Karst:  Mammoth Cave National Park

The Kentucky landscape where Mammoth Cave National Park exists was occupied by early American people know as Paleo-Indians. The land is acknowledged as sacred by the Shawnee (Shawandasse Tula); Yuchi (S’atsoyaha); and Cherokee (Tsalagu wetiyi) Nations.

Mammoth Cave National Park, the largest of all cave systems in the world, designated as a park in 1941, has an unusual history. During the Archaic period, 8000-1000 B.C, early Native Americans used the cave entrance for shelter, and during the Woodland Period, 1000-900 B.C, Early Woodland people grew various plants that were brought on trips into the cave. Tribes used the area for mining, making pottery, conducting trade and for ceremonial activities. They may have been attracted by gypsum and other minerals found inside the caves, and various bodies of early cave users have been found inside the cave. Fragments of slipper sandals have also been found in the cave, as shown in the painting. There are burial sites within the cave system, and in early years, Native Americans may have lived in the cave as they were moving from hunter-gathering way of life to a farming community.


In the 18th c. Shawnee and Cherokee people used the land for hunting. During the French and Indian War, the first European settlers found an entrance to Mammoth Cave. Because saltpeter was present in the cave, the cave became a source of gunpowder. In 1798 Valentine Simons claimed the 200 acres that included the caves, and then sold it to two brothers, who began commercial production of saltpeter. As many as 70 African American slaves worked within the cave to leach saltpeter. The wonders of the cave eventually became known and in the 19th century, tours were led through the caves to people who came from afar to see the various formations inside the caves. These tours were primarily led by African American slaves, who played a vital part in developing tours and the visitor experience of Mammoth Cave.

Descendants of these various guides also led tours, so that the cave is integral with African American history in Kentucky as a family tradition of employment. Among the well-known tour guides were Stephen Bishop, whose bravery in traversing deep parts of the cave have allowed for modern tours of the Bottomless Pit, (he and the Pit are depicted in the painting); and Mat Bransford and Nick Bransford (not related!). Because during the Jim Crow era, blacks who wanted to visit could not stay in “white only”hotels, Mat and Zemmie Bransford developed a resort in 1921 for African American visitors, (an advertisement for the resort is included in the painting) allowing for both meals and rooms, that stayed in existence through part of the 1930s. Jerry Bransford is a fifth-generation guide for Mammoth Cave!


A Dr. Crogan bought the Cave in 1839; he built a stone clinic inside the cave for tuberculosis patients. He persuaded patients to live inside the cave for one year, feeling that the air inside the cave was pure and medicinal. There is a photograph of these patients (as depicted in the painting) and the remains of this stone house still exists. Of course, the patients did not recover inside the cave, and in fact, three died, ending the experiment after four months.

Many that toured used long sticks with fire at the end to write their names in smoke on the ceiling of the cave, and these are still to be seen today.


Currently, the Park is threatened by a variety of man-made problems. Mammoth Park’s varied and fragile ecosystem are threatened by groundwater pollution, invasive species and nearby industrial development. The primary activities that affect the park’s water quality include: disposal of domestic, municipal and industrial sewage, solid waste disposal, agricultural and forestry management practices, oil and gas exploration and production, urban land-use and recreational activities. A rare breed of endangered shrimp (depicted in the painting) lies within the labyrinth in ponds, and are protected by conservation efforts.


The estimated annual average natural visibility at Mammoth Cave is 113 miles. Air pollution, however, reduces average visual range to approximately 14 miles from June through August, making Mammoth Cave one of America's haziest national parks. In fact, Mammoth Cave, as well as Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountain national parks, are among the most polluted national parks in the country of those that monitor air quality.


In 1981, Mammoth Cave National Park became a World Heritage Site, creating some protections and providing a recognized valuation of the unique ecology. Currently, solar panels are in use near the visitor’s center. Recycling, as in every National Park, encourages visitors to be responsible, and even wood is recycled for building any trail markings or paths. There is a designated E-85 ethanol fueling station, the first in any National Park, so that all park vehicles use this fuel. Tours inside the Cave provide the only access in, so that human use is limited in number. In addition, Mammoth Cave has close to 1000 archaeological sites that are monitored by seven local Native American groups to keep them properly preserved. The tribes are the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, the Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians of North Carolina, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians of Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma.


Because the Cave system is so vast, there are still many parts of the Cave that have not yet been traversed. Scientists and archaeologists still discover new areas and formations as they continue to try to tour the more remote parts of the Cave.