Hidden River Cave and American Cave Museum
Horse Cave, Kentucky
The town of Horse Cave was literally built around the giant sinkhole of Hidden River Cave. Behind a row of Main Street businesses, there's a three story sheer drop down to a wide sink bottom, and the yawning entrance to the cave. Constant cool temperatures made it a center of town activity in the early days. Tennis courts were set up, with safety nets to keep the balls from rolling down into the cave.
The town lies a few miles north of the Mammoth Cave tourist mecca, where wax museums, teepee motels and artificially lit caverns thrive. Hidden River Cave opened for commercial tours in 1916, but over the next thirty years, the town's growth, overcrowding and poor sanitation practices took their toll.
The town chose to dump trash in the cave and let its raw sewage run down into the river. It became such a corrupt mess that it was closed and allowed to fester. According to our guide, "The smell was so bad, the jewelry store across the street would have to close by midday."
In 1989, a new sewage treatment plant began the rehabilitation. The museum was opened in 1993 by the American Cave Conservation Assoc. a nonprofit group. David Foster, Executive Director, points out that Hidden River was America's most polluted cave, so it was fitting that the Association locate their headquarters on top of it.
The museum begins with an interpretive exhibit, a two-story tall simulation of cave formations of stalactites, columns and soda straws. Several displays explain the science behind cave formation, as well as the best place to put a septic tank (not in a cave). The focus is on smart ecology, not wanton desecration.
An elevator drops the tour group down into the sink hole. A circular walk leads to a series of staircases that descend into the yawning mouth of Hidden River Cave.
The cave smells pretty good, and is very cool. The guide points out that the planks in the bridgework and walkways of the cave are made from recycled milk containers. As they raise funds, they extend the walkways over the river passage. Water gurgles below and the tour focuses on the historical abuses and current efforts to save the cave. There are no Titania's Veils or Frozen Waterfalls. If there were ever any natural formations down here, they are long gone.
Our guide, Jeremy Collins, turned out to be the Great Grand Nephew of Floyd Collins, the legendary doomed caver, whose exploits are celebrated in a museum in nearby Cave City. Even though the living Collins clan numbers "about 500," Jeremy was the last interested in caves and working in the industry (even if it was only a summer job). He enjoys "wild caving" in the numerous underexplored holes and passages pocking the Flint Ridge area. And he believes that Floyd had stumbled onto a major find. "Uncle Floyd had found a big room -- he was on his way back out when he got trapped."