Hidden River Cave & Horse Cave, KY

This summer we had the pleasure of having a family member come and visit with us for a week. My daughter wanted to take our cousin to a cave, as that’s one thing that makes Kentucky so special. With a last minute decision to go, Mammoth Cave was booked solid. I began to look for other caves (you know we have plenty πŸ˜‰) that we had not previously visited ourselves, and that weren’t too far of a drive. I had it down to two places and finally decided on Hidden River Cave. So, off we went with a new addition to our road trip crew. We weren’t looking for anything more than fun and adventure but as with most places in Kentucky, I found a little bit of history.

Grinstead Valley

Current Day Google Map Screenshot of US31W from Rowletts to Horse Cave, Kentucky

In the Spring of 1794, just two years after Kentucky became a state, a pioneer settler by the name of Jesse Grinstead left his home state of Virginia for new land in Kentucky. Grinstead settled on approximately 200 acres of land between present day Rowletts and Horse Cave, Kentucky. Just a few months later, in the Fall of 1794, Jesse’s brother Miles (a Revolutionary War Veteran) settled on 400 acres of land nearby. The land was likely a grant for his Revolutionary War service, although I could not find any documentation to confirm that assumption. In the Spring of 1795, William Grinstead (an assumed family member) settled on another 300 acres on what is within today’s Horse Cave city limits. This entire area would go on to be known, even if for a short time, as Grinstead Valley.

Now, William Grinstead died around 1810, leaving a large portion of his land to his son Henry. Henry Grinstead would go on to own and run a mill originally built by Elisha Johns. Upon purchasing the mill, it became known as Grinstead’s Mill. Functioning as both a grain and saw mill, it was located on the South side of Green River, just 100 yards below Dennison’s Ferry (within the present day boundaries of Mammoth Cave National Park). The mill may have been a water-powered mill first, but later became a steam-powered mill. A post office was also established at Grinstead’s Mill.

I could not find any additional information regarding Grinstead’s Mill, other than it had burned during the Civil War. It seems all that remains today is a street in Horse Cave named for it – Grinstead Mill Road.

Hart County Established

In 1819, Hart County was established taking land from Hardin and Barren counties. Munfordville, which was established in 1801, became the county seat. Munfordville, was just 8 miles north of Henry Grinstead’s land. The establishment of a county meant more settlers would come into the area as they would file paperwork and such at the county courthouse.

Louisville and Nashville Turnpike (L&N Turnpike)

In the 1830s, a cobblestone turnpike, or toll road, was built following an ancient buffalo path. This turnpike connected Louisville to Nashville with toll booths approximately every 5 miles along the route. It’s western route ran through the Kentucky towns of Elizabethtown, Munfordville, Glasgow Junction (now Park City), Bowling Green, and Franklin. It’s eastern route ran through Bardstown, Buffalo, Glasgow, and Scottsville. It became a very well used stagecoach line with numerous stops along the route.

The Louisville and Nashville Turnpike was established in the 1830s, following an ancient path used by herds of buffalo, by Native American peoples, and early European settlers. It followed the Phillips Trace, one of a handful of pioneer roads leading to points north and south, to fortified places in the wilderness. For generations this road was the main route, and easiest crossing, from Louisville to Nashville.

The Historical Marker Database

The turnpike allowed people to go from Louisville to Nashville in 3 short days, but it’s main purpose was “as a thoroughfare for farmers and businessmen from Louisville to the
Kentucky/Tennessee state line.” (Bridges to the Past) The turnpike (later known as 31-W and 31-E/Dixie Highway) would travel right through the earlier established Grinstead Valley and what would later become Horse Cave.

The turnpike was heavily traveled in the 19th century. President Andrew Jackson traveled the road several times. In 1851 the famous Swedish singer Jenny Lind rode a stage coach along this route during her tour of America.
During the Civil War, 1861-65, the turnpike was an important route for the military.

Radcliff Tourism

Creating a Town

With the turnpike now making travel and access to new areas easier, there was more interest in the land surrounding it.

