In The Mammoth Cave

We arrived at the Mammoth Cave on one of those heavenly days which earthly words fail to depict. It was the second week in November, the “Indian summer,” the most charming season in America.

If anything were necessary to convince me that a future beatitude is no fiction, it would be this foretaste of bliss in such days as these, when the whole being—mind and body—seems lapped in a state of peace and beatitude combined. Anxieties and worldly cares seem to float away into the dim distance; our love is free from feverish excitement, and hate has lost its gall and sting. The golden light which floats around mellows our soul to repose. There is that exhilarating, yet balmy nourishment in the atmosphere which lifts the weary spirit from its damp and earthly coil, and makes it glad, and light, and gleesome. The heavy “heart bowed down by weight of woe” suddenly imbibes some of the joyous elasticity which fills the insect tribe,—the bees and grasshoppers, the golden fly, glittering and humming in pure ecstasies, and the merry little beetles revelling in one continuous contra-dance. Rarely, indeed, can we overcharged human beings feel as blithesome as the insect world; we seek to taste the apples of delight which turn to ashes in our mouth, and neglect to sip with them the nectar in the breeze. What can we do? these breezes come so seldom. The insect sparkles to-day in the sunshine and to-morrow it dies. We of the superior race have to live and labor through sunshine and shade, and can only catch these rosy minutes as they fly.

Some of these halcyon moments we enjoyed on that fortunate day we arrived at the Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. The earth was covered with its autumn carpet of dry dark leaves,—brown and glossy on one side, deep violet on the other,—and crinkling and crushing beneath our tread, they kept up a staccato treble to the dulcet sighing of the wind through the yellow leaves still lingering on the trees. A delicious concert of sweet sounds, and one that Mozart and Mendelssohn must have studied well and carefully. The atmosphere was bright and clear as under a summer sun, but without the heat; the air as fine and bracing as winter, but without the cold. We lost sight entirely of the two great tormentors, heat and cold, and for the few days of our stay forgot their very existence.

I have heard of persons feeling, under the effect of laughter, as light and buoyant as if floating in ambient air. The atmosphere during their “Indian summer” must, doubtless, be strongly impregnated with oxygen, for we experienced a similar sensation; which was probably deepened by the fact of our having come from Louisville, where those hotel stairs had seemed a perfect toil to us.

The country around the caves, for eight or ten miles, was a series of deep ravines, studded with projecting cliffs and rocks, and covered with oak—principally the English oak—and another gigantic species, with leaves from a quarter to half a yard long, but of the same form as the ordinary oak-leaf. Up and down the ravines we scrambled and roamed, as happy as goats or wild chamois. These ravines, or glens, have no doubt been the beds of some ancient river, now, perhaps, flowing through the bowels of the earth; for this part of the country is intersected by underground rivers, a stream often suddenly appearing, which, after flowing on for a few miles, plunges rapidly into the earth and is lost to sight.

An anecdote is told of two millers who had their mills on two different rivers, thirty miles apart. There had been a long drought, and neither mill had been working; but one day miller No. 1 heard his wheel going round at a tremendous pace, and going to examine it perceived a quantity of water, although there had not been a drop of rain for some time. He went over to communicate his good luck to his neighbor.

“Oh!” exclaimed miller No. 2, “you’re gettin’ my water unbeknownst, for a cloud burst over us the other night and nearly drowned us all.”

It was evident the millers were working the same stream, which ran for thirty miles underground, similar to the lakes in Florida, called sinks (for Americans call everything by gross-sounding names), which suddenly disappear, leaving all the fish stranded. Sometimes the water returns, sometimes not….

Independent of the caves, the scenery around, to a lover of nature, is well worthy of a visit, and for a summer resort is unsurpassed; shady, romantic walks through the woods; a delicious air breathed from the gigantic mouth of the cavern, whence, in the hot months, it blows cool and refreshing; in the cold ones soft and warm; the actual temperature of the cave never varying. The sensations of heat and cold are produced by comparison with the outer air.

