The Incredible Journey of Floyd Collins
On January 30, 1925, Floyd Collins, spelunker, was exploring a possible new entrance to a series of interconnected caves in Kentucky. After almost three weeks of searching, he had found a large cavern that he felt would connect with Mammoth Cave, a popular tourist site. The Collins family already owned a beautiful cave nearby, known as Crystal Cave, but the tourist traffic was not what they thought it should be and they wanted to find a way to make it that way. Thus begins the incredible journey of Floyd Collins with several side trips along the way.
A Deal With Nearby Farmers
Collins wanted to cash in on some of the big tourist attraction’s traffic. He struck a deal with three farmers close to the the big cave, to search on their land for a new entrance, or a new cave. If he found something that was commercially feasible, they would pay for the development of the new attraction and Collins would share in the profits. Now, he felt he might have discovered the very thing they needed. Who knew it would be the beginning of a tragedy known throughout the United States and covered by national media?
Collins managed to squeeze through several narrow passageways where he discovered a large chamber. Because his kerosene lamp was dying, he had to leave quickly without exploring the chamber. On his way out, he became trapped in a small passage 55 feet underground, accidentally knocking over the small light, effectively putting it out. If you’ve ever been inside a cave with no lights, as I have at Mammoth Cave when the guides turned off the lights to show us, you know the absolute darkness he experienced. He also realized that a rock became dislodged and his left leg was pinned. Discovered later to weigh only 16 pounds, the rock held him fast because it was wedged in the crawl space and he couldn’t reach it. Collins didn’t panic, as he was only about 150 feet from the entrance, and felt his friends would find him. They did, the very next day.
Local and National Media Coverage
The local and national media had a field day, covering all the rescue attempts. This was in the days before television, and the news came over radios and newspapers. But every radio network or newspaper worth its salt, covered the Floyd Collins story. Onlookers gathered as close as they could, and reporters found innovative ways to get their stories relayed to their offices as quickly as possible. This story dragged on until the middle of February, and then became a legend.
Rescue Operations Began
Rescuers ran an electric light down the passageway to provide him light and a bit of warmth and rescue efforts got underway. On February 4th, as they tried to reach him, the cave passage collapsed in two different places, making it impossible to rescue Collins from that opening. They began to dig a shaft to the chamber behind his location. He was finally reached on February 17, but was already dead. He died from starvation and exposure. Since they could not dislodge the rock holding him, they left his body there and filled the passage with debris. Funeral services were held above ground for the comfort of mourners.
Two months later, Homer Collins, brother of Floyd, felt it was not right to leave his brother’s body so far underground. He and some friends reopened the shaft and dug a new tunnel to the opposite side of the cave passage and recovered the body of Floyd Collins on April 23, 1925, from what is now known as Sand Cave. He was re-buried on the Collins family farm, near the Crystal Cave he had formerly discovered.
Third Burial and Exhibition
In 1927, Lee Collins, Floyd’s father, sold the homestead and cave. The new owner exhibited Collins’ body in a glass topped casket in Crystal Cave for several years. On the night of March 18 or 19, 1929, the body was stolen. It was recovered, but the injured left leg was never found.
Fourth and Final Burial
After this theft, the body was kept in a secluded portion of Crystal Cave in a chained coffin. In 1961, Mammoth Cave National Park purchased Crystal Cave and closed it to the public. At the request of the family, the National Park Service had the body re-interred in Flint Ridge Cemetery on March 24, 1989.
Today, Floyd Collins still rests in Flint Ridge Cemetery, but his memory lives on in those areas of Kentucky where people knew him and his family. And if you travel in that part of Kentucky, you will see old signs indicating the location of the Floyd Collins Crystal Cave, which is no longer open to tours. What you won’t see, is the cave where he died, Sand Cave.
If you want to read more about this tragic event, you might like some of these books.