© NPS Photo
Either one of two 19th-century brothers with the surname Houchin, (historical accounts don’t agree – some say it was John and others, Francis) was the first European to have encountered the caves, in 1797, in the throes of a bear hunting expedition. He was desperately fleeing a bear when he fell into a hole, and discovered it to be a kaleidoscope of complex natural architecture.
Within a year after their discovery, a prospector by the name of Valentine Simons had begun exploiting the caves for the residue of saltpeter that could be siphoned out from it and reused commercially as an ingredient for gunpowder. In the 19th century, the cave was mined for calcium nitrate, which was another ingredient for explosives. It was, indeed, a time of war in America.
Fortunately or not, the next prospector to take over the land in the 1830s was a man by the name of Franklin Gorin, who became rich through slave trade rather than war, and he saw the value of the land as a tourist destination, and began exploiting his slaves to be tour guides and cave explorers. The rest, proverbially speaking is Mammoth Cave National Park history.
Jumping ahead to 1926, after several years of controversy and in-house battles about the ownership and marketability of the caves, and the land surrounding it, concerned private citizens in the area formed an association to protect the integrity of the site. This was an important and acrimonious time in the history of the national park, as many farmsteads and domestic residencies which had been established in the area, were forced to be uprooted and moved away.
By 1941, the Mammoth Caves was established as a national park. And after 40 more years, it came under the heritage protection offered by Unesco. And it was made an International Biosphere Reserve in 1990. But still, the Mammoth Caves continue to prove to be fascinating repositories of ancient gems, of an archaeological nature and even to this day, new by-ways and passages are being discovered. Over the years, this network of mysterious chambers made of solid rock has fascinated dozens of explorers, geologists and archaeologists and there’s a research trail all over the terrain which successfully melds the curiosity value on the part of the ordinary visitor with the research value for the in depth environmental scientist.