The Ghost of Floyd Collins
The remarkable and tragic story of Floyd Collins comes from an earlier Kentucky and an earlier America. For two weeks in 1925, a small cave in Western Kentucky and the plight of Floyd Collins, the man trapped in that cave, were the focus of a nationwide media storm, leaving a legacy that extends beyond Floyd Collins' several graves.
William Floyd Collins was a Kentucky Native whose family owned and operated Crystal Cave, near the much larger Mammoth Cave, as a tourist attraction in the 1920s. Cave tours were great business for families and small towns in those days. As automobiles spread and every corner of America became connected with highways what would become an American tradition, the road trip, was born. Across the country, roadside tourist attractions sprung up hoping to pull families off the road with promises of novelty and wonder. Natural attractions like caves, gorges, or natural bridges were quickly commercialized, as small entrepreneurs turned these works of nature into acts of commerce by adding on guided tours, gift shops, and burger stands. It was the beginning of the golden age of highway travel in America.
Mammoth Cave, now a national park, was one of the biggest attractions in the entire region, fueling a whole surrounding local industry of gift shops and novelty hotels. Now known to be the longest cave system in the world, Mammoth Cave offered visitors boat tours on an underground river, breathtaking chambers, even the remains of what was left when part of the cave had briefly served as a tuberculosis hospital. For Mammoth Cave, it was great, and business was booming. For the Collins family, whose stunningly beautiful but more difficult to reach Crystal Cave, it presented a real problem.
Floyd Collins' solution was to find a cave with an entrance located somewhere on the road before the entrance to Mammoth Cave, or even better another entrance to the Mammoth Cave system, that would give Floyd first shot at their money. An experienced cave explorer, Floyd began scouting, carrying the offer to landowners where the caves were located of a deal to split profits from the eventual tourists. In early 1925, Collins thought he had found his cave, a small entrance to an underground passage which was located above where he knew the Mammoth Cave system ran.
On January 30, 1925, Floyd Collins set out to explore the cave, which would later come to be known as Sand Cave. But when he went, Collins broke the foremost rule of caving: he went alone. This is something that no one should ever do when entering any cave, but particularly an unexplored one with unknown dangers. Caves are dangerous places, and a solo caver in peril has no one to cry out to for help.
After several hours of hard work, Collins managed to squeeze himself through several narrow passages and come into a larger chamber. Excited, but running out of fuel for his oil lamp, Collins began hurrying back to the surface. On his way out, he became wedged in a narrow crawlway, and in his efforts to get out accidentally knocked over his lamp, extinguishing the flame. Groping in the dark, he dislodged a rock from the ceiling, which pinned his leg down. Floyd Collins was trapped, only 150 feet from the entrance to the cave.
Floyd Collins remained alone and in the complete darkness throughout the night. The next day, when some friends realized he was missing, they went to the cave and began calling out for Floyd. They were relieved when they heard him calling back, but then terrified as they realized just how bad his situation was. There was no way to reach the rock that had pinned Floyd's leg down.
A frantic rescue effort began, as friends and family gathered. An electric light was led into the cave to provide light, and some caver friends of Collins' managed to work their way down into the passage to feed him.
Meanwhile, news of the rescue attempt reached William Burke "Skeets" Miller, a reporter at the Louisville Courrier-Journal, who began running stories about the rescue. These stories were picked up by the national news wires, and then the story landed on the new medium of radio. Floyd Collins immediately became a nationwide media sensation, with stations from all across the country sending reporters for live, on-the-spot coverage. The area around Sand Cave quickly developed into a carnival-like atmosphere. Booths sprang up selling souvenirs and moonshine. Extra train services were added from Louisville to the nearest station.
Below the surface, things weren't as happy. The rescue efforts had proved so far fruitless, and on February 4th the situation became critical when the passage that had been used to reach Collins collapsed. Time for Collins was now rapidly running out. Henry St. George Tucker Carmichael, a friend of Collins and a leader in the rescue effort, decided reaching Collins through the cave was now dangers and began digging a shaft down from the surface to reach Collins. But when the rescuers finally reached him on February 17, it was too late. Floyd Collins had died of hunger and exposure some days before.
The rescuers were unable to remove Collins' body, and his family determined that Sand Cave would be his grave. It would prove to be only his first, as the strange Odyssey of Floyd Collins body begun.
After the media storm had died down, Floyd's brother Homer grew increasingly dissatisfied with the idea of Sand Cave as his brother's final resting place. He and several companions reopened the shaft that had been used to reach Floyd. Digging a tunnel off the shaft, they were able to successfully remove Collins body after several weeks' work. Floyd Collins was then buried in his second grave, on the family land.
Floyd Collins would remain at rest there for two years, until his family sold their land and Crystal Cave to H.B. Thomas, a local dentist and cave operator. Thomas received the family's permission to exhume Floyd Collins' body and exhibit it in a glass-lidded coffin inside the cave. Soon, in his third grave, Floyd Collins was one of the area's biggest attractions. He had finally managed to transform Crystal Cave into a thriving tourist destination, although certainly not on the terms he anticipated.
Floyd was next disturbed in 1929, when his body was stolen from the cave. Although it was recovered, the injured leg had become separated from the body and was now missing. When he was returned to the cave, Floyd was relocated again, to a more protected area and placed in a protected coffin with a wooden lid. He would remain there for another 60 years, serving as the subject for countless photographs snapped by tourists of friends and family point beside his coffin.
In 1961, the National Park Service purchased Crystal Cave and closed the cave to the public. In 1989, at the request of his family, Floyd Collins' body was moved to its fourth and hopefully final resting place in nearby Flint Ridge cemetery.
Although his body has now been removed from Crystal Cave, geologists and others visiting the cave say there is reason to believe Floyd Collins is still around.
In her book Scary Stories of Mammoth Cave, longtime cave tour guide Colleen O'Connor Olson recounts several stories of how Floyd Collins seems to have become friendly, even helpful, presence in the cave since his demise.
In 1954, multiple members of a expedition set out to map and explore the cave reported hearing a voice call out to them in the dark, including one instance where two men distinctly heard someone behind them yell "Wait!" as they were about to proceed down a passage. There were no other members of the expedition behind them.
In another incident, a student on a training expedition in the cave tripped and began to fall into a deep rock canyon in the cave. Struggling to regain her balance at the top of this potentially lethal fall, she was grateful when she felt a strong hand grab her right arm from behind. The hand pulled her back and steadied her,but when she turned to thank her rescuer there was no one there.
In one of the strangest incidents, in 1961 two researchers in the cave heard the sound of ringing coming from the Grand Canyon, the section of the cave that at that time still held the coffin of Floyd Collins. The source of the sound was the old telephone that connected the cave to the ticket office when it had been a tourist attraction. Rushing down the path, one of the researchers picked up the phone and heard a muted, shuffling sound coming from the other end. He spoke into the phone, asking if someone was trying to call Crystal Cave. He heard an astonished gasp and the line went dead. A few hours later, the men emerged to the surface and traced the path of the telephone lines. Near the ticket office, the line had been cut some time ago, and was there dangling in the empty air.
These and other incidents have led researchers and park officials working in the cave over the years to quietly acknowledge the presence of Floyd in the cave, even if only half-beleiving. But whoever comes in contact with this piece of Kentucky history can't help but be impressed with remarkable bravery of Floyd Collins and of his strange and fascinating afterlife.
In one final irony of Floyd Collins story, his search for a more important cave would have been successful if he had stayed in his own back yard. In 1954, it was discovered that Crystal Cave was connected to and part of the Mammoth Cave system.