FLOYD COLLINS' PHOTO SHERPA
By Roger Moore, Jr.
It was 75 years ago last May that Floyd Collins and his father, Lee, announced to the world (or at least to Kentucky) the discovery of their Great Crystal Cave. That Floyd and his cave have mythic significance for cavers hardly requires repeating.* But the myth has a personal significance for me that relates to the adventure of a young veteran recently returned from the trenches of France in the Great War: my father, Roger Moore, Sr. This story is the consequence of a brief period that he spent in Kentucky working in some capacity in the oil industry there.
During his stay, my father befriended a photographer for the Louisville Courier-Journal. As the leading newspaper in the state, the Courier-Journal was the medium of choice - or necessity - for the Collins in publicizing their new discovery. The centerpiece of this announcement was to be the first published photographs of the cave, to appear in the Courier-Journal's Sunday magazine supplement. A trip was arranged, and like every photographic trip today, the photographer needed a photo sherpa to help with lighting and his heavy gear. He invited his new friend, my father, to fill this role. My father eagerly accepted and thus became Floyd Collins' photo sherpa.
He handed down to me a now-crumbling copy of the newspaper article which is reprinted here (with the permission of the Louisville Courier-Journal). I have vainly sought out more information on the caving trip from several experts on the history of Flint Ridge caves and I'd like to acknowledge their cooperation: Dr. Stanley Sides, Bill Austin, of Kentucky Underground (whose family formerly owned Crystal Cave), Dave Foster of the American Cave Conservation Association's American Cave Museum in Horse Cave, Kentucky, Becky Bull of the Floyd Collins Museum, and "Red" Watson. The most interesting information to come to light from these contacts is that the 1921 article seems to have been unknown to researchers in the area.
Another of the World's Great Wonders
By Alvin Durning
May 1, 1921
Did the mighty subterranean stream which eons and eons ago carved out Mammoth Cave change its course after completing one of the western world's grandest wonders and begin chiseling a great new channel through the limestone strata of Hart and Edmonson Counties? This is the query geologists are asking since the discovery of a new three-tiered cavern of gigantic proportions three miles from the great cave. Through the lower tier there rushes a river of such volume that its force carries a stream of cold water across the current of Green River when it emerges, showing up black and somber against the placid emerald of the parent stream.
Only such a river, say they, could have created the great cave - the Mecca of tourists for over a century - when its hills and cathedrals, pits and domes, stalactites and stalagmites, avenues of entrancing beauty and its gypsum, limestone and onyx, molded with uncanny touch into every conceivable form and shape.
Whither went those turbulent waters? Echo River, the bewitching stream that rises and falls with the tide of Green River, they say is not the answer. Surface rivers sometimes change their course; why not those that flow hidden from the eyes of man? Pioneering beneath the earth, Lee Collins, and his son, Floyd Collins, farmers, found in February what they believed to be the answer to the perplexing riddle after they discovered a pit leading down to a second gallery in a cave on their place, which they had already named Great Crystal Cavern from dazzling white gypsum which hangs in snowy folds from the roof and tiers of the underground passages.
A kerosene lamp, which shown with a yellowish gleam into the stygian darkness, revealed avenues of beauty never before trod by man, unless the aborigine knew this place and came here to hide from the foeman. Hardy explorers as they were they were overcome with astonishment and fright at first. A noise which they did not understand came to their ears. They listened and recognized it as the gurgling of water. Then cautiously they pressed on. Around a turn then weirdly the flickering light beams danced on the riffles of a stream forty feet wide. A ledge on one side gave ample footing. A mist rose into the air which only a Dante could depict, as the river dropped precipitately to a great hole below.
