Trapped in a cave! The bizarre Floyd Collins story

Posted by Dave Tabler | January 30, 2017

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.

cave explorer Floyd CollinsFloyd Collins examines fossil remains in Great Crystal Cave, several years prior to being trapped in Sand Cave. From commercial postcard.

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.


5 Responses

  • Granny Sue says:

    Great, sad story, Dave. Stranger than fiction, indeed.

  • […] by the wire services; I was as remote from them as I was from Mammoth Cave, in Kentucky, where Floyd Collins was caught in a narrow fissure and penned there until his death, while the world awaited his fate, […]

  • Jim Martin says:

    Full of errors…..cave was 56 degrees ( as are all KY caves), NOT 16 degrees…….the rock that pinned Floyd’s left ankle weighed much, much less than 7 tons…… 56 POUNDS !!!

    The Carmichael shaft was 65ft deep, and it was from this shaft that was hand dug by volunteers, that contact with Floyd was actually……unfortunately he passed away before they were able to reach him.

    Please try to get your facts straight before you decide to try to write an article such as this.

  • day time says:

    I have been doing my research on Floyd Collins lately and I have found a lot of your direct information to be largely exactly copied and pasted. You got a few of your facts wrong, you really must do a better job with this.

  • […] Originally Posted by SixFalls Awesome! If you don't have cave experience, call the NSS. I am sure there is a local "Grotto" in your area. My Grotto is the "South Port Cavers" Columbia, TN. Caving is fun and very addictive. Once you get mud in your blood, you just might be hooked. Steam is a good sign. If it is a vertical cave it may also be a grey bat habitat. These are real important right now. I'll PM you as well. National Speleological SocietyUSGS National Wildlife Health Center – White-Nose Syndrome (WNS) When I was a kid I was nuts about caves and dragged my family to Onandaga Cave and Meramec Caverns in MO. Then I read the story about Floyd Collins and my ardor cooled quite a bit for the process.Trapped in a cave! The bizarre Floyd Collins story – Appalachian History […]

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She grieved as long as she lived for her Victorine

Posted by Dave Tabler | January 27, 2017

Clarkesville, GA has always had a great attraction for all sorts of cranks and oddities, who have drifted here from every quarter, besides having her fair share of the same sort of native production. Did the scope of this paper permit, I could relate many tales of interest both grave and gay. I will speak of one story that used to excite my childish sympathy and interest to the highest degree.

Many years ago, a Frenchman, calling himself Eugene Pinard, came to Clarkesville, no one knew for what reason. He was a mysterious character, stern and reserved, saying nothing of his past, except a few vague hints of a dark past of crime and piracy. A chest of rich clothing and silk and velvet seemed to corroborate his story of having been on a pirate ship.

young child in Clarkesville GA between 1880-1899

Young child in Sunday best. Clarkesville, GA, between 1880 and 1899.

He married a pretty country girl living as help in General Wyley’s family. He remained with her for perhaps three years, then disappeared as suddenly as he came, taking with him a beautiful little daughter, nearly two years old and leaving not a trace to show where he had gone.

The sympathy of the whole town was aroused for the heartbroken mother and every possible effort was put forth to locate the little child. Kind friends wrote to the French consuls in New Orleans, Mobile, New York and other ports. Advertisements were inserted in the papers of the principal cities of this country and in France, but all in vain.

The fugitives had disappeared as if swallowed by the earth, and the desolate mother never again heard aught of her child. I remember Mrs. Pinard when I was a child a pale, sad woman who made a modest livelihood by nursing the sick and sewing in families, and who grieved as long as she lived for her Victorine.

Interesting Bits Of Habersham County History, a series of un-published articles by Addie Bass; this ‘History of Clarkesville’ excerpt was told her by Mrs. Julia Wales Erwin Wilson, 1927

online at

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The Little Niagara of the South

Posted by Dave Tabler | January 26, 2017

Geologists estimate that the rock over which the Cumberland River plunges is about 250 million years old. The falls is 65 feet high and is 125 feet wide. When the Cumberland River is at flood stage the width of the falls can quickly expand to 300 feet. Long known to Native Americans of the area, Cumberland Falls received its name from Dr. Thomas Walker during his 1750 exploration of Kentucky. The Duke of Cumberland was a son of England’s King George II.

Kentucky historian Richard Henry Collins, in his 1874 History of Kentucky, wrote that the surrounding countryside “presents to the eye of the traveler a succession of scenery as romantic and picturesque as any in the state.” Beauty can contain treachery, however, and on February 12, 1780, Zachariah Green and four companions had to quickly abandon their boat when the rushing waters of the Cumberland River carried it over the falls.

The first official record of the falls ownership appeared in 1800, when the Commonwealth of Kentucky granted Matthew Walton and Adam Shepard Cumberland Falls and 200 acres. In 1850, Louis and Mary H. Renfro bought 400 acres “including the Great Falls of the Cumberland.” The couple built a cabin near the falls and later added a two-room lean-to for visitors who wished to fish and enjoy the beauty of the magnificent waterfall. Ownership of Cumberland Falls also included one Samuel Garland, a Virginian who traded a portion of his supplies for the land around the falls. He intended to build a water mill, but instead built a cabin in which he resided for a while before returning to Virginia.

