Mammoth Cave’s African American Legacy

With more than 400 miles of explored caves, Mammoth Cave in Kentucky is the longest known cave system in the world and one of the first tourist destinations in North America. Home to thousands of years of human history and a wide variety of plant and animal species, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve. Mammoth Cave is home to 130 different kinds of fauna and every sort of cave formation, including icicle-like stalactites and perplexing white gypsum blooms. Guides from the National Park Service take 500,000 tourists through narrow corridors, inclining shafts, and enormous chambers that were carved out by flowing water millions of years ago. African Americans were a crucial part of Mammoth Cave's rich history from the moment modern civilization first rediscovered it. It is uncertain how much of the cave we would know about without Stephen Bishop's slave labor and talents shaping the cave into what it is today.

Beginning in the 18th century, enslaved African Americans labored in the cave to make saltpeter. Saltpeter was a key element in the manufacture of black gunpowder, which was crucial during the War of 1812. The mining operation featured poor working conditions. Long hours were spent working in the cave, with workers often arriving before dawn and departing after dusk. The cave was filled with smoke from oil lights and fires, making it almost impossible to see and breathe. Furthermore, they continuously had darkness and cold around them while they worked. These soldiers sacrificed their own freedom in order to preserve the independence and freedom of the United States.

Photo Credit: National Park Services

After the war, Mammoth Cave transformed from a saltpeter production facility to a world-renowned tourist site, which African Americans contributed in major ways to developing. Enslaved men and women cleaned rooms, changed linens, and prepared meals at the Historic Mammoth Cave Hotel. Stephen Bishop, who was 17 years old at the time, was brought to the cave by his owner Franklin Gorin, a lawyer who sought to develop the area as a tourist destination, in 1838. Bishop navigated the mysterious caves with the aid of ropes and a flickering torch, finding passages, fording dark pits, and sailing on Mammoth's underground rivers. It was a risky job. Bishop encountered a complicated honeycomb of sinkholes, fractures, fissures, rocks, domes, and underwater springs, whereas now much of the cave is lighted by electrical lights and cleansed of debris. A faulty lamp meant seclusion in total blackness and quiet. The possibility of being completely blind without any sensory input seemed quite serious. But it's difficult to overestimate Bishop's impact because some of the branches he studied weren't discovered again until the advent of modern technology. The previous mine superintendent trained Bishop as a cave guide, and Bishop in turn trained Mattison (Mat) and Nick Bransford, who are unrelated to one another and who Gorin rented from their owner for $100 per year. Their signatures, which they created using candle smoke, appear throughout the cave. Jerry Bransford, a current Mammoth Cave guide and Mat Bransford's great-great grandson continuing the family’s legacy, claims that " We can find [their names] in places that kind of frighten me to go today, and we have modern lighting... I’m thinking that if you were in slavery and you were charged to explore the cave, you were free in the cave to make a life however you wanted. I think they knew that if they did this well enough, life would be much better than in the hay field or the barn lot. "

Photo Credit: James St. John

Although each slave guide eventually attained freedom, their lives were difficult during a time when the country was divided over their place in society. They might not have understood the significance of their presence in their lifetime. Today, however, they are remembered as legends rather than as enslaved people. The passageways of Mammoth Cave and the words you hear during today’s modern cave excursions are still filled with their tales and discoveries.

Photo Credit: Library of Congress 

Photo Credit: Ed Reinke, AP 

Location: Mammoth Cave KY

Within a two-hour drive of well-known towns like Louisville, Lexington, and Nashville, Kentucky's Mammoth Cave is a gigantic network of tunnels and chambers that collectively make up the world's longest cave system. Along with its deep river valleys, rolling hills, and nearly every sort of cave formation, it is home to over 130 species of fauna. It is also the most diverse cavern system on the entire planet.

Address: One Mammoth Cave Pkwy. Mammoth Cave KY 42259

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If you go:

Mammoth Cave National Park doesn't charge admission, but tours can cost anything from $4 to $66. There are several different tours offered, each with a distinct set of sights, length, and level of effort. They are all quite unforgettable experiences that range in length from 2 to 6 hours. Guided walks past magnificent landmarks including Frozen Niagara, Grand Avenue, Fat Man's Misery, and The Rotunda are popular tour option. Hiking paths weave through enchanted woodlands, through deserted cemeteries, ancient monuments, and breathtaking scenery. Even during the warmest months of summer, the deeper parts of the cave maintain a constant temperature of 54 degrees. Cave temperatures can fluctuate greatly, particularly around the entrances and throughout the winter. For this reason, no matter what time of year you come, a light jacket is advised. After a long day of adventure, you may drift off to sleep at one of the campsites that are perched on the banks of the Green River. There are many ways to enjoy the history and beauty of this special place, and large, easily accessible visitor centers offer a lot of information.

Fun Facts:

  1. Mammoth Cave is recognized as one of the seven natural wonders, along with Crater Lake, Niagara Falls, Hawaii Volcano Natural Park, Devil's Tower, Old Faithful, and Death Valley, on and other websites.
  2. The first Native civilizations of Kentucky explored the cave system more than 4,000 years ago. The place was mostly utilized as a hunting refuge during inclement weather. During exploration, pottery, prehistoric tools, and other artifacts from the past have all been discovered in various locations, along with skeleton and mummified remains. Explorers estimate the Native Americans only traveled around 20 kilometers inside the caverns based on the data gathered over the years.
  3. More than 12 uncommon species, including the rare Albino Shrimp, Kentucky Eyeless Cave Shrimp, Southern Cave Fish, and Indiana Eyeless Crayfish, may be found in the cave system. Additionally, there are several bat species, including the Indiana Bat and the Eastern Pipistrelle Bat. Limited populations of the endangered Kentucky Cave Shrimp, Indiana Bat, and Gray Bat remain in the caverns as well.

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Rajaa Sultanah

Rajaa Sultanah is a sneaker and fashion enthusiast from Philadelphia, Pa with a Major in Sports & Entertainment and Minor in TV & Film from Howard University. She enjoys working as a creative, entrepreneur, and influencer. She is always looking for her next creative opportunity. You can follow her on Instagram @Rajaa.Sultanah