Only a moment they stood before the precipice and its yawning darkness, then retreated, feeling that they had gazed into the inferno. Two days later, after relating their adventure to skeptical neighbors, they resolved to try again. Climbing through the rat hole-like aperture which leads from the upper tiers, they carried lanterns and torches and food. Awed only a moment by the incessant roar of the water, they lighted a torch and threw it forward over the cataract. Spirally it descended, illuminating the sight with a ruddy glow, and then died suddenly in the raging waters. In that one brief moment they say they saw a wonder never before seen by man. Their dread overcome, they lighted other torches and watched the momentary lifting of the darkness in the gulf below. Estimating the distance at one hundred feet, they returned to tell their story to those who would listen.
Tarrying awhile and emboldened by what they had seen, they became enthralled with the task of exploring other passageways until lost in a labyrinth of turns and openings. Then the elder Collins discovered that their footsteps left an impression in the light glaze of sand on the cave floor. In this way they retraced their steps until they reached the upper tiers.
In four Kentucky counties, Hart, Barren, Warren and Edmonson, there are practically no creeks. The drainage is almost entirely subterranean and these hidden streams pour their waters into Green and Barren Rivers, mostly in the form of springs. The valleys are saucer shaped and flow to a center. Here are sinkholes into which the water disappears into a natural underground sewerage system - although the comparison is odious - and through these laterals, crevices in the limestone strain, it makes its way to the mains.
As a consequence nearly every farm of any size in this region can boast of a cave. Sometimes the air rushes in and out of these vents with a whistling sound. For many years Lee Collins and his father before him knew there was a cave on his farm. The narrow sinkhole entrance which breathed with the rise and fall of the temperature, seemed sinister and forbidding. Then one day the younger Collins, who had explored other caves, decided to investigate the one at the threshold of his home. About that time some rock for road building was needed and he decided that the sinkhole was an appropriate spot to blast where the limestone outcropped. The result was a larger entrance.
That was two years ago. Mustering up courage, he descended with a long rope tied about his body. Sixty feet below, he reached bottom. It was large and roomy down there. That was nothing. Everybody had caves more or less large or small. Subsequent blasting lowered the entrance until it was possible to enter without the use of a rope. It was just a cave. No concerted effort was made at exploration, but gradually by way of diversion young Collins went in every now and then just a little farther each day until one day he walked two miles and the family took notice.
He reported the recesses a veritable fairyland with snowy incrusted [sic] walls and weird ornaments of nature of nature hanging from the ceilings. The reported find spread to Cave City, ten miles away, and embryo geologists went to the scene. The result was further explorations. A mile more of galleries were explored, but here where the walls showed the passage of a mighty stream some cataclysm of nature had shaken down the arches and blocked the passageway. This was the end.
Undaunted, the father and his two sons, Marshall and Floyd, slowly removed stone after stone. In a cave there is usually no place to put debris, but luckily they found a depression caused by dripping water and threw the stones into this. Only a few yards of broken down natural masonry removed and a wonder new avenue was opened to their vista. One mile farther they found another blocked passage. This has never been opened, but in the new areaway they found the hole that led to the lower cave. On another wing which they opened up through tireless effort was revealed what may alone be classed as one of the wonders of America, "The Grand Subterranean Canyon." Here the water has cut its way down sheer perhaps 170 feet.
To the visitor this is the most inspiring sight to be seen. The walls rise abruptly on each side in somber and silent beauty. The rays of the strongest calcium light barely penetrate to the smoothly carved roof. Here and there gigantic jagged boulders which somehow resisted erosion are ominously poised aloft and seem to sway in the glinting of the lights.
Right off to the right, the guide - one of the Collins boys - leads you to what he in unassuming voice calls "The Gates of Hell." There one sees where the river recently - perhaps a million years ago - bade adieu to the upper cave and plunged below. A fall of Herculean limestone blocks effectually bars man from following in its willful course.
Then turning away only a few yards and hidden under overhanging crags, the guide dispels the gloom by announcing "one glimpse of heaven." Many have marveled at the floral creations of the vegetated world, but here hidden 300 feet beneath the haunts of men, is a strange fantastic flower garden of the mineral kingdom. Beautiful snowy white lilies of gypsum exude in plentiful array through a thin film on onyx. "Nan Ramsey's Flower Garden," it is named after the first woman who saw it and went into ecstasies of admiration.
