1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Mammoth Cave
MAMMOTH CAVE, a cave in Edmondson county, Kentucky, U.S.A., 37° 14′ N. lat. and 86° 12′ W. long., by rail 85 m. S.S.W. of Louisville. Steamboats run from the mouth of the Green river, near Evansville, Indiana, to the Mammoth Cave landing. The cave is usually said to have been discovered, in 1809, by a hunter named Hutchins; but the county records, as early as 1797, fixed its entrance as the landmark for a piece of real estate. Its mouth is in a forest ravine, 194 ft. above Green river and 600 ft. above the sea. This aperture is not the original mouth, the latter being a chasm a quarter of a mile north of it, and leading into what is known as Dixon's cave. The two portions are not now connected, though persons in one can make themselves heard by those in the other.
The cavernous limestone of Kentucky covers an area of 8000 sq. m., is massive and homogeneous, and belongs to the Subcarboniferous period. It shows few traces of dynamic disturbance, but has been carved, mainly by erosion since the Miocene epoch, into many caverns, of which the Mammoth Cave is the largest.
The natural arch that admits one to Mammoth Cave has a span of 70 ft., and from a ledge above it a cascade leaps 59 ft. to the rocks below, where it disappears. A flight of stone steps leads the way down to a narrow passage, through which the air rushes with violence, outward in summer and inward in winter. The temperature of the cave is uniformly 54° F. throughout the year, and the atmosphere is both chemically and optically of singular purity. While the lower levels are moist from the large pools and rivers that have secret connexion with Green river, the upper galleries are extremely dry. These conditions led at one time to the erection of thirteen cottages at a point about 1 m. underground, for the use of invalids, especially consumptives. The experiment failed, and only two cottages now remain as curiosities.
The Main Cave, from 40 to 300 ft. wide and from 35 to 125 ft.
high, has several vast rooms, e.g. the Rotunda, where are the
ruins of the old saltpetre works; the Star Chamber, where the
protrusion of white crystals through a coating of the black oxide
of manganese creates an optical illusion of great beauty; the Chief
City, where an area of 2 acres is covered by a vault 125 ft. high,
and the floor is strewn with rocky fragments, among which are
found numerous half-burnt torches made of canes, and other signs
of prehistoric occupancy. Two skeletons were exhumed near the Rotunda; but few other bones of any description have been found.
The so-called Mammoth Cave “mummies” (i.e. bodies kept by
being inhumed in nitrous earth), with accompanying utensils,
ornaments, braided sandals and other relics, were found in Short
and Salt Caves near by, and removed to Mammoth Cave for
exhibition. The Main Cave, which abruptly ends 4 m. from the
entrance, is joined by winding passages, with spacious galleries
on different levels; and, although the diameter of the area of the
whole cavern is less than 10 m., the co
nbined length of all
accessible avenues is supposed to be about 150 m.
The chief points of interest are arranged along two lines of exploration, besides which there are certain side excursions. The “short route” requires about four hours, and the “long route” nine. Audubon′s Avenue, the one nearest the entrance, is occupied in winter by myriads of bats, that hang from the walls in clusters like swarms of bees. The Gothic Avenue contains numerous large stalactites and stalagmites, and an interesting place called the Chapel, and ends in a double dome and cascade. Among the most surprising features of cave scenery are the vertical shafts that pierce through all levels, from the uppermost galleries, or even from the sink-holes, down to the lowest floor. These are styled pits or domes, according to the position occupied by the observer. A crevice behind a block of stone, 40 ft. long by 20 ft. wide, called the Giant′s Coffin, admits the explorer to a place where six pits, varying in depth from 65 ft. to 200 ft., exist in an area of 600 yds. This includes Gorin′s Dome, which is viewed from a point midway in its side, and also from its top, and was formerly regarded as the finest room in the cavern. Others admire more the Mammoth Dome, at the termination of Spark′s Avenue, where a cataract falls from a height of 150 ft. amid walls wonderfully draped with stalactitic tapestry. The Egyptian Temple, which is a continuation of the Mammoth Dome, contains six massive columns, two of them quite perfect and 80 ft. high and 25 ft. in diameter. The combined length of these contiguous chambers is 400 ft. By a crevice above they are connected with an arm of Audubon′s Avenue. Lucy′s Dome, one of the group of Jessup Domes, is supposed to be the loftiest of all these vertical shafts. A pit called the “Maelstrom,” in Croghan′s Hall, is the spot most remote from the mouth of the cave. There are some fine stalactites near this pit, and others in the Fairy Grotto and in Pensico Avenue; but, considering the magnitude of Mammoth Cave, its poverty of stalactitic ornamentation is remarkable. The wealth of crystals is, however, surprising, and these are of endless variety and fantastic beauty.
Cleveland′s Cabinet and Marion′s Avenue, each a mile long, are adorned by myriads of gypsum rosettes and curiously twisted crystals, called “oulopholites.” These cave flowers are unfolded by pressure, as if a sheaf were forced through a tight binding, or the crystal fibres curl outward from the centre of the group. Thus spotless arches of 50 ft. span are embellished by floral clusters and garlands, hiding nearly every foot of the grey limestone. The botryoidal formations hanging by thousands in Mary′s Vineyard resemble mimic clusters of grapes, as the oulopholites resemble roses. Again, there are chambers with drifts of snowy crystals of the sulphate of magnesia, the ceilings so thickly covered with their efflorescence that a loud concussion will cause them to fall like flakes of snow.
