Caves are similar. Yet, caves are different, despite sharing common histories and characteristics. When we visited Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, my thoughts kept going back to Marvel Cave underneath Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri. Mammoth Cave had been mined for saltpetre to make gun powder. Marvel Cave was mined for bat guano to make gun powder. Both caves, privately owned in early days, drew tourists, although Mammoth Cave Tours date back to 1816, further than Marvel Cave’s. Both were isolated with rutted, barely passable roads leading to their underground mysteries and beauties. Still, Marvel Cave and Mammoth Cave differ. For example, in size. Mammoth Cave currently measures 400 miles in length of discovered passages and geologists estimate there are hundreds more miles of undiscovered passageways yet to be mapped and explored. In fact, Mammoth Cave is noted as the longest cave in the world. Its narrow—and sometimes wide—passageways overlap like spaghetti layered on a large platter.
Both Mammoth and Marvel Cave have bodies of water at their lowest levels; Echo River and River Styx flow through Mammoth Cave’s deepest chambers. Marvel Cave’s two lakes are long and once were thought to be the No-Name River. One of the cave’s owners, Genevieve Lynch, led an expedition into the passage and discovered that it came to an end. However, a tall terminal pit that has two waterfalls makes climbing to the top of that passage difficult. No one has fully explored that lower depth of Marvel Cave.
Pits and domes are both characteristics of Mammoth and Marvel Caves. The Gulf of Doom in Marvel Cave was once thought to be bottomless. Rocks tossed into the darkness never resonated with sound. Superstitious folks believed the black hole was the gateway to the underworld. Later, it was discovered that clay and bat guano covered the bottom of the pit’s floor, 100 feet below. In Mammoth Cave one of its owners, after one of his slave guides totally explored the pit top to bottom had a wooden bridge built over what is called the Bottomless Pit. Visitors today trek over that deep hole on a strong metal bridge. Soft lighting permits a look down to the bottom.
Both Mammoth and Marvel Caves carry legends about a bear involved in each cave’s discovery. At Mammoth Cave about the turn of the 19th Century a man named John Houchins spotted a black bear close by the natural entrance of the cave. He shot the bear, failing to kill it outright. Houchin chased the bear until it led him to the entrance of Mammoth Cave. Nagging questions remain. Did the hunter get the bear? Was the bear chasing him? Did he duck into the cave entrance to get away from the obviously angry bear? No matter, John Houchins gained credit for discovering the cave, but the date is still debated—1798 or 1802. Of course, artifacts within Mammoth Cave document that Native Americans were there long before.
Folklore goes that a young Osage hunter chased a bear in the Ozarks. He leaped to a rock ledge on the mountainside to better aim his spear into the bear’s heart. His lunge took him and his prey over the edge and through a dark hole in the Roark Mountain. Osage kinsmen called the place the Devil’s Den. They returned the next morning and slashed a sideways V at the opening to warn of evil. No recorded person entered the cave until a lead mining magnate and a few explorers lowered themselves into the hole in 1869. Because the explorers believed they had discovered marble in the cave’s ceiling, the cave took on the name Marble Cave.
After mining operations at Marble Cave ceased (mining for bat guano, not marble), William Lynch from Canada bought the property on Roark Mountain, which included the expansive network of passages and rooms underneath the land. Sometime after his purchase, the cave’s name changed to Marvel Cave. Early on, he hired hill folks to assist his daughters, Miriam and Genevieve, as cave guides. Fifteen-year-old Fannabelle Ford helped to fit visitors with overalls with leather seats they wore for the tours. Since the cave served as refrigeration for guests’ meals at the lodge the Lynches had built, she carried both food and spring water up from the cave’s depths. Teenage boys, and one even younger, also worked for Mr. Lynch, staying on for decades as the land above the cave turned into the theme park, Silver Dollar City—patterned after the old mining town created in the 1800s.
In contrast, Mammoth Cave guides were slaves. Several of them are credited with discoveries of new passages in the cave. During the early mining days, slaves also hauled the loose sandy soil in the cave to the site of vats where the petre dirt was leached with water to separate the dirt from the salt petre.
Music resonated in past years in both Mammoth and Marvel Caves. Stories relate that Marion Lynch, trained in opera, had a piano lowered into the Cathedral Room at Marvel Cave and entertained guests with arias. Later, bands of guitars, fiddles, and a stand-up bass played in the same large room while folks from around the region danced in naturally-air conditioned comfort. In its Rotunda, Mammoth Cave hosted visiting bands, as well as numerous of its hotel’s own musicians.
As early as 1859, the L&N Railroad carried visitors within 10 miles of Mammoth Cave. From that point, they rode a stagecoach on to the cave. Tourists started traveling on the Mammoth Cave Railroad Dummy Train in 1886. Train travel to the cave improved in 1905 and 1906. By 1920, The Mammoth Cave Train could accommodate as many as 200 people per trip.
In the late 1870s, railroad tracks for the A&PRR reached Springfield, Missouri. But the mountainsides around Branson—and Marvel Cave—proved too rugged for railroad expansion. By 1920, the railroad opened, running from Branson west toward Marvel Cave. Lynch negotiated a flag-stop called Roark Station where travelers could detrain, ride a horse, or hike to the cave. Following their adventure, they returned to their coach. Previously, visitors had either ridden horseback, in wagons, or in one of the taxis driven over rock ledges that served as roads from Branson, Missouri, to Marvel Cave.
For early tours—before the caves had any electric illumination—guides and visitors carried lard oil lanterns into Mammoth Cave. The Lynches did not consider kerosene lanterns safe, so their guests depended on lighted candles.
Today Mammoth Cave offers more tours than Marvel Cave, although some of its tours overlap. The “New Entrance Tour,” now called the “Dripstones and Domes Tour,” actually was a new entrance back in 1924. The blasted entrance beyond the property line of the Mammoth Cave estate competed with Mammoth Cave–advertising that it was the only entrance that could be reached via a hard road. The New Entrance Cave came first on the same road to Mammoth Cave. The landowner, George Morrison, had an advantage over the management of Mammoth Cave and its hotel—so much of an advantage that the matter went to federal court. The courts decided that Morrison was indeed showing a part of Mammoth Cave, and could use Mammoth Cave in his advertisements. However, the judge decreed that he had to post on his signs that his tour showed only parts of the cave discovered and mapped after 1907. The New Entrance Tour ends at Frozen Niagara, a formation resembling Niagara Falls, and the most decorated portion of Mammoth Cave.
Upon their deaths, Miriam and Genevieve Lynch bequeathed the Marvel Cave property to the College of the Ozarks and the Branson Presbyterian Church. The United States Department of the Interior proclaimed Marvel Cave a Natural Landmark. Today Silver Dollar City includes a tour of Marvel Cave with its admission price.
On July 1, 1941, the world’s longest cave became the centerpiece for Mammoth Cave National Park, encompassing 52,830 acres in Kentucky. The park became a World Heritage Site on October 27, 1981, and an International Biosphere Reserve on September 26, 1990.
Both caves are treasures in America. Marvel Cave and Mammoth Cave, and numerous other caves around the nation are historical and natural history under our feet. They are worthy of our time and dollars for a ticket to tour.
For information about Mammoth Cave, go to www.nps.gov/ma
For Marvel Cave, click on http://www.visitmo.com/marvel-cave-at-silver-dollar-city.aspx