Over in Cave City and other towns along the Dixie Highway, there are many who deal in these curios of nature and find ready buyers among the tourists, but those who ponder must decline to break from their fastenings which nature through the ages has tediously and delicately molded, each tiny drop of water adding its infinitesimal grain of building material to the whole.
Passing on down the main avenue, one often walks over a floor as smooth as an asphalt thoroughfare, then tramps over sandy spaces and at other times up and down hill. Everywhere strange beauties unfold themselves. One great white gypsum coated rock, is called "The Titanic" and looks singularly like the great ship plunging head first into the Arctic seas. Most of the beauties are unnamed, but such names as "White Mountains" or "The Glaciers" came instantly to one's tongue when great piles of white incrusted rocks are opened to the panorama of views. There is another place where a lantern placed behind a thin partition of overhanging gypsum gives an impression of the setting sun.
Uncanny freaks have been played here and there by the forces of nature. In one spot on a dark limestone wall the white gypsum has formed in the shape of a tiger springing for his prey. Many other likenesses can be pictured in the various formations by those with imagination.
The writer ventured only part way down the "rat hole," where one is loathe to squeeze and crawl in his "Sunday best," but saw enough to convince that another underground series of chambers underlies the upper tiers. Here and there, the limestone floor above gives forth a hollow echoing sound which means space beneath.
After all, Great Crystal Cavern is a cave in the making with the upper floors completed. When this work started no one can daresay, but before the swarthy sons of Egypt built the pyramids, the work was doubtless far advanced.
What stories of tragedy, these vaulted chambers could tell, they have forever sealed, but the skeleton of one human being was found in its recesses and 300 feet above the Green River in a cove choken [sic] with stalactite and stalagmite, where the waters are believed to have found an outlet in the days gone by, three skeletons, almost molded away, believed to be those of a man, a woman and a child, were found beneath the bed of the cave. The bones still lie where they were found. No one seems to care. They are just dead of a bygone age, perhaps of a tragedy of the pioneer days, by mayhap a family circle of the misty past, a man, a woman and a child.
*But I'll repeat it anyway for those unfamiliar with the story of Floyd and his cave. Great Crystal Cave, later renamed Floyd Collins' Crystal Cavern, was opened commercially after the appearance of the newspaper article. Crystal Cavern was the site of the 1954 'C-3' expedition, the first large-scale survey effort organized by the National Speleological Society. Floyd's cave, Mammoth Cave, and numerous other once-separate caves have now been connected to form the Flint-Mammoth System, at over 350 miles the longest cave in the world.
Floyd's Crystal Cavern was a commercial failure because it was too far off the beaten path. This prompted him to search for a cave nearer to good roads. But Floyd met a sad and very public fate in 1925 while exploring the nearby Sand Cave as another prospect for commercialization. A rock was dislodged in an unstable crawlway, trapping him some 70 feet below the surface. The attempt to rescue him became one of the first 'media events' of the modern era, and a carnival-like atmosphere soon surrounded the surface efforts to reach the hapless caver. Floyd was sustained for a time by sandwiches brought by William Burke 'Skeets' Miller, a slightly-build reporter for the Courier-Journal who was the only person with the body and the courage to reach him. Miller issued daily dispatches on the rescue and his own efforts, work which won him the Pulitzer Prize.
After much confusion and failed efforts a group of miners began a vertical shaft to reach the trapped caver. In the interim, however, an additional collapse cut Collins off from Miller and the world. By the time the shaft reached him, Floyd had pushed his last crawl. His body lay in state for years as a formidable if morbid tourist attraction in the cavern which bore his name. Floyd was only recently buried in a rural cemetery. For further information on this tragedy, read Trapped: The Story of the Struggle to Rescue Floyd Collins from a Kentucky Cave (A. P. Putman & Sons, New York, 1979) by Robert Murray and caver Roger Brucker.