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More than a Metaphor: Maps of Mammoth Cave

This is a guest post by Kelly Bilz, Librarian-in-Residence in the Geography and Map Division.

Beneath the surface of west-central Kentucky winds a complex system of rivers and grottos known as Mammoth Cave. Named “mammoth” for its size, the cave doesn’t have much to do with the creature—although mammoths and mastodons did live in Kentucky near Big Bone Lick (which was labelled on a 1784 map by John Filson with the addendum, “Bones are found here”). Instead, Native Americans and later residents of Kentucky were drawn to the cave for its mineral resources and geological curiosities.

The Library of Congress has in its collections an early map of the cave from 1835, created by a civil engineer from Cincinnati, Edmund F. Lee.

A detailed map of Mammoth Cave showing various features and routes.

Map of the Mammoth Cave : Accompanied with notes. Map by Edmund F. Lee, 1835. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

A complete list of “interior views” in Mammoth Cave from the back of a stereograph card.

Lee labelled different passages of the cave, noted traces of earlier use by Native Americans, and added descriptions for future spelunkers and explorers, such as whether a passage was occupied by bats or had “[h]eaps of broken stones.” The map even contains some information about the surface level above, showing a grove and house at the bottom, belonging to Fleming Gatewood, one of the early owners of the cave.

Though some of the names Lee used on the map have changed since, many remain the same. In the late nineteenth century, the photographer Ben Hains took a series of stereographic cards to promote tourism, as well as interest in the sciences. These can be found on the Library of Congress’s website. A complete list of “interior views” can be found on this card, seen to the left. These stereograph cards let us see some of the fascinating, and occasionally bewildering, sites in the cave listed on the map

The first is Bottomless Pit, which is about 105 feet deep. This feature was first crossed by the African American guide and explorer, Stephen Bishop, who is buried in the Old Guides Cemetery. The Old Guides Cemetery appears on the 1966 topographic map of the Mammoth Cave area by the U.S. Geological Survey.



Detail of Map of the Mammoth Cave. Edmund Lee, 1835. G&M, Library of Congress

A black and white photograph of a large pit in Mammoth Cave.

The bottomless pit. Photograph by Ben Haines, 1896. P&P, Library of Congress.

Lovers Leap is the next stop. On Lee’s map, it is located next to the “Haunted Chambers.” However, there is no record of anyone actually leaping from this structure—whoever named it was just being imaginative.

Detail of Map of the Mammoth Cave. Edmund Lee, 1835. G&M, Library of Congress

A black and white photograph of Lovers Leap in Mammoth Cave.

The lovers leap. Photo by Ben Haines, 1889. P&P, Library of Congress.

Some well-known landmarks in the cave were man-made, like the “Sick Room.” This part represents a peculiar chapter of the cave’s past. The owner of the Mammoth Cave estate and Stephen Bishop’s slaveholder, Dr. John Croghan, believed that the stable cool temperatures in the cave would make it beneficial for tuberculosis patients. In fact, in the early 1840s, he even built structures for patients to live in inside the cave. His experiment did not achieve its goals, but the residences built in the cave remain (and, as you can see, were a popular spot to visit). Several tuberculosis patients who died after living in the cave are also buried in the Old Guides Cemetery.



Detail of Map of the Mammoth Cave. Edmund Lee, 1835. G&M, Library of Congress


Consumptive’s Room, Mammoth Cave, Ky. Photo by A.V. Oldham, 1912. P&P, Library of Congress.

We see many of these same places appear on the National Park Service’s maps of Mammoth Cave, after the feature became a national park site in 1941. One newspaper article notes the possibility of using the park to treat veterans with tuberculosis, even though Dr. Croghan’s earlier experiment had been unsuccessful.

The Starkville news. (Starkville, Miss.), 24 Sept. 1920. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

We also see how the number of landmarks had significantly increased between 1835 and 1941, in large part due to Stephen Bishop’s and other guides’ exploration.

Mammoth Cave National Park. National Park Service, 1950. Geography and Map Division. Library of Congress.

Mammoth Cave National Park headquarters area. National Park Service, Nov. 1967. Reprinted 1971. Geography and Map Division. Library of Congress.

Also, note how the map’s purpose changes its layout and presentation. Both NPS maps have greater detail of the surface, so that tourists could find the entrance and other accommodations, and the representation of the cave itself is much more simplified. The 1950 map of the cave, for instance, is built around the trips offered by the park, so it presents a series of views of the cave.

Because these were structured tours maintained by the park staff, there are none of the “navigational” notes in the 1835 maps about stone debris and bats. Additionally, only the places accessible to the public are included on the map—after all, it is dangerous to just go roaming around a cave.

That’s not to say that exploration of the cave has stopped since it became a national park. It is estimated that there are 600 miles of the cave system that are still unexplored, which means that there are more discoveries (and more maps) in store.

Learn more:

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