Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave is not only the largest known cave in the world; it has the distinction of being the oldest touring cave. Formal guided tours were started here in 1816. It remained in private ownership for the next 125 years and grew to become a prime tour attraction. And because Mammoth had showed the tremendous profit potential in cave tourism, it incited a cave war in the 1920s, at the dawn of the automobile vacation era.
Since the Croghan family controlled most of the land on the ridge where Mammoth Cave was located, would-be cave tour operators began to focus on properties on neighboring Flint Ridge, which was separated from the Mammoth Cave ridge by narrow Houchins Valley.
In 1921, a Louisville oil driller named George Morrison forced another opening into the Mammoth Cave system and set up shop on Flint Ridge, advertising the “New Entrance to Mammoth Cave.” Before long the combat was on among Colossal Cave, Long Cave, Short’s Cave, Great Onyx Cave, Indian Cave, Salts Cave and Crystal Cave.
The search for new caves to commercialize became so dangerous and secretive that a cave exploring death was almost inevitable; it arrived in the person of Floyd Collins, who lost his life in 1925 in Sand Cave, searching for the first cave entrance on the 10-1/2 mile road from Cave City to Mammoth.
Mammoth’s rivals went to dastardly lengths to lure tourists to their underground cash cows. They placed misleading signs along the roads leading from Cave City to the Mammoth Cave. They diverted tourists with fake policemen, employed stooges to heckle each other’s guided tours, burned down ticket huts, and put out libelous and forged advertisements.
A typical strategy during the early days of automobile travel involved a representative of a private show cave — a capper — hopping aboard a tourist’s car’s running board, and leading the passengers to believe that Mammoth Cave was closed, quarantined, caved in or otherwise inaccessible.
By April 1928 the promise of tourist dollars drove two owners of adjoining caves to legal blows over property rights in Edwards v. Sims. L.P. Edwards had discovered a cave whose entrance, 3 miles down the road from Mammoth Cave, was on his property. He developed it into a tourist attraction—the Great Onyx Cave, and went so far as to build a tourist hotel near the cave’s mouth.
Edwards’ neighbor F. P. Lee suspected that part of the cave was located under his land. The cave was completely inaccessible to Lee – hundreds of feet below his land. He sued Edwards for trespassing, fully aware of the tourist dollars he stood to gain by it. Edwards argued that allocating ownership of part of the cave to Lee constituted an unmerited windfall.
The case dragged on for years, all the way to the Kentucky Court of Appeal. Final ruling in 1936: the surface owner had rights to a cave below his property, even if the only entrance to the cave was on someone else’s property. Sims was the name of the Edmonson County circuit court judge against whom Edwards filed an appeal.
Many of the Flint Ridge caves were later found to be an extension of Mammoth Cave and were eventually brought into the fold when it became a National Park (chartered in 1926 and opened in 1941). Even after Federal incorporation, agents for several commercial caves impersonated rangers and flagged travelers off the road before they could reach the national park. Some of the entrances used for today’s tours are left over from that era when they were thought to be separate caves.