Socrates Owens constructed Cumberland Falls Hotel at the falls in 1875. Handmade furniture filled the rooms of the hotel. Those things that could not be made on site were brought from Cincinnati to Parker’s Lake Post Office located fourteen miles from the falls. In 1888 the proprietors of the facility, Owens and Boswell, advertised their hotel as “Kentucky’s Popular Resort.”

Visitors traveled from Cumberland Falls Station at Parkers Lake in joltwagons pulled by mules, a four hour journey. Upon reaching the Falls, they crossed the river by wading, rafting, or fording in the wagons. When Owens died in 1890, his widow, Nannie William Owens, and his son, Edward F. Owens, took over the hotel. The Owens family later sold the hotel and 400 acres to the Cumberland Falls Company who in turn sold it to J.C. Brunson, who renamed the hotel the Brunson Inn.

The area was a favorite vacation destination for T. Coleman du Pont, a Kentucky native and U.S. Senator from Delaware. Disturbed by plans to build a hydroelectric dam at the site, Louisville Times editor and conservationist Tom Wallace spearheaded a campaign to save the Falls from 1926-1931. In 1930, Wallace and other conservationists persuaded DuPont to purchase and donate 600 acres surrounding the falls to Kentucky, urging the commonwealth to set aside the property as a state park.

Cumberland Falls in winterDespite DuPont’s death later that year, additional land was purchased, and in 1933 the state legislature designated the property as Kentucky’s third state park. Much of the early work at the park, including construction of DuPont Lodge and cabins for guests, was undertaken during the Great Depression by Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration (WPA) employees.


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My experience was with the folks themselves

Posted by Dave Tabler | January 25, 2017

My neighbor across the creek is already up and busy with his saw and hammer, despite it being Sunday, despite his having worked in the mines all the other six days of the week, often in water shoe-mouth deep, as he tells me, and in spite of there not being a plank requiring sawing or a nail needing driven.

He must be doing something, just as I, propped up here by pillows on my four-post walnut bed, itself a creation of Jethro Amburgey, the dulcimer maker. I find I’ve written seven pages in a notebook — extraneous matter, hardly any page belonging in subject to any other, pages looking toward books or manuscripts partially written, or only projected to a number I could not possibly complete given my age and biological life span.

The lady who once asked me, “Do you do your own writing?” and to whom I replied, “No, I have seven dwarves,” has lately inquired, “Where do you get your ideas?” For me ideas are hanging from limbs like pears, from fences like gourds. They rise up like birds from cover. They spring out of reports in the Troublesome Creek Times, from a remark in a country store, a happening.

author James StillFrom childhood I’ve been a reader, when there was anything to read, and I suppose I’ve read an average of three hours a day for half a century. Reading jaunts with mountain climbers in the Himalayas, the South Pacific, the American Civil War, World War I, the mysteries of Mayan civilization to name a few tangents, and the entire corpus of many an author. Curiousity like an itch that needs scratching.

The question is often asked: “Who influenced you to write?” Certainly it wasn’t handed down in the family, and I can’t think of an author I wish to emulate although I have admired the works of many. I was already scribbling before the great books came to hand. As an English observer of Appalachian folk in Harlan County, Kentucky, said, “Not knowing the right way to do things they did things their way.” I did encounter the novels of Thomas Hardy during college days and the fact that I’ve always written about the common man may have been sparked by him.

The only class I ever cut was when I was deep in Far From the Madding Crowd and could not put the book down. The most memorable book read in college, and in French, was Alphonse Daudet’s Le Petit Chose. I must grant some credit to a decade of issues of the Atlantic I came upon during the late 1920s. Otto Jespersen’s The Philosophy of Grammar directed me toward “living language” as opposed to the formal.

It took time, my own time, to figure out the King of England is a myth, and all that implies — the myths we live by, county lines, state lines, imaginary acts made actual by acceptance. I learned an apple is a modified leaf. My self-education proceeded from such facts. I am more an autodidact than a classroom scholar.

“How did you escape the stereotype ‘hillbilly’ writing?” — a frequent question. That is, the stereotypical mountaineer and his dialectical speech as rendered by several authors of fiction in the past. I was hardly aware of them, didn’t have access to their books. My experience was with the folks themselves.

As for handling dialect in my fictions and Notebooks, the way folk actually talk, well, now, dialect of any sort on a printed page always bothered me. Peculiar spellings can’t account for the tone of voice, body language, the intent behind the statement. My aim is to invoke speech. To expect the true sound of it to happen in the reader’s head. Aberrant spelling rarely accomplishes it. I trust to preserve the “voice” of the speaker.

I answered a set of down-to-earth questions at Carmus Combs’ store the other day. A fellow inquired, “How many years have you lived amongst us?”
“This year makes forty-six.”
“You’re the last ‘possum up the tree. Everybody your age when you come here are dead. Hain’t that so?”
“I thought they’d live forever.”
“What’s your notion about dying?”
“Death is as natural as sleep,” I said, quoting Benjamin Franklin. “We will arise refreshed in the morning.”

