In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, visitors to south-central Kentucky’s cave region were likely bound for Mammoth Cave, a seemingly never-ending network of passageways offering cool air and magnificent underground spaces. Once nearby, tourists would spot billboards for rival caves and hear hucksters’ accompanying pitches. They might be besieged by leaflet-bearing locals encouraging them to visit competitors. Some of these “cappers,” as the visor-wearing roadside advertisers were called, tossed reading material into cars or climbed onto the vehicles’ running boards—narrow platforms attached to car doors—to guide drivers away from Mammoth Cave.
Few travelers realized just how much was at stake as cappers vied for their attention. Behind the billboards, promises of onyx troves and cavalier marketing tactics lay a complex web of lawsuits, violence and tragedy. By the time the Kentucky Cave Wars ended in the 1960s, the “competition and conflict” had damaged “lives, resources and reputations,” according to the National Park Service (NPS). Still, the drama had at least one positive outcome. It drove “the people of cave country to actively explore the region for nearly a century,” the NPS notes, laying the groundwork for what is now the world’s longest known cave system: Mammoth Cave National Park.
Native Americans discovered Mammoth Cave as early as 5000 B.C.E. But it wasn’t until the 1790s that the cave system caught the attention of white settlers. The first formal tour of the cave took place in 1816; over the next five decades, luminaries ranging from Ralph Waldo Emerson to opera singer Jenny Lind to naturalist John Muir visited the site. As Mammoth Cave’s popularity skyrocketed in the late 19th century, developers took steps to capitalize on the tourist boom, opening rival caves and redirecting motorists to their own attractions.
“The people [in the region] were pretty poor farmers,” says David Randolph Kem, author of The Kentucky Cave Wars: The Century That Shaped Mammoth Cave National Park. “By the time the early 20th century came along, they [had found] most of the resources and caves in the area. The wealthy people who were traveling to see Mammoth Cave provided an opportunity that [locals] otherwise would not have. There was a whole lot more money to be made in the tourism industry than there was … in pretty much any other part of life. There was so much competition that if you weren’t willing to go above and beyond, you really wouldn’t stand a chance [at being] successful.”
Summarizing the cutthroat environment for the Chicago Tribune in 1925, reporter Tom Killian wrote, “Every boy growing up knows that it’s either a case of going out among the ‘furriners,’ getting a job as a cave guide or, best of all, discovering a cave for himself.” Ultimately, the goal was to “settle down and ‘hustle’ tourists, a local expression.”
Some cappers threw rocks when tourists approached a rival caver, or they masqueraded as fellow tourists who had just learned that Mammoth Cave was too filled with kerosene smoke to enjoy. Another tactic was telling tourists that all the caves were connected, so no matter which one they entered through, the experience would be identical.
Tensions between cave operators could turn deadly. As the Richmond Daily Register reported in 1921, an argument broke out after Len Ferguson, Mammoth Cave’s 30-year-old postmaster, informed Clell Lee, a 26-year-old associated with the Great Onyx Cave, that “there was no mail for him.” (Another account reported that both men were “engaged in the taxicab business.”) Ferguson shot Lee twice in the back, killing him instantly. The violence, according to the Register, was “said to have been an outgrowth of rivalry between employees” at the two tourist attractions.
Other business battles were fought in court. In the early 1920s, George Morrison, a former oilman, tried to steal business from Mammoth Cave by opening an alternative entrance. He illegally surveyed the surrounding area in hopes of finding a passageway to the cave system beyond the bounds of the land owned by the Mammoth Cave Estate. In 1921, he blasted a sinkhole on a neighboring property, then sent a crew to explore the caverns below. The search effort was successful, and Morrison opened his “New Entrance to Mammoth Cave” the following spring.
Rival cappers dug holes in the road to prevent cars from accessing caves and force landowners to make costly repairs. They also broke into each other’s caves and damaged rock formations, says Kem, who has worked as a guide at Mammoth Cave since 2010. In court in 1928, a witness alleged that Andy Lee Collins, manager of Collins’ Onyx Cave, paid him $2 for each competitor sign he destroyed. If the man burned down a rival company’s office, the payout would rise to $10.
In his book, Kem quotes Joe Duvall, a former capper who remembered pretending to write down tourists’ license plates as they drove by. When the visitor stopped to investigate, Duvall directed them straight to his employer’s cave. “Most of them were apologetic,” the capper recalled, saying they hadn’t realized they were supposed to stop. In response, he told them, “I’m here to … help you and give you official information about the cave, the park and the area.”
Cave owners often borrowed money from bankers so they could build ticket booths and gift shops, wrote Robert K. Murray and Roger W. Brucker in their 1982 book, Trapped! The Story of Floyd Collins. “In warm weather, they herded those they could find into their caverns, down makeshift stairways and past misspelled signs. In cold weather, they hunted more caves.”
Lawsuits brought by the competing estate accused Morrison of using “intimidation, threats, force, violence and other unlawful means” to stop Mammoth Cave employees from attracting visitors, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal. The suits also sought to prevent Morrison from using the name “Mammoth Cave” in any marketing materials. But while these efforts were partially successful, prompting a judge to order Morrison to add a disclaimer to his pamphlets, attempts to force the operation to shut down failed, and Morrison maintained ownership of the property until 1932.
