The story of a man and his quest to dig deeper.
January 29th, 1925; Floyd Collins sat trapped 55 feet below the surface of the earth. He was looking for an alternate entrance to Mammoth Cave, the largest cave system in the world, and a very profitable tourist destination at the time. Collins owned nearby Crystal Cave, but saw very little traffic; Mammoth Cave was closer to the travel routes and took most of his business.
Cave tourism was immensely popular in the region, and Collins was determined to expand his business to a bigger, and more profitable cave. Out of this competition for customers grew the Kentucky cave wars, where families would use tactics such as spreading misinformation about other caves or misdirecting rival customers to their cave.
Collins had contacted a neighbor, Bee Doyle, and asked to explore a fissure on his property, deemed Sand Cave, with the agreement that if an alternate entrance to Mammoth Cave was discovered, they would go into business together, and split the tourism profits between them. Collins had made several trips into Sand Cave in the preceding days, using dynamite to blast small openings, allowing him to proceed further. On this particular rainy Thursday morning, things didn’t go as planned. Collins had discovered a large cavern in the cave system, and while working his way back to the surface to alert Doyle, dislodged some loosened rocks. The rocks rolled down around his ankles, leaving him pinned in a position where he could not free himself. It was there, 55 feet below ground, that Floyd Collins sat trapped.
It was not the first time Collins had gotten himself into a bind beneath the surface; just a year before he waited a full 20 hours for rescue while exploring another cave system in the area. His history of daring cave explorations didn’t help him; his long journeys into the caverns were rarely indicative of disaster. But this time was different.
The next morning, roughly 24 hours after Collins made his descent into Sand Cave, Floyd’s neighbors and family went looking. A local boy, Jewell Estes, was sent down into Collins’ excavation and discovered the man, trapped by the feet and buried in rocks. As his family and friends worked to free him, the news spread like wildfire. Homer Collins, Floyd’s brother, offered $500 to any man who could free Collins, dead or alive.
By Sunday afternoon, William Burke “Skeets” Miller, a cub reporter from the Louisville Courier-Journal, had arrived. Much to the chagrin of his editor back in Louisville, Skeets decided to try his own luck at reaching Collins. Miller, with his slender 100 lb. frame, made quick work of reaching Collins, eventually becoming the liaison between Collins and the outside world. Miller’s interviews with Collins were hurried back to Louisville where they were quickly published, informing the greater public of the man’s plight. Radios, a new technology at the time, allowed the news to travel from coast to coast, where headlines of Collins’s entrapment splashed across the Los Angeles Examiner and the Washington C.H. Herald.
By Monday morning, Collins had been trapped under the earth for three days, surviving on the little food and water that Miller was able to bring to him. Both men worked to excavate the rubble that had trapped Collins, although very little progress was made, as neither man was in a position to work efficiently. Working tirelessly, the men realized that other options were needed, and relayed this message to the surface.
In the evening the crowds started to grow; droves of spectators came from across the region to Bee Doyle’s property to witness the live disaster. A carnival like atmosphere grew as moonshine runners and vendors enclosed on the scene, looking to make a quick buck off of the now thousands in attendance. The scene fell into chaos, with inebriated spectators trying their luck with the rescue, only to create more complications in the already crowded fissure. Martial law was declared and military guards were placed at the entrance to the cave, allowing only a select few, Miller included, to enter the cave.
On the next morning, engineers from Louisville were called in and began to devise a plan to free him. Tension naturally grew between the locals and the outsiders; the locals firmly believing that they had the situation under control, and the engineers wanting credit for the daring rescue. Nevertheless, looking to make some form of progress, the decision was made to sink a shaft adjacent to the cave, hopefully providing another angle to reach the trapped man. Work on the shaft was slow; continuous rainfall was hampering their efforts. On the morning of the 13th, after a tireless week of work, the crew completed the passageway between the shaft and the cave. No life remained. The cave, set to become Floyd’s fortune, had become his tomb.
Months later, after the ground had thawed and excavation was easier, Collins’ body was exhumed. The Collins family placed his body in a glass tomb, which they displayed in the entrance to their Crystal Cave. Now part of the attraction, Collin’s body was used to bring more visitors to the Collins family cave, just as any other tactic used during the cave wars. His body was later stolen from the glass coffin, only to be later discovered on the banks of the nearby Green River, missing an arm. His body now rests at the Mammoth Cave Baptist Church cemetery; his grave reads, “Floyd Collins: The Greatest Cave Explorer Ever Known.”