In the caves of Kentucky: the Floyd Collins saga

Editor’s note: This is something a little different from Fritz Ackerman. It’s a three-part series about a true event far removed from the Clear Fork Valley, but still quite fascinating. Enjoy … unless you’re claustrophobic.

The 1925 January thaw was softening the ground near Mammoth Cave, Ky., and no one knew any better its fateful significance than Floyd Collins as he lay hopelessly trapped 55 feet underground in a tight limestone bottleneck of a little-known cavern called Sand Cave. Collins had grown up in the hardscrabble Kentucky uplands where generations of kids and adults ventured into the myriad limestone caves etched out by centuries of groundwater erosion. Impoverished farmers found that tourists and collectors would pay handsomely for the crystals, geodes, stalactites, onyx, and other prehistoric oddities like Indian sandals—even mummies—of prehistoric man, periodically found in this subterranean world.

So it figured that “cavers” like the 45 year-old Collins might see a brighter future scratching around under the ground than in the poor soil above it. While Collins’ personal interest went deeper (so to speak), than profit, his destitute family’s finances were tied to caving and especially to the obscure Crystal Cave which Floyd had discovered in 1917. Floyd’s theory was that all local caves, even Crystal with its exquisitely beautiful formations, eventually connected to the famous Mammoth Cave, which of course, his family didn’t own. If the theory proved true, the legal position of the various cave owners who competed for tourist traffic, might change, and owners of the less attractive caves might claim that a “new”—and legal—entrance to Mammoth was indeed on their property. Tourists could then lawfully be enticed, and formerly less-visited caves might grab some of Mammoth’s trade.

Floyd, a loner and acknowledged expert among the area cavers, would leave for hours to explore cracks, crevices and sink-holes, then unexpectedly pop up in a field or woodlot several miles from his point of entry, often disguising the ”exit wounds” in the earth from inquisitive eyes. Floyd Collins had learned by lamplight and as often by feel, the limestone wonders of a sunless world where blind cave fish swam in unseen waters below precipitous drops and cascading crystal formations glittered in his lantern’s dull glow. He usually took a can or two of beans, 70 feet of rope, a lantern and a compass needle on those lonely expeditions. The compass needle wasn’t to guide him, he claimed, but instead was to augment his body’s natural magnetism. Actually it was talisman, a good luck charm. In this latter purpose, however, in Sand Cave on January 30th, 1925 Floyd’s lucky compass needle failed him horribly.

Mohican’s Hemlock Falls or Little Lyons Falls are similar to the Sand Cave site: wooded surroundings and sandstone ledges of overhanging rock, each sheltering a crescent-shaped spot, but whose constant dripping keeps the moist soil cool and plantless. Floyd, with rope and lantern entered Sand Cave, a tight, mud-lined passage which could only be slithered through in some spots, with little room to crawl, let alone sit up or stand. For 150 feet of absolute darkness this damp, rock-strewn passage turned, narrowed or switched back underneath itself, such that a caver had, at times, to wriggle upside down. For us, this claustrophobic crawl through a strange, winding, mud-slick tube would be terrifying enough without the knowledge that turning around whenever panic seized you simply wasn’t possible.

Floyd continued down. He’d been this far before, having earlier removed some large stones and other obstructions. Finally came a 10-foot-long chute so tight and steeply sloped, you had to drop into it feet first or risk being unable to push yourself up and backward to a turnaround spot. Floyd dropped down the chute. At the bottom he next worked his hobnailed boots into a narrow crevice that met the chute horizontally at 90 degrees. He believed this new unexplored “pinch” was a secret link to other caverns, judging by the cave winds he felt as he inched his feet farther into it. The crevice rose only about six inches above Floyd’s chest, tight on each side, and perhaps ten feet long before it opened onto a wide ledge overlooking a 60-foot drop.

Continuing feet first, Floyd noticed above him a solid four-foot square of limestone, essentially the ceiling of the tight coffin-like tunnel. Other loose stones, various size pebbles, sand and mud formed the walls of the passage, and Floyd was careful to avoid bumping or displacing anything likely to cause a collapse, especially of the two-ton block directly over his chest. Floyd made it through, muddy, soaked and sweating. Securing the rope for some future trip into the intriguing 60-foot precipice, he wriggled head first back into the tight gravelly crevice leading to the steep chute and the serpentine route he’d just come in by. Pushing the kerosene lantern ahead of him as far as he could, he would then twist and squirm, shrugging ahead inch by inch till reaching the lantern which he would again push ahead. This time it fell over, broke and went out.

Even to the cave-savvy Floyd, this was unnerving. On his first trip through the tight pinch Floyd had seen—and feared—a peculiar hanging stone and vowed not to disturb it. However, in his attempts to “crayfish” backward in the dark, his knee dislodged the 27-pound rock which dropped, pinning his left foot into v-shaped groove in the floor of the passage. His progress halted, Floyd lay on his back, tilted about 45 degrees toward the left, arms trapped down along his sides, and a solid limestone block five inches above his face. Lime water dripped maddeningly onto his face. The more he struggled, the more loose stone and dirt settled around him. Soon he could not move. It’s the kind of nightmare we gratefully wake from. But Floyd wasn’t dreaming. This was his situation by evening on Jan. 30, 1925. No one knew for sure where he was, and he would spend this first night terrified, screaming and praying. But it wasn’t over for him. We’re out of space for now. Let’s pick it up here next time.



Special to the Bellville Star