War raged in Europe and the Pacific when this Kentucky landmark finally achieved national park status, an odd thing since this area had been well known to many for 150 years. Many of the natural formations and geological wonders that feature prominently in the western national parks were only discovered in the late 1800s and many of them protected within decades. First entered into the historical record in 1791, this massive cave was known before the area where it was located even became a state. Over the years, countless people explored it and added to knowledge of its length and depth. Despite this, it wouldn’t become a national park until World War II had began, largely because private ownership prevented it from being nationally protected. The story of Mammoth Cave National Park is full of as many twists and turns as the cave itself.
Over the years, the history of Mammoth Cave has followed the history of Kentucky, from the fossils left behind by ancient animals and plants that once roamed North America before the continent truly existed to the remains of the first prehistoric humans to claim Kentucky as their own. In more modern times, written history of the cave flows from the frontier trappers who first discovered it to its use as a saltpeter mine and even tuberculosis hospital. As the state’s fortunes changed, It was a giant during a period known as the Kentucky Cave wars when down-on-their luck post Civil War families attempted to make a quick buck off of tourists by exploiting the natural caves on their land. Internationally recognized as a gem of geological study, Mammoth Cave will always be the favorite national park in its old Kentucky home.
Much of Kentucky’s past can be uncovered through the places that no longer appear on the map. The decline of the state’s profitable coal industry is seen in the remnants of old company towns in the eastern mountains while the change from river travel to overland traffic can be seen along the state’s rivers. The changes in religion and from Native settlers to European ones can also be seen in once-thriving communities throughout the state.
The Coal Camps
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