Floyd Collins was first to explore Sand Cave. Fallen rock trapped him in narrow passage 150 ft. from entrance, Jan. 30, 1925. Rescuers reached him with food and heat for short time. Aid cut off by shifting earth closing passage. Engineers sank 55-foot shaft but were unable to reach Collins’ body until February 16. Rescue attempt publicized worldwide. Aroused sympathy of nation.
–Historical Marker at Sand Cave, KY erected in 1970 by The Kentucky Historical Society and the Department of Highways.
In 1925, Floyd Collins, one of the world’s premier cavers, met a tragic and bizarre end in part of what is now known to be Mammoth Cave. Collins, determined to find a “show” cave as a source of family income, had signed a contract in the middle of January with a man named Doyle and another man named Ed Estes to explore a rock overhang called Sand Cave on Doyle’s farm. Doyle and Estes agreed to give Floyd half rights to anything he found there. There was a story that men who worked for Mammoth Cave had once dynamited the overhang. The day before Floyd went down, he showed Estes a skull he’d found in a cave and then gave it to Estes’ son, Jewell. He said he was afraid of not coming out alive. His fears were well founded.
On Friday, January 30, he went into the cave. He crawled down into the dark, on his belly, into a narrow passage. He slid fifteen feet straight down, then twisted through a hundred feet of loops that sloped at 30 degrees. He dropped straight for eight feet and then crawled for fifty feet more between loose rock walls until he reached a small cavern. He lay on his belly, looking down into a fifty-foot pit, twenty-five feet long and ten feet wide.
He went down into it, looking for a passage, but it was closed. He scaled the walls and headed back the way he had come. He kicked a rock that knocked some stones that started a slide that trapped him. He was caught a hundred and twenty five feet deep in the ground, in a space eight inches high and twelve feet long. The temperature was 16 degrees. He was facing up in the direction from which he’d come, but there was a seven-ton boulder on his left foot. He lay in mud and black night, with water dripping on his head.
Considering Floyd Collins’ experience and reputation as a caver, it is astonishing that he broke what are considered today cardinal rules of safe exploration:
1) Went exploring alone.
2) Had only one light source.
3) Was poorly clothed.
4) Had no helmet or hard hat.
5) Did not tell anybody where he was going or when he would be back.
Relatives eventually noticed that he was missing, and a quick check in Sand Cave confirmed the worst. The rescue effort that ensued quickly turned into a publicity carnival. It lasted for 18 days and captured the interest of the whole nation through the relatively new medium of radio.
Rescuers tried everything—digging and hacking at the passageway, sinking a new shaft, feeding Collins to keep up his energy, and sending down reporter Skeets Miller to chronicle the drama. At one point, rescuers even considered amputation. Nothing worked. Eventually, a passage just above Collins collapsed, cutting him off from aid. Fifteen days after being trapped, Floyd Collins pushed his last crawl.
The authorities decided it was too dangerous to remove the body and left it in the cave. Eventually, his body was put in a glass-topped coffin in Crystal Cave where cavers from around the world paid their respects to him for many years. Then in the most dramatic and grotesque twist to the story, his body was stolen—and later found in a nearby field missing a leg. After this incident his body was placed in a chained casket.
Eventually, the National Park Service absorbed Crystal Cave and closed it to the public. In 1989, Collins was properly buried in Mammoth Cave Baptist Church Cemetery on Flint Ridge. Today Floyd Collins’ final resting place has an extraordinary array of tokens on it — coins, sunflower seeds, stones, and other objects left by cave explorers and others for whom Floyd Collins was, and is, a legendary symbol.