It occurred to a medical man some years ago that the uniform atmosphere of this cave might be a specific for consumption.

Possessed with this theory, the doctor had a dozen small houses constructed in the cavern, about a mile or two from its mouth, and to these he conveyed his patients. From the appearance of these places of abode, the only wonder is that the poor invalids did not expire after twenty-four hours of residence in them. They, however, contrived to exist there about three months, most of them being carried out in extremis. The houses consisted of a single room, built of the rough stone of the cavern,—which, in this part, bears all the appearance of a stone-quarry,—and without one particle of comfort beyond a boarded floor, the small dwelling being constructed entirely on the model of a lock-up, or “stone-jug.” The cells of a modern prison are quite palatial in comparison with them. The darkness is such as might be felt; and it is impossible to realize what darkness actually is until experienced in some place where a ray of sunlight has never penetrated.

From the mouth of the cavern to that part where the doctor’s houses were built was a continual, though gradual, descent, and at that spot there was a solid roof of a hundred and fifty feet of earth. The houses—or rather detached stone boxes—were so small that without vitiating the air only one person could remain in them at one time; so that, besides the darkness,—in case of any accident to their lamps,—these poor creatures must have endured utter solitude. Their food was brought from the hotel, two or three miles away, on the hill, and consequently must have been cold and comfortless. They were kept prisoners within their narrow cells, for the rough rocks and stones everywhere abounding rendered a promenade for invalids quite impracticable. The deprivation of sunlight, fresh air, and all the beauties of the earth must have been the direst punishment imaginable. No wonder these poor creatures were carried out one by one to die.

The last one having become so weak that it was deemed unsafe to move him, his friends resolved to stay with him in the cavern till the last. What transpired is now beyond investigation. Whether some effect of light, which in this cavern has a most mysterious and awful appearance, or whether the death-bed was one of terrors, owing to some imp of mischief having laid a plan to “scare” them, as they say in this country, is not known; but they rushed terror-stricken from the cave, and on reaching the hotel fell down insensible. Subsequently they declared they had seen spirits carrying away their friend. Mustering a strong force, the people from terra firma, with the guides and plenty of torches, sallied down to the lower and supposed infernal regions. The spirits, however, had fled, leaving nothing but the stiffening corpse of the poor consumptive. This ended all hope of the cavern as a cure for consumption.

The Mammoth Cave is perhaps the most extensively explored cavern known. It extends for nine continuous miles, so that it would be possible to walk fifty miles in and out by different roads. The cavern consists of various large chambers and lofty domes, averaging from twenty to one hundred feet in height. Some of the chambers exactly resemble the tombs of the kings of Egypt, and the narrow tortuous defiles through the rocks are also very like the roads into the Pyramids. Most of these chambers are merely natural excavations in the solid rock. One of the white-domed ceilings is covered with a thick scroll-pattern traced in black, and consists entirely of bats, which take up their winter quarters in these caverns, and fare better in them apparently than the consumptives. It is curious how these sightless creatures, from various parts of the country, find out the caves, so impervious to light and cold, and where, from the noise they make, they seem to have a merry time of it. Not so, however, the visitors passing through this part of the cave; for the bats are apt to fly right in one’s face, or stick against one’s clothes, and bite furiously at any attempt to dislodge them.

Still farther on there is a vast vault, upward of eighty feet high, formed of gypsum with some sort of crystals embedded in it. When you sit and gaze on it for some time, by the dim light of the lamps, the vault seems to recede into azure space. A bright sparkling veil hangs over it like the milky way, seen dimly between the shelving rocks, which bulge out in round soft layers, of a whitish-gray cast, and look exactly like petrified clouds. By a judicious movement of the light of the lamps a most beautiful phenomenon of cloud-scenery is effected, and by their gradual extinction a Stygian darkness seems to wrap all in perfect horror. This, the “Star Chamber,” is one of the finest effects in the Mammoth Cave, and it might be enhanced to the wildest magnificence by an artistic arrangement of variously colored lights. The cave would be a fine place in which to read Dante’s Inferno.

