Kentucky Cave Wars

The Kentucky Cave Wars are a weird story from the early days of commercial caves in the U.S.A. They happened between 1920 and 1941 in the karst area around Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. It was not a war with weapons, but a war of economics, nevertheless there were raids and destruction.

During the 19th century Mammoth cave became a world famous cave and visitors from all over the world went there to explore and enjoy the great cave system. But the number of visitors was low, mainly because it was difficult to get there. It was a two day strenuous coach ride from the next city, and so the visitor had to be very serious about visiting the cave.

The situation changed with the construction of railroads, roads, and the availability of cars. People went on weekend trips with their new cars, the number of visitors exploded. The profit of the privately owned Mammoth Cave increased substantially and this was noted by the neighbours. Many land owners were looking for caves on their own land and started to develop them as show caves. Soon there were seven other show caves, Colossal Cave, Long Cave, Short's Cave, Great Onyx Cave, Indian Cave, Salts Cave, and Crystal Cave. Unfortunately only Mammoth Cave was well known and the visitors headed for the famous cave.

The next step was the idea by the new cave owners, to draw tourists by placing advertising sings along the road to Mammoth Cave. Still most tourist went there. Now the situation became much rougher. Signs were stolen and destroyed, ticket offices were burned, there were violent attacks. A really weird tactic was stopping the cars before they reached the cave and telling them a lie, to make them go to another cave. The guys who did this were called cappers, because they were wearing clothes resembling a policeman with a uniform and a cap. So people were irritated and stopped. Then they told them Mammoth Cave was closed, for example because of a flood, and offered tickets of another cave which was still open. We guess they lived off the commission for the sold tickets. However, those who lost visitors placed a huge sign at the road which said: DO NOT BE CONFUSED - NO ONE HAS THE RIGHT TO STOP YOU ON THIS ROAD.

And at the same time the search for new caves continued. But the cavers became extremely secretive, and some went cave hunting alone and told nobody where they went. If you ask a caver: that's violating the basic rules of safe caving and it was only a matter of time for an accident to happen. The fatal cave accident came in 1925 and its name was Floyd Collins.

The situation was bad until the formerly private Mammoth Cave became a National Park in 1941. Several other caves were also part of the cave now. The park organized numerous tours into different caves and closed others. Some show caves remained, but with the Park as competitor the war ended as unspectacular as it started.