Many small rooms and tortuous paths, where nothing of special interest can be found, are avoided as much as possible on the regular routes; but certain disagreeable experiences are inevitable. There is peril also in the vicinity of the deep pits. The one known as the Bottomless Pit was for many years a barrier to all further exploration, but it is now crossed by a wooden bridge. Long before the shaft had been cut as deep as now the water flowed away by a channel gradually contracting to a serpentine way, so extremely narrow as to be called the Fat Man′s Misery. The walls, only 18 in. apart, change direction eight times in 105 yds., while the distance from the sandy path to the ledge overhead is but 5 ft. The rocky sides are finely marked with waves and ripples, as if running water had suddenly been petrified. This winding way conducts one to River Hall, beyond which lie the crystalline gardens that have been described. It used to be said that, if this narrow passage were blocked up, escape would be impossible; but an intricate web of fissures, called the Corkscrew, has been discovered, by means of which a good climber, ascending only a few hundred feet, lands 1000 yds. from the mouth of the cave, and cuts off one or two miles.
The waters, entering through numerous domes and pits, and falling, during the rainy season, in cascades of great volume, are finally collected in River Hall, where they form several extensive lakes, or rivers, whose connexion with Green River is known to be in deep springs appearing under arches on its margin. Whenever there is a freshet in Green River the streams in the cave are joined in a continuous body of water, the rise sometimes being 60 ft. above the low-water mark. The subsidence within is less rapid than the rise; and the streams are impassable for about seven months in each year. They are navigable from May to October, and furnish interesting features of cave scenery. The first approach is called the Dead Sea, embraced by cliffs 60 ft. high and 100 ft. long, above which a path has been made, whence a stairway leads down to the banks of the river Styx, a body of water 40 ft. long, crossed by a natural bridge. Lake Lethe comes next—a broad basin enclosed by walls 90 ft. high, below which a narrow path leads to a pontoon at the neck of the lake. A beach of the finest yellow sand extends for 500 yds. to Echo River, the largest of all being from 20 to 200 ft. wide, 10 to 40 ft. deep and about three-quarters of a mile long. It is crossed by boats. The arched passage-way is very symmetrical, varying in height from 19 to 35 ft., and famous for its musical reverberations—not a distinct echo, but an harmonious prolongation of sound for from 10 to 30 seconds after the original tone is produced. The long vault has a certain keynote of its own, which, when firmly struck, excites harmonics, including tones of incredible depth and sweetness.
There are several other streams here besides those in River Hall. On one of them F. J. Stevenson of London is said to have floated for seven hours without finding its end. A glance at the accompanying map will show that there is a labyrinth of avenues and chasms seldom visited and never fully explored. New discoveries are frequently made. An exploring party in 1904 found a curious complex of upper and lower galleries accessible from the most eastern portion of the cave; beyond which another party, in 1905, discovered several large domes previously unknown. H. C. Hovey, in 1907, was led by expert guides into still wilder recesses, where a series of five domes were found, that opened into each other by tall gateways; each dome being 60 ft. in diameter and 175 ft. high. This magnificent group has since been named “Hovey′s Cathedral Domes.” No instrumental survey of the Mammoth Cave has ever been allowed by the management. The best map possible is therefore only the result of estimates and partial measurements. The depths of the most noted pits have easily been ascertained by line and plummet and the height of several large domes has been found by the use of small balloons. While making a survey exclusively for the cave-owners in 1908, Max Kaemper of Berlin, Germany, forced an opening from the main cave into a remarkable region to which the general name of “Violet City” was given, in honour of Mrs Violet Blair Janin, who owned a third of the Mammoth Cave estate. Special features are Kaemper Hall, Blair Castle, the Marble Temple and Walhalla. There are eleven enormous pits, many large fine stalactites and stalagmites and surprisingly beautiful mural decorations. Dr Hovey made and published (1909) a new handbook embodying all known discoveries of importance, with four sketch-maps of the routes of usual exhibition.
The fauna of Mammoth Cave has been classified by F. W. Putnam, A. S. Packard and E. D. Cope, who have catalogued twenty-eight species truly subterraneous, besides those that may be regarded as stragglers from the surface. They are distributed thus: Vertebrata, 8 species; Insecta, 17; Arachnida, 12; Myriapoda, 2; Crustacea, 5; Vermes, 3; Mollusca, 1. Ehrenberg adds a list of 8 Polygastric Infusoria, 1 fossil infusorian, 5 Phytolitharia and several microscopic fungi. A bed of Agaricus was found by the writer near the river Styx; and upon this hint an attempt has been made to propagate edible fungi in this locality. All the known forms of plant-life are either fungi or allied to them, and many are only microscopic. The most interesting inhabitants of Mammoth Cave are the blind, wingless grasshoppers, with extremely long antennae; blind, colourless crayfish (Cambarus pellucidus, Telk.); and the blind fish, Amblyopsis spelaeus, colourless and viviparous, from 1 in. to 6 in. long. The Cambarus and Amblyopsis have wide distribution, being found in many other caves, and also in deep wells, in Kentucky and Indiana. Fish not blind are occasionally caught, which are apparently identical with species existing in streams outside. The true subterranean fauna may be regarded as chiefly of Pleistocene origin; yet certain forms are possibly remnants of Tertiary life.
Bibliography.—Plan and Description of the Great and Wonderful Cave in Kentucky, by Dr Nahum Ward (1816); Notes on the Mammoth Cave, with a Map, by Edmund F. Lee, C. E. (1835); Rambles in the Mammoth Cave in 1844, by Alexander Bullitt, with map by Stephen Bishop; guide-books by Wright (1858), Binkerd (1869), Forwood (1875), Proctor (1878), Hovey (1882), &c., and Hovey and Call (1897); Hovey′s Celebrated American Caverns (1882, &c.); and The Mammoth Cave and its Inhabitants, by Packard and F. W. Putnam (1879). (H. C. H.)