In 1850, Major Albert Anderson purchased 535 acres of land in the Grinstead Valley area that had originally belonged to William and later Henry Grinstead. (While I could not find exactly who Anderson bought the land from, I would lean toward believing it would have been a Grinstead descendant of some form.)

The 535 acres that Anderson purchased surrounded an old cave (a significant 3-story sinkhole) known as Horse Cave. The cave is believed to have been discovered sometime in the 1700s, likely at the time the Grinstead family settled on the land. The natural cave entrance (the largest in the present day cave area) was massive and opened to a magnificent water supply. The cave would have been well known to those who settled in the area because “before the modern era, native Americans and later, white settlers, made their homes around this good source of water.” (Hidden River Cave)

It was an oasis of water, cool air and shelter.  There is no certain source for the name.  Several have been suggested.  The most plausible source is that the word β€œhorse” was frequently used in the 18th and 19th centuries for something extraordinarily large: horse-laugh, horse chestnut, etc. 

Hart County Tourism
Present Day Natural Cave Opening / Personal Photo

After purchasing the land, Anderson mapped out the town to be known as Horse Cave and its lots in a grid pattern, building right along the edge of the cave opening. He sold “$40,000 worth of town lots.” (Hart County Tourism)

A Train Comes to Town

Major Albert Anderson must have been a very business-savvy individual. The same year that Anderson purchased his 535 acres of land, the Commonwealth of Kentucky chartered the Louisville and Nashville (L&N) Railroad Company. When Anderson was laying out his town and selling plots of land, he planned for the railroad and its depot, and donated the land to make it happen.

In 1858, [Anderson] donated land for
the L&N depot on [the] condition that the station would always
be called Horse Cave.

Morehead State university

With the turnpike and train as modes of transportation, Horse Cave’s population grew, becoming the largest town in Hart County. It’s first store was opened in 1858 by John Lang, and the town became a major trade center for the tri-county area surrounding the Green River.

In 1879, attempts were made to create a public waterworks using the cave’s fresh water river. Walls were built to create a pool of water and pipe’s were run to carry the water out. A pumping station was attempted pushing the water to ground level supply tanks that would be used for drinking water and fighting fires. Today, some remains of this system can still be seen within the cave.

Historic hydroelectric system and water pumps at Hidden River Cave. Photo courtesy of William T. Austin Family via Hidden River Cave website

Water Source to Tourist Attraction… only Briefly

In 1916, Horse Cave at the center of Horse Cave, KY was opened to the public for tours. To promote this new tourist attraction, the owner Dr. H.B. Thomas, ran a contest to rename the cave, likely to be able to distinguish between the cave and the town. The name Hidden River Cave was chosen, a name that now makes complete sense.

It wasn’t completely smooth sailing as a tourist attraction. Roughly 30 years later, in 1943, the cave closed to tourist. For decades, the town had used the cave system as a dumping ground for its trash, industrial waste, and natural (i.e. human) waste. The odors coming from the cave entrance became toxic. The town had no idea what it had been doing to its own water supply and to the creatures within the cave system. The cave life had completely died out.

50+ Years Later

Yes, you read that right! While attempts were made over the decades to clean up the mess, it was not until 1992 that cleanup efforts were successful in beginning to bring Hidden River Cave back to life. It took many hours and many dedicated people to clean up the mess that had been made years before and left to sit and rot for decades.

In 2013, a scientific study was done finally finding twenty-one types of cave species living in Hidden River Cave.

In 2015, groundwater studies were conducted, finding that “the water quality had recovered to near drinking water standards.” (Hidden River Cave)

In 2018, a 100-foot long suspension bridge was constructed in the cave to connect the two cave passages that were divided by a 50-foot-deep canyon. In addition, concrete walkways were poured and stairs were constructed.

Finally, in February 2020, after being closed for 76 years, the Sunset Dome Tour at Hidden River Cave was open to the public!

Our Visit

When I was trying to decide which cave to take, I turned to my daughter and told her about the caves I was considering. As soon as I showed her the picture of the suspension bridge in Hidden River, she was sold and the decision was made.

