The oldest history of Kentucky sits not above ground but below it. Our state is known as the Bluegrass State for the bluegrass that grows here. That bluegrass grows because of the limestone bed that our state sits upon. That limestone bed dates back to 325,000,000 BCE (before the Christian era). I just don’t know that anything can be older than that! 🤔 😁
That Kentucky limestone bed is easily dissolved by rainwater which began to happen around 10,000,000 BCE, beginning the early formations of what would become the longest-known cave system in the world.
Now, these formations occur(ed) at a snail’s pace. It was not until 1,000,000 BCE that “the large passages that [were] the namesake of “mammoth” cave [began] to form.” (NPS Mammoth Cave) These formations were discovered by Native Americans someplace between 5,000-2,000 BCE.
Fast forward to 1790. It is believed that John Houchin, from Virginia, was the first English settler to discover a cave in Kentucky. That cave will later be discovered to be a small part of the longest-known cave system… Mammoth Cave. That term, however, will not be used until 1810.
As the years pass, Mammoth Cave (the first discovered cave in Kentucky) becomes world famous. Many people travel from miles around to visit this natural wonder. To learn more about Mammoth Cave and its history, click here.
As we know, where there is rock, there are minerals and natural resources. As far back as the Native Americans, caves had been explored for these minerals and resources. During the War of 1812, Kentucky’s cave system became important in the war effort.
“The British embargo of American ports led to a shortage and inflated price of saltpeter,” (diamondcaverns.com) so the search was on to find more caves in Kentucky where saltpeter could be mined.
Discovery of Diamond Cavern
“By 1859, Three Forks was a sleepy village with 75 inhabitants. It was universally known as Bell’s Tavern for the town’s famous hotel, and was the departure point for the eight mile trip to Mammoth Cave. Most people of means stayed at Bell’s Tavern, revered for its peach and honey brandy, and then traveled by horseback or stagecoach on the single lane rutted road to Mammoth Cave to tour the world famous attraction. One and a half miles north of Bell’s Tavern, very near the road to Mammoth Cave, a slave of landowner Jessie Coats discovered a pit in the rocky bottom of the valley on July 14, 1859. Lowered on a rope into the cave, this first visitor thought sparkling calcite formations resembled diamonds, and the name for the cave was born.”diamondcaverns.com
Competition for Mammoth Cave
The very next day, a survey team dropped down into the newly discovered cavern on rope ladders. They explored and mapped the new cave. Shortly after, steps were built to the Rotunda and a structure was built to protect the entrance.
After just one month of preparing the cave for tours, the Kennedy Bridal Party was the first to enjoy the new show cave. (Yep, they held a wedding in the cave!) You see, Mammoth Cave was largely a dry cave with big open rooms and grand avenues but no real formations. Diamond Cavern was a wet cave, which allowed for calcite formations, making it an absolute beauty to see! It was (and is) a show stopper!
Except for during the Civil War, Diamond Caverns has remained open for 163 years, which has been no easy task!
The Kentucky Cave Wars
By the mid 19th century, “Cave Fever” had gripped central Kentucky, as tourist came to see underground rivers, eyeless fish, waterfalls, and unique cave formations. Many independent caves had opened around the same time period as Diamond Caverns, creating competition for Mammoth Cave, which had cornered the market since it first began tours in 1816.
Beginning in 1880, Mammoth Cave Railroad tracks were laid just west of Diamond Caverns, which opened up travel between Park City and Mammoth Cave, allowing access to the independent caves in-between. The closer to the rail line the independent caves were, the greater chance they had for survival as a business.
When the line opened in 1886, Diamond Caverns was a primary stop on the way to Mammoth Cave, and excursion tickets were offered that allowed tourists to visit both caves on the same day, and still have time for your return home on the evening train at Glasgow Junction (now known as Park City).
The rail line also stopped at two nearby cave sites; Long Cave, promoted as Grand Avenue Caverns, and Proctor Cave.
Transportation Changes Tourism
In the early 1900s, the arrival of automobiles added to the continued tourism boom and the Cave Wars. With more ability to move off of the rail line, more caves were discovered and opened (including Great Onyx Cave and Great Crystal Cave) continuing to add to the war, taking visitors away from Mammoth Cave.
At the height of the Cave Wars, over two dozen cave businesses were in operation. Many of the smaller caves were attractive to visitors for two reasons; they were shorter tours with less walking, and they were showier, with stalactites, stalagmites, and other cave formations.
Owners and developers were trying to do things to stand out from the rest, including roadway signs and informational booths found at railroad stations and along the roadways. These informational booths were meant to direct tourists away from competition and toward their own business.
The “war” even moved into the courtroom as developers fought over the use of the name Mammoth Cave, which by this time, was world famous.
While on our tour of Diamond Caverns we learned of the Cave Wars. We have visited Mammoth Cave many times, but not once had I heard of the wars. We were informed by our tour guide that at the height of the wars, people were even sent into competitor’s caves to smash and destroy cave formations, therefore eliminating competition. While on the tour, our guide pointed out areas were formations had been broken during the wars many years before.
Saving our Cave Systems
Laws were eventually passed to protect the cave systems within Kentucky, especially when Mammoth Cave became a national park in 1941. Most competitors were out of business by the time the national park opened. Diamond Caverns, however, continued to keep its doors open. Some other smaller caves incorporated into the National Park system. The Cave Wars slowly came to an end in the 1960s, when the remaining cave businesses began to work with one another rather than against.
To read more about Diamond Cavern and its history, click here.
My daughter and I absolutely LOVED this trip! The cave is gorgeous and the tour is easy. While there are steps to maneuver, they do not all come at the same time. After visiting Mammoth Cave on several occasions, I have learned that I personally prefer “live” caves; the ones that are still wet and still growing. I suppose I see it as underground architecture. (My absolute favorite is Cave Bacon!) There is also something about receiving “cave kisses” on a tour. Our tour guide explained that when cave water drips on you, you receive “cave kisses” and it is seen as good luck. Well, we received a lot of luck that day! If you love cave “architecture” as much as I do, you will NOT want to miss this cave!
You will find Historic Diamond Caverns at 1900 Mammoth Cave Parkway, Park City, KY 42160. They are open year round from 9-4. Tours are first come, first served, and are given approximately every 30 minutes. Park City is on Central Time. You can learn more here.
I hope that you will take the time to see our oldest Kentucky history, underground!