May 12, 2012. Saturday I slept late then headed south about 60 miles to Mammoth Cave, KY. The cave itself is about 10 miles off Interstate 65.
I-65 runs almost due south from Elizabethtown to Cave City, but halfway there I found myself leaving the Eastern Time Zone and entering the Central Time Zone. I left my hotel about 10 am and an hour and a half later I’m in line at the visitor center when it is only 10:30 am!
The exit to Mammoth Cave is at Cave City. The first mile or two to the park the road is lined with kitschy shops and small equally kitschy amusement parks. I drove by and let them be.
I decided on the 11:00 am ‘History’ tour which covers 2 miles underground and takes 2 hours to complete. The tour covers the natural history of the cave and how it has been changed by human development and intervention.
The cave itself is correctly named, it is truly mammoth. It is the longest cave system known in the world. The mapped passageways total almost 400 miles in length. Every year licensed explorers find more miles to add to the map. The grounds of the park extend into 3 Kentucky counties so presumably the cave system itself is under much of it.
Here are photos of the historical entrance and a last look outside over my shoulder.
The inside is lit, but very dimly lit. With such little light I had to set the camera on ISO 6400 and Program Mode. I don’t carry a flash with me while traveling so all photos are handheld with available light. The lack of light made it very hard on the auto focus. Many shots the lens had to be put in manual focus and the distance estimated for focus. All the while I was shooting at f/2.8 or f/4 depending on the lens so there is very little depth of field on some of these. Compounding it all we were often on the move so many shots had to be done quickly. About half of what I did had to be thrown away, it was so badly blurred, but the rest seems to tell a story.
This is the room named The Rotunda. It is some 150 feet below the surface. It was easily the largest room we visited. The ceiling seems to be 30-40 feet above the floor and the room is up to 100 yards wide.
This spot has some early national significance to it. Prior to the War of 1812 Saltpeter (Potassium Nitrate) was imported to the United States for use in gunpowder. The British blockaded the country during the War of 1812 cutting off many imports. Saltpeter was found here, much of it coming from this room.
Saltpeter is the major component of gunpowder, the formula calls for it to be 75%. Over 400,000 tons was mined here which would make over 533,000 tons of gun powder.
Some of the underground galleries or rooms are large enough to challenge many convention centers. This room was one of them. This snapshot is with the fisheye lens.
Mammoth Cave is actually not too far underground. Its lowest point is only some 400 feet below the surface. It is a limestone cave topped by sandstone. Because it isn’t too deep there are very few stalactites or stalagmites. My particular tour didn’t show any of these, but other tours do. In that regard, other than its immense interior, the cave doesn’t compare too well visually with the many western U.S. caves I’ve seen.
This is a large passageway taking us deeper into the interior of the cave.
The cave became a national park in 1941, but it had numerous visitors over the decades prior to governmental protection. Many of them left their names behind either etched into the rock or painted with lampblack.
This is shot with the 24-105 at the full 105 length then cropped to look larger still.
Dr. Joseph Nash McDowell was a minor figure in American History, visiting the Mammoth Cave in 1839 as the graffiti shows. He eventually settled in Missouri where he purchased McDougal’s Cave so it became known as McDowell’s Cave. Supposedly the body of his dead 14 year old daughter was interred in his cave because McDowell believed a body in death could be preserved in alcohol then later resurrected with advanced medical technology. His daughter’s body was suspended from the cave ceiling in a lead casket to wait a later generation to revive it.
This idea is still popular today. Some organizations offer cryogenic freezing and storage of dead bodies for later revival.
McDowell was known as an able doctor, but some of his practices were very controversial. He was accused of grave robbing to use bodies for dissection and experimentation. In later life the doctor founded a medical school in St. Louis which has evolved into today’s Washington University’s Medical School.
Mark Twain made McDowell’s cave famous in his novel Tom Sawyer. In the novel there was a Dr. Robinson who employed Injun Joe to rob a grave. Perhaps Dr. McDowell was the inspiration. Today McDowell’s cave near Hannibal, MO is known as Tom Sawyer’s Cave or Mark Twain’s Cave.
After leaving the McDowell graffiti the passages became narrow and hard to negotiate. At one point we went through a passage that had once been only 2 feet tall. A narrow 18 inch walkway had been carved in the floor to let us all travel with our heads & backs bent over.
Along the way we passed a couple of ‘bottomless pits’. Here is my photo of one of them.
After that some more graffiti from earlier visitors.
Then a warning sign of a narrow passage.
Later some lampblack graffiti
Once out of these confined areas a large room opened up. There are actually some calcium carbonate drippings along the back wall. This is shot with the fish eye lens.
There is another one huge room we went through. It is named Mammoth Dome. From floor to ceiling it rises over 190 feet with the ceiling being maybe 100 feet below the surface. It is a long climb up. I was unable to get a shot of the massive staircase built looking up, but did get an acceptable shot looking down. This is with the fish eye.
From here we doubled back into the Rotunda Room then out the way we came for the end of our tour.