My neighbor is still hammering and sawing. He has apparently decided on something to build — a doghouse, a chicken coop, perhaps a playpen for his children. He will not halt until it is accomplished. It is his act of creation.

from “Autobiography of James Still,” November 2003, Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series; vol. 17, Gale Research
online at

A native of Alabama, author James Still (1906-2001) spent most of his life in the Hindman Settlement of Knott County, KY. In addition to his writing, Still worked as a farmer, librarian and teacher. Winner of many literary awards, including two Guggenheim fellowships, Still published novels, short stories and poems which reflected his passionate feelings for the Kentucky mountains.

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Raise your glass to Mr. Robert Burns

Posted by Dave Tabler | January 24, 2017

January 25 marks the 255rd birthday of poet Robert Burns (1759-1796), who continues to be widely loved in the Scots-Irish community. Many of the bard’s songs and poems have become international favorites – even among those who find his use of Scottish lowland dialect difficult to decipher.

If you find yourself in Franklin, NC this week, you might want to track down The Friends of the Scottish Tartans Museum. They, like lovers of Burns everywhere, host an annual Burns Supper, a celebratory tribute to the life, works and spirit of the man, on, or about, the poet’s birthday. Suppers range from stentoriously formal scholarly gatherings to uproariously informal sloshfests of drunkards and louts.

Most Burns Suppers fall in the middle of this range, and adhere, more or less, to some sort of time honored form which includes only three absolutely essential elements: Burns himself – in a toast, a poem or a song, haggis or some other great Scottish food, and hospitality.

Scottish poet Robert BunsA traditional Burns Supper outline:

The Selkirk Grace

The meal commences with the recital of Selkirk Grace, which is actually the prayer read aloud before the meal and goes like this:

Some hae meat but cannae eat.
Some hae nane but want it:
But we hae meat and we can eat,
So let the Lord be thankit.’

Address to the Haggis

This is a threatening moment for the haggis, which is about to be stabbed by the chairman after he pronounces the last words it will ever hear: The ‘Address to the haggis’!

‘His knife, see rustic labour dicht
An’ cut ye up wi’ ready slight’

The address should ideally be accompanied by some gestures to give a hint to those who are not familiar with the poet’s language and be followed by the guests toasting the haggis with whiskey.

The Bill o’ Fare

A typical Burns’ night menu might include: Cock-a-leekie soup, an old Scottish recipe, the main course of Haggis, Neeps, and Tatties and a sweet course of Tyspy Laird (sherry trifle)

The Immortal Memory

This speech comes in many different types, ranging from smart and humorous, to literary and historical, but the main point is to praise Burns as a great man and poet and invite everyone to toast to his immortal memory.

Toast to ‘the Lassies’

This toast aims to outline the importance of women in the life of the poet (and in ours!) It is given by a male guest in thanks to the women who have prepared the meal. The speaker invites all men to stand and toast ‘To the lassies’, in a complimentary or funny tone; however, he should be aware, as the lassies are the ones who have the last word!

Reply to the Toast to the Lassies

A woman will stand and reply to the previous toast, (hopefully) thanking the speaker in an amusing way. She might also make a reference to Burns’ women and life. Burns spread his affections freely, and in one decade saw 8 illegitimate children born to him through 5 different women. One of these, Jean Armour, became Mrs. Burns in 1788.

Closing poems and songs

Favorite poems and recitations which usually follow are “Holy Willie’s Prayer,” “To A Mouse,” “Tam o’ Shanter”, and of course “Auld Lang Syne.”

Holy Willie’s prayer is a poem written about a certain Willie Fisher, an elder in the Parish church of Mauchline, in Ayrshire. Burns rented a farm near Mauchline as a young man.

Fisher was a hypocrite and himself a sinner who spied on people and reported them to the minister if he thought they were doing wrong. The poem is a satire based on Fisher’s sickly self-righteousness. The phrase “Holy Willie” has become part of the Scots language for describing someone humorless and ultra religious.

“To A Mouse” was part of Burns’ first published work of poetry —“Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect” —published in July 1786.

Frontispiece for Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect by Robert BurnsThe success of this first effort convinced Burns to abandon plans to emigrate to Jamaica. Buoyed by his burgeoning reputation as an unschooled “ploughman poet,” Burns moved from Mauchline to Edinburgh. He was unable to find a patron to support his writing, but publisher James Johnson gave him work editing a collection of Scottish folk songs.

In 1790 he produced “Tam o’Shanter”, which was first published merely as an accompaniment to an illustration of Alloway Kirk, in a volume of “Antiquities of Scotland.”.

All the while Burns was still editing the folk song collection, titled “The Scots Musical Museum”, which was ultimately published in 5 volumes over sixteen years. Burns himself contributed over 150 songs, including “Auld Lang Syne,” a reworking of an earlier folk song of unknown origin.

It’s the one piece we ALL know of Burns, whether we know the man by name or not, and so it’s fitting that a Burns Supper always ends with everyone joining hands and singing “Auld Lang Syne”.


Robert+Burns Burns+Suppers Scots-Irish appalachia +appalachia+history appalachian+history

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