floyd collins at sand caveWe would take a lot of family roadtrips around Kentucky as kids, one of my favorites was the trip to Mammoth Cave.  With over 400 miles of explored cave (and more added every year) it’s twice as big as the next largest.  The road leading into the park from neighboring Cave City is littered with roadside oddities, fun houses, go-kart tracks and souvenir shops.  It’s the kind of thing kids go crazy for, and I seem to have never grown out of.  It was here that 7 year old me first heard the story of Floyd Collins.

Floyd grew up on Mammoth Cave’s neighboring Flint Ridge long before the National Parks service swallowed everything up.  Before there was Yellowstone or Yosemite to attract throngs of tourists, there was a string of privately owned, self explored caves in western Kentucky.  Family members would line the road side, flagging down cars trying to convince motorists that their cave was the biggest, closest, most spectacular in the region.  It was a high stakes, cut throat game with families’ livelihoods on the line.

Floyd was one of the best known cavers in the area.  He grew up in the caverns underneath the family’s farm and preferred it to most anything.  With investors acquiring the larger caves and using their wealth and influence to push the railroad and road building to their cave’s front door, making a living off the smaller, more remote caves became difficult.  Floyd believed that these smaller remote caves all linked into the larger system and he could bypass the main entrance, he just had to find the passage.

floyd collins - sand cave crowdIn 1925 while exploring the newly discovered Sand Cave just before the parks main entrance, Floyd Collins found himself in bad spot.  100 or so feet under the surface, in a tight passage, Floyd knocked over his lamp and found himself navigating in complete darkness by memory.  Accidentally dislodging an overhead rock, his leg became pinned to the ground and his arms were wedged to his sides.  Floyd was trapped.

Family and neighbors began looking for Floyd when they realized he had not come home the previous night.  Word spread and people from all over began to congregate at the opening of Sand Cave.   Radio newscasts were a new invention and broadcasters were reporting live from the scene.  Everyone was suddenly able to share in the tragedy of Floyd’s circumstance.  They tried to pull him out with ropes only further injuring him.  A larger collapse then occurred from the drilling of a parallel shaft.  14 days after Floyd was first discovered missing, he succumbed to exposure, thirst and starvation.  It took another 2 months to recover his body.

floyd collins deadThe story only gets more bizarre from here.  Check out Murray and Brucker’s “Trapped!  The Story of Floyd Collins” for a riveting account of the tale.  It took only the first 5 pages for me to know with certainty that cave exploration will not be making my list of things to do.  This weekend I drove down to Cave City, KY and walked around in the woods looking for what was left of the history.  The trail back to Sand Cave is now wheelchair accessible and has interactive signage explaining the ordeal.  Tucked away off the beaten path is Floyd’s home and ticketing office that lead to the Collins’ money maker “Crystal Cave”.  The Mammoth Cave Baptist Church still stands next to the graveyard where Floyd’s body would eventually be laid to rest.  If you dig enough, there are always some strange, dark tales behind what appears to be a happy family vacation spot.