We loaded up in the car and headed for Horse Cave, Kentucky. Now, as I stated in the beginning, we were just looking for something fun to do. I had no other knowledge of the cave or the town. When we pulled up in front of a downtown business, I was a little confused. I assumed we would load onto a bus that would take us to the cave entrance, like a few of the tours at Mammoth Cave do. I mean, we were in the middle of a historic small town business district. Cave entrances (at least all that I had known) were in the middle of “nowhere.”

We headed inside, paid for our tour and were told where to meet our guide. We had a few minutes to explore the small gift shop and American Cave Museum (which is included in the tour fee).

I’m not sure they would do well as Cave Spelunkers! / Personal Photos

We finally met with our tour guide at the back door of the cave museum. I thought we’d head out to the bus for a trip to the cave, but instead, we headed down a flight of stairs, out the door, and directly in front of our eyes (although 3 stories down) was the massive cave entrance! Holy Cow! I’m fairly certain my jaw dropped. This natural entrance was smack in the middle of town, with streets and buildings right on the edge of the sink hole! All three of us looked at each other stunned. I’m fairly certain my daughter said, “Who thought building on the edge of a sink hole was a good idea?” 🀣 I had to agree with her!

Hidden River Cave Entrance / Personal Photos

When we arrived at the edge of the entrance, our conversation led to the sinkholes in Florida that swallow houses whole as you lie in bed, so when we saw the stairs that led us deeper into this cave, we were not feeling very confident about this town above us! Our cousin was equally baffled and later wanted me to ask our guide how much ground was between the cave ceiling and the street above us! (Of course, I asked.)

Down is easy! Up, not so much! / Personal Photos

Once we were fully in the cave, it was absolutely worth it! While it is not the “prettiest” cave with a plethora of cave formations, it is so unique that it’s beautiful in its own category. The “hidden” river flowing beside you and later under you is incredible to see. The massive dome ceilings are nature’s work on art. The suspension bridge (the longest one in a cave in the whole world, because it’s the ONLY one in a cave in the whole world πŸ˜‰) is man’s work of art. The remnants of a time gone-by (the hydroelectric water system) wowed this history lover. The part that made it the best though was I had two teens with me that were just as enthralled as I was. (Just don’t ask them, they’ll surely act like it wasn’t cool!) You could see it in their faces and the questions they were asking.

Photos in Yellow: The Remnants of the Hydroelectric System / Photos in Green: Suspension Bridge with the River Below / Personal Photos

The tour ended at Sunset Dome, a majestic dome measuring 150 feet wide, 200 feet long, and about 100 feet high. My photo did not do it justice, and I don’t know that any photo ever could. You’ll simply have to see it for yourself. Before turning around and retracing our steps (the tour is NOT a loop), the tour guide had us all yell at the same time to experience the echo in the dome. COOL!!! So. Super. Cool. Again, you must experience it yourself.

Sunset Dome / Personal Photo

Reflection

Hidden River Cave is simply a must! Whether it’s for the history of the town and cave, for the man-made suspension bridge that you can’t find in any other cave, or for nature’s beauty… you MUST see this one. My only warning would be the amount of stairs upon return. The website does tell you the number of stairs you must climb, but until you see it for yourself, you really can’t comprehend. The only way out is to climb up the stairs you went down. Those steps are a doozy! I highly recommend you think hard about your healthy and your fitness. They are tough. You will likely need to stop at points to catch your breath and there really aren’t but a few landings along the way. Other than that, you will truly enjoy this tour. Hidden River Cave provides an experience you can’t get anywhere else in the world.

After we finally made it back to the surface, we headed on down the road to Dinosaur World. This stop was simply because we had never done it before, and I wanted my two teens to feel like little kids again. Mission accomplished, but between the two stops… I’d absolutely visit Hidden River Cave again. I’ll keep my opinion about Dinosaur World to myself. πŸ˜‰

Until next time, get out and see Kentucky! You’ll be glad you did.

Happy Travels!

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