Here and there through the cave there are immense pits or chasms, only some few yards in circumference, but from two to three hundred feet in depth. A piece of paper saturated in oil is thrown down and displays the fearful gulf, the bottom of which appears to have the same formation of rock and clay as the top. Sometimes we ascended ten or twenty feet by ladders and occasionally descended. We traversed about a mile of passage where the ceiling, six feet high, was as smooth and white as plaster could have made it. It was literally covered with the names of former visitors. In some places there were hundreds of cards on the floor, left by guests,—so it is not only English people who have a mania for inscribing their names. Indeed, as to that, it is common to most nations, for I had a secretary named Van Kenkle, who wrote his name upon every article belonging to me.

For eight or nine miles we continued to traverse passages and chambers, sometimes over rough pieces of rock, sometimes through the thick dust of ages, sometimes through the tortuous gorges,—mere slits between the rocks through which we had to creep,—sometimes coming upon a well or spring of sweet water. At about three or four miles from the mouth we came to the chamber called “The Church,” from its resemblance to the ancient cathedral vault, frequently to be seen on the European continent under churches or monasteries, and called the crypt.

This church of the Mammoth Cave is a singular phenomenon. The roof, which is not lofty, is supported by a number of pillars, in many places forming Gothic arches, and running at somewhat regular distances, dividing the church into aisles. These columns are actually enormous stalactites, and the fresco of petrified water upon them has all the appearance of the most rich and elaborate carving. In some places the pillars of stone have not quite reached the ground, and remain suspended from the roof. Other and smaller condensed stalactites resembled the drooping rosettes which unite the spring of Gothic arches. In one portion of the church is an enormous stone, carved out exactly like the bishop’s chair, or throne, usually seen on the high altar. The altar itself is very like those primitive stone edifices sculptured by the early Christians, when driven to celebrate their worship in the catacombs of Rome.

This chamber is a marvellous freak of nature imitating art, for the hand of man has never touched it or worked it into shape; yet if any one were transported here unconsciously, he would, on looking round, imagine himself in the chancel crypt of some old cathedral of the ninth or tenth century. Some romantic lovers, evidently influenced by this idea, had actually, a few weeks before our visit, arrived at the cave, accompanied by their friends and the clergyman, and caused the marriage ceremony to be performed in that very church. It was a whimsical idea, and must have been a cold, comfortless, clammy affair; but the feelings and sentiment about weddings totally differ in America from our European notions on the subject,—rarely is it a joyous merry-making, rather the reverse, as I have mentioned in a former chapter.

A few miles farther on, we came to the great natural marvel, the subterranean river, with its buried water and eyeless fish, its beautiful parterres of stone flowers and shrubs, like a garden covered with morning hoar-frost. On this dismal river we were launched in a little skiff, not the most seaworthy in the world,—and I must confess to having experienced a feeling of dread of being upset on that mysterious stream, whose outlet might be, for all we knew, in a region we did not care to visit, or even to contemplate the possibility of visiting. The echo had a thrill of awe that made one’s flesh creep and hair stand on end. If one called spirits there from the vasty deep, and they did not come, yet they certainly answered from the dark shadows of the rocks falling around the lurid glare of the torches,—the only light on the river of Erebus. It was quite easy to believe there were myriads of spirits flitting around, and stretching out their weird arms to carry us down to bottomless Hades.

There is another very interesting cave, which is not so frequently visited by travellers, who when they have seen the big thing, are only anxious to rush away again. It is not so extensive as the Mammoth, but infinitely more beautiful and more inaccessible, the descent having to be accomplished by ladders; but once down, it is a fairy-land, a continuous scene of rapturous enchantment. The stalactites simulate the most exquisite parterre of flowers, the most magnificent forest of crystallized trees, the most wondrous marble carving, even to that perfection of art which shrouds the figure in transparent drapery, like “the statue of the Dead Christ” at Naples; nor was Apollo’s charm unknown there. Our guide tapped upon these magic crystals, and produced the sweetest harmony ear ever heard, or at least it sounded so.

