Mammoth Cave Connections Seminar Summary

By Damien Knight

On October 19th Chuck Decroix gave a seminar on Mammoth Caves history. His talk summarized the cave history and the connections with WKU. First, he discussed the new visitor center dedicated in 2012. In 2012 Mammoth Cave was 400 miles long. Today Mammoth Cave is 412 miles and is the longest cave in the world.

Mammoth Cave was not always considered the longest cave. It became the longest cave in the world back in 1972. In 1972 the cave’s known dimensions were 144 miles long. The Flint Ridge System was explored and found to connect to Mammoth Cave. The Cave Research Foundation made this discovery. Chuck Decroix talked of how they found marks of P.H. in the cave for Pete Handson, a caver. It was a clue that the two systems connected because the marks could only get there if he reached the Flint Ridge System from the Mammoth Cave side.

Chuck Decroix then spoke on the cave itself. People had been using the cave for thousands of years, they rediscovered it in the late 1790s. The first map discussed was the Eye-draught Map from 1810. It showed where high concentrations of salt peter were. Mining salt peter was one of the first commercial uses of the cave and they used salt peter mined in gunpowder for the War of 1812.

After the war, the cave became a tourist attraction. People would dress in their Sunday best and take tours. Visiting Mammoth Cave back then took effort. Many tourists walked to the cave. One of these early cavers was Stephen Bishop.

Stephen Bishop, a slave, became a cave tour guide at 17.  His first task was to find a way across the “Bottomless Pit.” His initial solution was a ladder bridge. Once past this Stephen Bishop reached the bottom and discovered underground rivers. They found eyeless cave fish in these rivers. The owners were excited for these discoveries as it would make it a successful “show cave.”

The seminar went in depth on the cave history from Stephen Bishop to today. This included his map of the cave in 1842. He wasn’t the only slave tour guide. Mat and Nick Bransford also were slave tour guides. The Bransford’s were well integrated with the cave story. For a hundred years at least one Bransford worked at the caves.  Matt Bransford, a third generation Bransford, established the Bransford Hotel. During segregation, African American cave goers could stay at the Bransford Hotel. 10 years ago, Jerry Bransford was hired at Mammoth Cave. He is the Great-great grandson of Matt Bransford.

At the turn of the century, 1900’s, there was the guide force which was comprised of both Bransfords and Bishops. Ed Bishop was the nephew of Stephen Bishop. In 1908 a German came to map the cave and Ed Bishop his guide. He gets credit for helping with the Kämper Map.

The Kämper Map shows approximately 35 miles of the cave. Max Kämper was born in Berlin, Germany and arrived at Mammoth Cave in 1908. It wasn’t until 1981 when the Cave Research Foundation redrafted and published it did the public see the Kämper Map. For 73 years no one saw the map. A lot of history on the Kämper map was discussed.

One spot on the map connects WKU to Mammoth Cave, an area called Potter Hall. The Potter College Girls visited the cave in Dec 1908. The Girls wrote of the experience, speaking of the Bridal Altar and Echo River. In 1929, the KEA Formation was established as was the College Heights Avenue Monument. The College Heights Monument honored the Western Kentucky State Teachers College.

On the Kämper map there is a Lida’s Pass named after Lida. Lida was a schoolteacher who lived on college street. She and Becky Wilson met Max Kämper and were invited to tour the cave. He honored Becky with Becky’s Alley and Lida, Lida’s pass.

Another part of the cave on the map is Violet City. Albert Covington Janin was the manager of the Mammoth cave estate and Violet an owner of the cave. Albert himself was a failed business man and lawyer but he did right by Mammoth Cave. Violet city itself is a beautiful part of the cave with lovely flow-stone formation.

Kämper named many of the passages on the map after the Janin-Blair Family. Such as Minna’s way and Edith’s Avenue, Minna is Minna Blair. She was a young girl along with Virginia and Edith who all had their names on the cave map. They were cousins of Violet. Minna was not fond of the cave at all according to what Chuck told us.

With the history traced from the map, all that is left was understanding Max Kämper. Chuck tells us that Bernd Kliebhan, a German journalist, took up the task. They found the son of Max, who was 87 at the time, Han Kämper. Max had married Elsbeth when he returned to Germany and had 2 children, Hans and Ilse. Max Kämper had died in World War 1 at the battle of Somme in 1960. Hans passed away and never made it to the cave but The Kämper family visited.

Dr John Croghan buys the cave in 1839 when he passes away it went to Violet and her cousins. He had a tuberculosis clinic in the cave. One patient there was OHP Anderson who wrote his name on the ceiling of candle smoke. He left the cave and survived another2 years. The Anderson family, Alice and Jerry Anderson, visited the cave where there Great-great grandfather stayed.

Connections with Western Kentucky University. Chuck Decroix then talked about how the cave affected his life. He then closed the seminar discussing the job openings at Mammoth cave.


October 19 – Chuck DeCroix, Senior Park Ranger, Mammoth Cave National Park, presents: Mammoth Cave Connections. EST 260 @ 3 pm – all invited.

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