I get the heebie-jeebies just reading about the narrow passages negotiated by Kentuckian Floyd Collins. In the 1900s, when Mammoth and nearby caves were private property and served as sometimes profitable tourist attractions, Collins explored subterranean frontiers in the Flint Ridge area near Mammoth Cave, hoping to find a moneymaking cave for his family.
After a failed attempt in 1917 to turn a profit on Great Crystal Cave, in January 1925 Collins spent three weeks beneath a sandstone ledge on a private farm enlarging a small opening and clearing debris from a twisting, sloping shaft. The passage dropped diagonally about 15 feet, straight down a few feet, and diagonally again; doubled under itself, narrowing to a vertical drop and squeeze that barely admitted Collins; dropped diagonally again, tapering to 10 inches high, and reached an alcove barely big enough for Collins to turn around in. A few feet farther a chute dropped 10 feet to a cubbyhole and a diagonal body-sized crevice. That’s the stuff that gives me the creeps, those narrow body-sized passages.
On Jan. 30, after exploring a 60-foot-deep pit beyond the crevice, Collins climbed back up, wriggled into the crevice and shoved his lantern ahead. The lantern fell over and went out, and while Collins’ arms were lowered to his sides and his feet braced against the floor and walls, his right foot dislodged a large rock hanging from the ceiling, and the rock fell on his left leg and pinned him. His hands were at his sides, and his struggles to free himself brought down more debris. He was 115 feet from the entrance and 55 feet beneath the surface, both arms were pinned, his legs were trapped, and water trickled onto his cheek. He bellowed for help until he lost his voice and then slept, knowing that his partners knew where he was.
Beesley Doyle, Edward Estes and Estes’ 17-year-old son, Jewell, went to the cave the next morning, and Jewell, the only one thin enough to get down, went partway, heard Floyd say, “Come to me. I’m hung up,” and was afraid to go farther. Brother Marshall Collins, 28, arrived and organized a rescue party but couldn’t reach Floyd. Brother Homer Collins, 22, next to Floyd the most experienced caver, arrived in the late afternoon of Jan. 31, got to Floyd and gave him coffee and sandwiches, and dug out dirt and gravel that covered Floyd’s shoulders, filling a can with debris and passing it up to a chain of helpers. He worked through the night and uncovered Floyd’s torso and upper arms and returned to the surface at dawn Feb. 1. Returning to Floyd at 5 p.m. that day, he scooped out more dirt, uncovered Floyd’s hands and gave Floyd a crowbar, but Floyd was too weak to wield it.
Louisville, Ky., papers ran the first stories of Collins’ fix on Sunday, and by Monday, Feb. 2, papers across the country carried the story of the rescue efforts. The Louisville Courier-Journal’s William B. “Skeets” Miller, 5 feet tall, weighing 117 pounds, and age 21 years, crawled down to Collins and was horrified. “As I saw it, nothing would accomplish his release,” he wrote. By Tuesday, the story was front-page news across the country, and photographers and movie cameramen joined a growing crowd that eventually swelled to festival size.
On Wednesday, two miners said cracks were developing in the ceiling near the top of chute, the ceiling above the chute caved in, and no one could reach Collins. On Thursday, volunteers, many of them miners, began digging a 6-foot-square shaft about 20 feet from the entrance, descending several feet every day, and on Monday, Feb. 16, they exclaimed, “We’re there!” but Floyd was dead. A doctor later said Collins had probably been dead three days, dying from starvation and exposure.
Miller won a Pulitzer Prize for his writing, and Floyd’s body was entombed in the cave but later was retrieved to be exhibited in a glass-topped coffin by the man who bought Crystal Cave from the Collins family. The rock that trapped Collins was also retrieved and was found to weigh 27 pounds. The narrowness of the passage rather than the weight of the rock killed Floyd Collins.
The memory of Floyd Collins survives today, in song, in a musical play, and perhaps in his cave, according to “The Longest Cave” by Roger W. Brucker and Richard A. Watson: “In Floyd Collins’ Crystal Cave in Flint Ridge, cavers have heard behind them in the darkness the faint call: ‘Wait for me.’”
Much of the information for this article came from “Underground” in the Time-Life Planet Earth series.