The walls of the chambers and passages were encrusted with the stalactite flowers. They could be broken off their stems, and as so few visitors ventured down, the guide allowed me to take one. One chamber was absolutely curtained with this marvellous formation of petrified water, and when the guide held the light behind the scene, it produced the effect of being draped in the purest amber. These drooping curtains, some fifty feet in height, emitted the most musical tones when struck. If the physician had brought his patients to these fairy bowers, he might, I think, have succeeded in sending them home quite cured, but I believe the cave had not been discovered then.

With a brilliant light the spot was perfectly lovely, and the atmosphere was that of constant, unchanged temperature, which puts the human lungs in a state of beatitude. I should not in the least object to live in that paradise of crystal flowers and adamantine forms, the most beautiful that the imagination of man has ever conceived to be curtained in living amber, and pillowed—well, I must admit that—in dust; but it was such clean dust…. The texture of these stalactites, when examined by daylight, resembles alabaster, thus the leaves, flowers, sprigs, are perfectly beautiful. Nor are these caves without their incidents of life’s drama. The grave and the gay have been enacted here as elsewhere. The episode of the physician and his patients was sad enough, but a more terrible tragedy resulted from a wager.

The guides are particular on entering the caves with a large party to beg them to keep together, as it would be impossible for a person to find his own way out of the labyrinth of passages, chambers, etc. Two gentlemen of a party made a bet that they would accomplish the feat, and, taking their opportunity, slipped away from their party, without the guides being aware of their absence, and it was not until late in the evening that the other party to the wager remarked that those two foolhardy fellows had not found their way out of the cavern. This coming to the ears of the guide, he exclaimed, “Then they are dead men!” Nevertheless they went in full force to do everything that was possible to find them, but spent the night in vain searches. Sometimes they came upon their track in the soft dust, then lost it again.

On the following day the search was renewed by the guide who had escorted the party, and his description of the finding of one of the gentlemen was truly horrible: “It was the most tarnation cutting up job I ever had in my life,” said the guide. “We are not much of cowards, we guides,—we get accustomed to awfulness down in the bowels of the earth; but when that critter’s shrieks first came to my ear, I just shivered all over and my feet rooted to the ground,—not that I did not wish to save him, the poor devil, but I got an idea that that shriek came right straight from hell and no mistake, and I had no fancy to go there before I was sent for! Wall, when I had wiped my brow and taken a drink, I went on in the direction of the sound, for it came every now and again, the echoes making like fifty devils instead of one. I found him sooner than I expected; he was a sight to behold; he flew at me like a tiger; he clutched me, and pulled me, and wrestled with me, yelling and howling like a wild beast. I thought he would have torn me to pieces. I should not have known him again for the same gentleman. His eyes glared, his mouth was foaming, and his hair on end, his clothes all torn and covered with dust. He was a real raving maniac, and so he remained, as far as I know. The work I had to get him out of that cave! He would stand stock still and shake all over, then suddenly clutch at me again. I was the stronger man of the two, and he was weak from long fasting, or I never should have got him out. The doctor said he was fright-stricken.”

And this was the case, as they thought, with the other poor fellow, who was not found for weeks, it having been conjectured that he had fallen down a hole. One of the guides making some new exploration, discovered him sitting down, no sign of decomposition having taken place, and no sign of his having died of starvation, for a piece of biscuit was found in his pocket. He was supposed to have died of terror, the terrible darkness working upon the nervous system, and the hopelessness of penetrating it making the minutes appear hours. A guide who had once been lost there himself for some twenty hours, said he never could believe he had not been there for several days.


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