could walk down the muddy path to stare at the gaping hole that swallowed Doyle’s former partner & friend. An agitated Homer Collins signed a vaudeville contract and traveled the country for eight months, regaling packed stages with Floyd’s story. Contrary to what some believed, Homer’s performances were not for personal gain. The sibling used the proceeds to fulfill a vow to get his brother out. “I kept thinking of Floyd lying in the muck where he had suffered beyond our power to imagine,” Homer decreed. “I would never have peace of mind if he remained there.” On April 17, seven local coal miners reopened the shaft and descended into Sand Cave. A week later, on April 25th, they removed the 27-pound rock pinning Floyd’s leg. The next day, Floyd’s casketed body was buried on the Collins farm.
As springtime returned to the Kentucky hills, the Collins family melted back into their rocky, hillside farm; no richer from the limelight. After the crowds departed, locals saw old man Lee scouring the rescue site for glass bottles to return for deposit. Two years later, in 1927, a struggling Lee Collins sold Crystal Cave to a dentist named Dr. Harry B. Thomas. The sale included White Crystal cave and the burial site of Floyd Collins. Lee’s $10,000 deal with Dr. Thomas included a morbid clause: that his son’s body could be exhumed and displayed in a glass-covered coffin inside the cavern. The enterprising country doctor quickly dug the dead man up and placed Floyd’s encased body on display in Crystal Cave. The gimmick worked and, much to the horror of Floyd’s friends and the Collins family, tourists flocked to Crystal Cave to view the embalmed body of the man now known as the “Greatest Cave Explorer Ever Known.”
Sometime in the wee hours of March 18-19, 1929, Floyd’s body was stolen. The grave robbers “rescued” Collins’s corpse with the intentions of chucking him into the Green River, but Floyd’s body got tangled in the heavy underbrush and Dr. Thomas recovered the remains from a nearby field, minus his injured left leg. The remains were re-interned in a chained casket and placed in a secluded portion of Crystal Cave dubbed the “Grand Canyon”. A half-a-year later, the Great Depression blanketed the country and Floyd Collins’ saga was now a forgotten footnote. Times in Cave City got tough. Tourism plummeted-the same limelight that drew tourists innumerable to the Kentucky cave region now caused visitors to avoid it. As tourism dollars dried up, the sleazy tricks of local cave owners intensified. That feeling pervades Cave City today.
Thirty-two years later, in 1961, the National Park Service purchased the land including the Sand Cave property and, eventually the Collins’ Homestead and Crystal Cave (with Collins still encased inside). The NPS closed the Grand Canyon tomb of the legendary spelunker and choked off public access, although a few enterprising cavers still made their way to Floyd’s casket, now marked with a proper tombstone. In 1989, at the urging of the Collins family, the body was re-interred at Mammoth Cave Baptist Church. There his body rests today under the very same tombstone that once adorned his macabre underground tourist attraction for all those years.
By that time, a half-century after his death and the end of the Cave Wars, Floyd Collins’ prophecies of underground riches were confirmed. Crystal Cave’s NPS pricetag, $285,000 (more than $2 million today), exceeds Floyd’s wildest dreams. Collins’s hunch that the caves in the region were all inter-connected was also confirmed by professional cavers who discovered 405 miles of passageways making the Mammoth Cave-Flint Ridge-Joppa Ridge System the world’s longest. Floyd Collins’ sand cave, however, remains isolated. Near the Mammoth Cave welcome sign, visitors pass a gravel covered curved pull-off. At the mouth of which exists a winding wooden boardwalk that quickly disappears under a canopy of oak trees. The path, often deserted, dead-ends at an overlook that gazes down into a sinkhole ringed by a conspicuous lip of crescent-shaped rock. Moss covered ledges now disguise the dark chamber that was once Sand Cave. After all these years, Sand Cave remains separate and deserted.
In 1977, legendary caver and author Roger Brucker ventured into Sand Cave. “It was the scariest cave I have ever been in,” he said. Along the way, Roger and his crew found many relics from the Collins tragedy; bottles and cans, pieces of wood shoring, a steel poker, fragments of an army blanket, and a pair of electric wires. In the 1980s, the cave entrance was permanently sealed with a steel gate, bolted and welded shut. Professional cavers continue to explore the 400-plus-mile Mammoth Cave system, sometimes stumbling upon evidence of Floyd Collins’s famous early cave explorations; the letters “FC” can still be found scratched into rocks, a voice from the grave of old Floyd Collins. Although Collins was an unknown figure during his lifetime, the fame he gained by his death led to him being memorialized on his tombstone as the “Greatest Cave Explorer Ever Known”.
