Dark Carnival

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Collins was trapped in Sand Cave, in Barren County, a few miles over the line from Mammoth Cave in Edmonson County. The limestone under the ground was pocked and rotten. There were caves everywhere; there were three thousand sinkholes. Woodland Indians had lived and buried their dead in the caves a thousand years before Christ’s body was shut away. When the whites dug saltpeter from Mammoth Cave, they found the body of a woman, surrounded by whistles, pendants, beads, and feathers. They said it was an Indian mummy. In 1820 a scholar visited the caves and went away talking like a man who’d seen a ghost: “The entrance to the infernal abodes of ancient mythology is most forcibly called to mind. Here … Virgil might have found a hell formed to his mind … this [is a] tomb of nature. …” A hundred years later Mammoth Cave had become an income property that paid regular dividends. Billy Sunday, the Christian evangelist, said that the cave made him feel “like a small piece of nothing dropped in the infinite.” That feeling cost money—a dollar to get inside and four dollars to stay all day. The receipts went to two old ladies in San Francisco who’d been left that piece of Mother Earth by a doctor, their uncle. The number of people who visited the cave varied with the state of the world. Forty thousand—a record number—made the descent during one of the years of the First War. There were cave exhibits at the Kentucky State Fair for those who couldn’t travel. The one in 1923 featured fish with no eyes and, said the Louisville Herald , “the mummy of a monkey … which antedates by one million years … the famed King Tut.”

The biggest business in the area was Mammoth Cave, but there were others. There was Great Onyx Cave, Colossal Cavern, Great Crystal Cave, Dorsey Cave, Salt Cave, Indian Cave, Parlor Cave, Diamond Cave, and Doyles Cave. They were all owned and operated by men who would have charged admission to the Creation. At the center of it all was Cave City; it served the tourists the way Lourdes served pilgrims. The only difference was that the men who ran the Cave City hotels tried to make their own miracles.

In 1915 a Louisville man named G. D. Morrison formed the Mammoth Cave Development Company, with the help of a vice president of the Fidelity-Columbia Trust Company and the owner of a Louisville men’s store. They hired a sewer engineer to sneak into Mammoth Cave and make a few surveys. In 1921 Morrison persuaded the Louisville and Nashville Railroad to lease the development company a hundred acres of land three and a half miles from Mammoth Cave. Somewhere underneath those hundred acres were the passages the engineer had surveyed.

Morrison’s workmen drilled for a year, telling anyone who asked that they were looking for onyx. Once they broke in, Morrison strung some electric lights inside, built a hotel outside, and opened for business. He’d made himself a back door. He called it the New Entrance to Mammoth Cave. He also called it “a miniature Atlantic City in the heart of Kentucky.” He said he had plans to build a twenty-thousand-dollar elevator in his hotel lobby so that his guests could comfortably descend to the caverns below. There were other people with other plans. A group of Chicago investors, headed by a member of the Glen Oaks Country Club, announced that they had purchased three hundred acres of land three miles north of the cave. They planned to construct a private eighteen-hole golf course, to be called the Blue Grass Country Club. They intended to solicit membership of midwestern businessmen who couldn’t be bothered to travel all the way to Florida for a vacation. Whoever had sold them the land hadn’t told them that it was so leached by ground water that one of their greens might turn into a sinkhole overnight.

While Morrison planned his underground elevator and the golfers sited their fairways, the local people were filing their own claims. Floyd Collins had more patience and less money than most of them. He was one of nine children, raised in a log cabin. His father, Lee, was a poor farmer who did a little trapping; Floyd, his brother Homer, and his brother Marshall made a bare living cutting timber into railroad ties for the Louisville and Nashville and rafting them down the Green River. In 1917, when he was twenty-seven, Floyd followed a ground hog down a hole on his father’s farm. The hole turned into a passage that led to a cavern. He called it White Crystal Cave. He owned one half and his father owned the other. They went into business. They sold options on the cave to a inan named Johnny Gerald who’d made a little money buying and selling tobacco. He 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 into the cave, down Grand Canyon Avenue to see Nanny Ramsey’s Flower Garden of gypsum crystals.