Well, we had a good night last night at Neil’s birthday dinner and an even better day today at Mammoth Cave National Park about 60 miles or so south of Bardstown.
After finishing up yesterday we had a shower and got cleaned up for dinner…and then headed out to the Old Talbot Tavern right at the center of Bardstown. The tavern is the oldest western stagecoach stop in the US and has been in operation as a tavern, hotel, and restaurant since 1779. It’s been expanded several times over the years but the floors are all old wood with sways and creaks as you walk around and we sat in the stone section that was the original building. Supposedly there are bullet holes from way back when…and both Abraham Lincoln as well as many other famous folk have stayed here…back in the day it was pretty much the only place in the wilderness where you could spend the night, get a brew, and have something to eat.
Our waiter was Paul…who coincidentally also had a birthday yesterday…Neil also shares a birthday with Mark Cavendish (he’s a spring specialist bike racer) and one other bike racer that Connie can’t remember the name of right now.
Dinner was pretty good…we had some more of that Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale that we sampled last week…Neil looked longingly at the 23 year old Paddy von Winkle bourbon but at $100 a shot there was no way he was going to spend that. Neil had some ribs and Connie had fried chicken…then they shared a bread pudding with bourbon sauce and homemade vanilla ice cream on top after dinner…they wuz stuffed by the time they got back home. Here’s a couple of iPhone shots of the decor, brew, and the birthday boys.
By the time we went to bed it was starting to thunderstorm a lot in this area of the country…as a result we got woken up about every half hour all night by the NOAA weather radio as one thunderstorm warning after another was issued by the Weather Service in Louisville. Fortunately all of the storms missed us…the general track was to the southeast and most of them were up in southern Indiana and Illinois so they passed north of us. The only one down in our area was about 60 miles to the southwest near Fort Knox and it passed south of us. We got some medium heavy rain and a little thunder but no wind to speak of and none of the quarter sized hail that was common in the ones that passed us by.
We had set the alarm for 0530 so that we could leave by 0730 for our first scheduled cave tour at Mammoth Cave at 1000…what we didn’t realize was that the cave is in the Central Time Zone…so we got there an hour and a half early…so we sat around and looked at some of the exhibits before heading off for our tour.
Mammoth Cave National Park was established in 1926 and encompassed what was known of the cave at that time…about 24 miles or so of mapped passages…most of which were mapped by a slave named Steven Bishop who worked for the family that owned the property back in the 1800s. When the War of 1812 broke out…a Frenchman named DuPont (of chemical company fame) got a contract and produced a million pounds of saltpeter per year…this is the majority ingredient in gunpowder. Following the war there were some minor cave exploration efforts until the early 1920s when the local landowners established a committee that raised money, bought about half of what is not the park and donated it to the government. The government used eminent domain to acquire the rest of the property…according to our two tour guides there are folks who have worked there for many years and there is still a lot of resentment that their land was essentially taken from them since some of them had been farming it for generations. All of the structures on the property that was obtained were razed by the CCC during the Depression with the exception of the family cemeteries which were left intact. People with family connections can still be buried in those cemeteries.
Since the park was established the cave system has continued to be explored and there are now 400 miles of known, mapped and surveyed passageways all located in a 7 by 7 mile square. The estimation is that there are at least another 600 miles of passageways that are somewhat known but haven’t been mapped and explored. Picture a pile of spaghetti dumped on the table…maybe 1000 miles of passageways in a 7 by 7 mile square…and it’s not a very deep cave as caves go…it’s almost all shallower than 500 feet. As of today there are 12 miles of passageways open to tours. Here’s a photo of a 3D model of just the passageways near the visitor center.
Our first tour was a 2 mile, 2 hour walk through the most well known and historic portions of the cave…we bottomed out at 310 feet below ground. Heading about 200 yards from the visitor center we headed down the steps into what is known as the Historic entrance to the cave…before the park was established this was one of two entrances that were used. Let me apologize here if some of these shots from the cave are less than tack sharp…no flashes or tripods are allowed and Neil pushed the ISO on the camera to the maximum value but that’s about all he could do. Most of the shots were handheld although he did use Connie or a railing for a tripod on some of them when he could.
Heading into the entrance we first stopped at the Rotunda which is about 140 feet down…this is a large room about 3/4 of an acre in size and 40 feet tall that was the central processing area for the saltpeter production during the early 1800s.
Following that we proceeded over Bottomless Pit (which is actually only about 120 feet deep), past Giant’s Coffin, then ducked a little deeper into another passage as we headed back towards the Rotunda. In this passage we passed sections named Fat Man’s Misery and Tall Man’s Misery…so named since the first is only 14 inches wide at it’s narrowest and the second only 34 inches tall so you have to duck walk through it. We then started up and passed through the Methodist Church and entered the bottom of the Tower which is a 190 feet deep pit. Climbing up the stairs we then headed up Audubon Avenue back to the Rotunda then back to the Historic Entrance and exited the cave. The temp inside was 54 degrees and very dry…Mammoth is different from most caves in that the cave itself was bored through limestone by water action. However, there is a layer of sandstone over top of the limestone layers…this is much harder stone and doesn’t have the chemical reaction that limestone does to dissolve so you get a lot of pretty flat roof sections over the eroded/dissolved limestone chambers. When we got out…Connie’s glasses fogged up since it was now 85 and humid outside. Here are some of the best shots we got today…I’ll label them if I can remember what they were but otherwise they’re all part of the first tour.
Ranger Thomas holding up a whale oil lantern which was used for tours until the 1950s when the cave was outfitted with electricity.
Connie in Fat Man’s Misery.
And some 175 year old graffiti.
After our first tour we had some lunch at the Cave Cafe then headed out to meet Ranger Heather for our second tour…the Domes and Dropstones Tour. This was another 2 hour tour but was only about 3/4 mile total…it had a lot more up and down than the morning did. Entering what is known as the New Entrance (the other original entrance…but it’s still over 100 years old) we went straight down a staircase that would have been at home on a submarine until arriving 250 feet down at the Grand Central Station chamber.
Along the way we spotted a fossilized snail and a really tall chamber we passed under.
Some copper laden rocks and the original entrance into the Grand Central Station chamber before the wall was blasted down to make a passage…the original people on this tour had to navigate through this maybe 16 inch wide crack.
The Grand Central Station Chamber (this is only half of it) and the Flat Ceiling Chamber (the flat section in the middle is sandstone, about 20 feet arose, and almost as flat and smooth as poured concrete.
We then exited the area of this tour that is underneath the sandstone…which means that the cave got a lot wetter and thus we started to see the stalactites and stalagmites that you normally think of as being a key feature of caves.
The Frozen Niagara section.
Crystal Lake…this is a small pond about 80 feet below the tour trail of unknown water depth.
Some Cave Crickets (which are more closely related to grasshoppers than crickets). These are about an inch and a half across.
We then exited the cave, walked through the White Nose Fungus bath again (did that after the first tour as well) and left the park.
White Nose Fungus is deadly to bats and has wiped out about 1/3 of all the bats in the eastern part of the country in the past 10 years or so. The cave is infected with it but to attempt to minimize the spread of it between areas of the cave and other caves you walk through an anti fungal solution on exit from the cave to kill any spores on your shoes.
On the way out of the park we spotted a couple of deer and some turkeys and Neil got a few photos of them as well.
Shortly after this last one we had a brief but seriously hard rain shower…fortunately it cleared up by the time we got the 8 miles back out to the freeway. We headed home for showers and left over fried chicken dinner and then watched TV until bedtime.
Tomorrow we’re off to see Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home.