Although I have deep admiration for the National Park Service, I must admit that their collective treatment of Floyd Collins leaves much to be desired. On a recent trip to Mammoth Cave, I inquired of the park ranger at the front desk about Floyd Collins, in particular, the location of his grave, former ticket shack and house, all of which are contained within the park. The NPS ranger immediately snapped back the “We don’t do Floyd Collins here. No Floyd Collins” as she looked past me and turned her attention to some hikers and campers behind me in line. It is interesting to note that not 50 feet from where the exchange occurred, there were Floyd Collins books for sale on the shelves at the NPS giftstore. The NPS even offers an occasional driving tour of Collins related sites for visitors, but I suppose these are only available to the well-informed visitor and not promoted actively by the NPS. I’m also told that the 27-pound rock that led to Floyd’s doom is also stored somewhere on the property, out of view of course.
As for the Cave City community, not much has changed from the cave wars era. The hotels, non Park Service attractions, restaurants and gift shops operate like the old gangster era Las Vegas strip with the obvious intention of “stripping” every visitor of their cash as quickly as possible. On the Mammoth Cave exit are also the horrid tourist attractions known as “Guntown Mountain” and “Dinosaur World.” An old brochure in this author’s collection from the wild west themed Guntown mountain actually invites the visitor to see live hangings and ogle can-can girls. Every hotel room in town reeks of cigarette smoke and the restaurants in the area also encourage smoking. Like many Hoosiers, some of my ancestors hail from this central Kentucky cave region, so I remain… conflicted.
And now, for the Irvington connection. Weekly View readers know editor Paula Nicewanger. She, along with Ethel Winslow and Judy Crawford, keep the wheels turning at the View. What some of you might not know is that Paula’s maiden name is Collins and that Floyd Collins is a cousin of hers. Paula’s grandfather, Isaiah Dennis “Dan” Collins (1875-1927), was a dead ringer for his cousin Floyd. Paula says that Dan Collins “was a moonshiner / bootlegger to make a living. My dad had to quit school after 2nd grade and go to work when his dad died – there were 8 kids.” As for any Floyd Collins family stories, Paula admits, “Unfortunately my Dad was only 7 in 1927 and his Dad had died when he was 6 so dad didn’t know much. I learned about Floyd Collins in one of my college classes and found out then from other relatives that we were distant cousins. Dad was born in Cave City but they lived in Turkey Neck Bend and Thompkinsville. Dad did work building trails in Mammoth Cave when he was a teenager in the Civilian Conservation Camps (CCC) the government ran in the ’30s.”
However, Paula’s younger sister Gail, (a Harvard graduate and architect who lives in Oakland, CA) caught the Collins’ family fever and is a caver. Paula explains, “she got the spelunking gene – she and her husband belonged to a Spelunking Club when she was in her 20s.” Gail states, “Floyd Collins was in a forbidden “sandstone” cave which is the most fragile of rocks. I only went into Limestone caves which are more stable. The biggest concern about spelunking in Indiana & Kentucky is flash flooding. We only did caving during the dry months and mostly winter, when the ground is frozen for 5-8 weeks at a time. I spent New Yea’s Eve in a cave with Chuck (her husband) and our Spelunking group one year. One of my last spelunking adventures I was pulled out of a very wet cave entry, by a caving buddy, 6’6″, 250 lb former Marine, because the makeshift tree trunk ladder was missing two rungs. He reached into the hole and used one arm to hoist me out. A harrowing adventure indeed.” Seems that Gail narrowly escaped the fate of her long lost cousin Floyd.
Perhaps to honor the Collins family spelunking tradition and to set the record straight, Gail wants to be sure and update the caving avocation by saying, “There is a code of ethics for Spelunkers. Never leave ANYTHING in the cave, and NEVER REMOVE OR DAMAGE ANYTHING in the cave. It was a pact we never broke. It is like Wilderness Camping: PACK IT IN and PACK IT OUT. Green Ethics to protect the natural features of our world…We have come a long way since Floyd Collins, in knowing we have a planet in need. It is important that we drive home the importance of shared planet stewardship.” I’m sure that Paula & Gail’s cousin Floyd would be appreciate that sentiment.
Floyd Collins viewed “cavemanship” as a triple edged sword. It was what he loved to do, it was what he needed to do to survive, and it could kill him at anytime if he failed to remain vigilant. Today’s Cave City is not Floyd’s Cave City. While the National Park Service may remain ambivalent about the contribution of the greatest cave explorer ever known, they most certainly carry on the rich cave tradition the legendary spelunker himself possessed. The NPS protects and preserves the Mammoth Cave region 365 days a year for our enjoyment and education. A trip to Mammoth Cave is worth the 3-hour drive from Indy. Just keep in mind, Cave City operates by its own set of antiquated rules and morays. Guns, hangings and dinosaurs. Even the enterprising Floyd Collins would scratch his head at that. Reminds me of the old wild west admonition, “Beware of pickpockets and loose women.” Rest in peace Floyd Collins. Rest in Peace.