Floyd Collins

20-JUL-1887 – 13-FEB-1925

Floyd Collins 1924 in Kentucky, photo by Robert W. Brucker. Public Domain.

Floyd Collins was a cave explorer at Flint Ridge (ShowcaveMammoth Caves). He got famous (or notorious?), when he was trapped in a really small cave. The rescue operation took several days, until he finally died in the cave.

Floyd was exploring alone, had only one light, was badly clothed, did not wear a helmet, and had neglected to tell anyone where he was. This are the FIVE BIG DONTS of caving. So who wonders, Floyd Collins is America's Greatest Cave Explorer. The most popular story of failure in American history.

After saying this, we have to have a better look at the background of this story. Floyd Collins was a Kentucky backwoods boy, who discovered nearby Crystal Cave and turned it into a profitable commercial attraction. When the infamous Cave Wars between Mammoth Cave and seven other cave attractions in the area started, Floyd Collins was part of it. So he became more and more fanatic in his attempt to discover a better, bigger, more beautiful cave and he started to throw away any bit of common sense in his attempt to outwit the other cave owners.

When he explored narrow Sand Cave, hoping to find major passages, a little rock fell out of the wall and wedged Floyd's foot, only 30 m from the entrance. Because of his sneakiness, for some time nobody missed him. Finally someone mentioned his absence, and a search at his favourite spots soon confirmed the worst. But now the main trouble started. The rescue effort lasted for 18 days with many different attempts to rescue him.

But the publicity via the new medium of radio captured the ghoulish interest of the whole nation. They tried everything: digging at the passageway and sinking a new shaft. They fed Floyd to keep up his energy. Finally they sent down reporter Skeets Miller, who chronicled the drama.

The involvement of the press and young radio is the main theme of the movie Ace in the Hole by Billy Wilder. Kirk Douglas plays the reporter who does anything he can, to make it a big story, even if this means more trouble for the victim. It shows the morbid curiosity of the people and the impious wheeler-dealers who take advantage of the situation.

But the weirdness was not over. Floyd's body was displayed in a glass-topped coffin in ShowcaveCrystal Cave for many years. It was not part of the tour, but if you gave the guide a tip you could get a peek. One day the coffin was vandalised and the body stolen. After some time the body was found in a nearby field, except for one leg. He was then placed in a chained casket.

This continued until the National Park Service absorbed Crystal Cave and closed it to the public. In 1989, his descendants had him properly buried in Flint Ridge Cemetery, which now became a place of pilgrimage.