Morrison’s rise to prominence arrived at a turning point for Kentucky’s cave industry. In 1925, a local caver named Floyd Collins (brother of Andy Lee Collins, the manager later charged with paying someone to burn rival caves’ signs) ran into trouble while exploring Sand Cave. Collins’ family owned the nearby Great Crystal Cave, which he had discovered in 1917. But the business struggled to attract visitors due to its remote location, so on January 30, 1925, Collins set out to find another tourist-worthy cave closer to the main road.
According to the NPS, Collins had to squeeze through tight passageways, “at one point … [inching] through on his stomach, with one arm stretched out ahead of him, pushing his lantern, and the other arm at his side.” By the time he reached a more open section of Sand Cave, his light was faltering, so he turned around. While pushing through the narrow space, he knocked over a 27-pound boulder that pinned his ankle in place.
The son of Sand Cave’s owner found Collins the next day. But initial rescue efforts failed, and soon, journalists, locals, would-be rescuers and volunteers alike flocked to the site. As gawkers arrived on the scene, tensions mounted between locals advocating one rescue strategy and outsiders pushing for another. Ultimately, the state’s lieutenant governor brought in soldiers to maintain order.
On February 2, William “Skeets” Miller, a small-statured reporter at the Courier-Journal, crawled through the cave in hopes of talking to Collins. Miller, who eventually won a Pulitzer Prize for his series of interviews with the doomed man, found Collins’ face covered by a small piece of oilcloth. When Miller removed the fabric, Collins cried, “Put it back. Put it back—the water.” As Miller recounted, “I noticed a small drip-drip-drip from above. Each drop struck Collins’ face. The first few hours he didn’t mind, but the constant dripping almost drove him insane. His brother had taken the oilcloth to him earlier in the day.”
Collins died before rescuers reached him on February 16, a full 17 days after he first entered Sand Cave. Experts suggested he’d succumbed to exhaustion and starvation between one to five days earlier but couldn’t pinpoint his exact time of death. Either way, he’d survived longer than expected by Miller, who believed he’d died as soon as February 5. In the decades that followed, the 37-year-old’s tragic demise inspired books, songs, a musical and at least one movie.
When Collins became trapped, observers were so accustomed to the endless battling over the region’s caverns that some accused him of staging the accident for publicity. “The cave region folk have many of the characteristics of the mountaineers of Kentucky and Tennessee,” noted the New York Times on February 15. “It is said that feuds and factional feeling among Collins’ kith and kin and others were responsible for failure to extricate him when he was first found.” One rumor cited by the Chicago Daily Tribune claimed that Collins stayed in the cave for a brief period, then snuck out and went into hiding. A county attorney told reporters he would investigate the accusations against the Collins family.
The willingness to believe that people would go to such horrifying lengths for publicity stemmed in part from how outsiders saw Kentucky. “The ‘cave men’ of Kentucky are now reverting to the chief pastime of their ancestors—war,” wrote one reporter in 1928. “They scorn regular work,” argued the author of the February 15, 1925, New York Times article. “They are without ambition to go to the cities. … With little education in the schools but much in the ways of wild things, they are impatient of restraint or discipline.”
Melanie Beals Goan, a historian at the University of Kentucky, says that stereotypes of Kentuckians are common. The region consistently intrigues outsiders, she adds.
“Kentucky—still to this day—is a really fascinating place because it’s so paradoxical,” Goan says. “You have this polished image of the mint julep [cocktail] and the [Kentucky] Derby juxtaposed with this picture people have of it being a more violent, backward place, and those two things together make it interesting and exciting.”
The notorious feud between the Hatfield and McCoy families, which unfolded partly in eastern Kentucky in the 19th century, received plenty of national coverage, Goan says. But that conflict, like the cave wars, wasn’t just about turbulence for its own sake. Instead, the historian explains, “The Hatfield-McCoy feud is really about substantive matters, and in a similar way, the cave wars are about establishing one’s economic future in a [place] where small-scale farming wasn’t working anymore. The cave wars, like Hatfield and McCoy, are over the land and the resources and one’s ability to remain solvent.”
By 1938, Mammoth Cave advertised that its tour guides were “carefully selected from families in the vicinity who through generations have passed on from father to son Mammoth Cave lore,” according to the Times. The site’s paramountcy over rival caves was firmly established in 1941, when Mammoth Cave became a national park. In June 1953, however, Collier’s magazine ran an article about “Kentucky’s crazy cave war,” detailing the continued rivalry between the park and local, privately owned caves. The clash only ended in the 1960s, when “cave owners began looking for ways to cooperate and cross-promote,” according to the NPS.
Today, more than two million people visit Mammoth Cave annually. And privately owned sites like Crystal Onyx Cave represent a welcome alternative for visitors looking to explore off the well-trodden path.
As Kem says, caves demand passion. “I can’t explain how the cave makes you feel,” he adds. “It’s a different environment. We call it getting [bitten] by the cave bug. You just can’t get enough of it.”