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Mammoth Cave - a subterranean stroll through history

By Hilary DeVriesStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 8, 1984

Mammoth Cave, Ky.

Spend enough time in this neck of the woods and you're bound to find out what makes Kentucky tick - limestone and history. Practically everything associated with this semi-Southern state - bluegrass, thoroughbred horses, and caves - is built literally on a bedrock of limestone.

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And that is history. A lot of the rock is 300 million years old - perfect timing when it comes to carving caves (some of the world's largest) underneath the green fringe of the Appalachians, but a tad too early to catch the really interesting stuff like Jenny Lind singing ''The Last Rose of Summer'' 500 feet underground, the Emperor of Brazil and the Grand Duke of Russia eating supper in the subterranean dining room, or Jesse and Frank James holding up stagecoaches outside Cave City.

Even in the 20th century there have been some wild times here. When Floyd (The Lad) Collins got stuck in Crystal Cave for 18 days, it created the biggest rumpus in these parts that anyone remembers. The National Guard was called in to keep the spectators and press at bay with pointed bayonets. Even so, ''Skeets'' Miller, a Louisville Courier-Journal reporter, won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the spelunking catastrophe and, presumably, his gallant, but ultimately fruitless, attempts to free Floyd with a car jack.

Since then, happenings in cave country have been a bit more tame. Local railroad lines rusted into disuse, as did the steamboats that paddled up and down the Green River ferrying the curious from Bowling Green and Evansville, Ind. Students from Ohio State University wrote O-S-U on the limestone cave walls , not with spray paint, but with historically accurate cane torches. Much later, less indigenous Alpine Slides and Jellystone Campgrounds and souvenir ''Rocks for Less'' shops would spring up. But by the time Franklin D. Roosevelt had hit his third term as President, this purported Seventh Wonder of the World was officially legit - Mammoth Cave National Park. And perhaps that was the best news of all.

Probably more kids than anyone cares to number have been dragged through these giant underground caverns, now protected by the Interior Department and UNESCO. (Mammoth Cave is a World Heritage Site.) Most people you talk to - especially if they grew up in Michigan or thereabouts - will tell you they paraded through Mammoth Cave years ago on any number of family car trips to Florida. Moms and dads were presumably more interested in the geological aspects and thought it would make the perfect spot to stretch the legs.

They weren't too far wrong. There are nearly 300 miles of caves already mapped and explored, and experts expect to chart another 200 miles or so. Of course not all that acreage is open to public, but even the chance to walk for four miles underground has a particular appeal.

And not just for tourists. A recent Courier-Journal headline trumpeted the fate of some locals who went out for a midnight cave jaunt: ''Hoosier brothers find life's the pits at bottom of 40-foot hole in cave.''

The saying around here is that ''caving gets in your blood.'' Many of the smaller caves have been privately owned for generations and are coveted sources of family income. Even if a local resident is just a cave guide, there's more than an even chance that somebody else in the family was a guide, too. Caves are big business here. They are also an indelible part of the state's heritage. Strolling through any part of Mammoth Cave is like hyperbole come to life: walking through history.

But first a word for geology. Actually you need to know only three things to have a good working knowledge. As Don Lindsay, a park interpreter, explained, ''limestone, river, and tilt - that's what's caused the caves.'' It's a rare combination. Borneo and France are thought to be the only other sites to have rustled up the geological ingredients to such a degree.