A number of years ago, I was asked to write a book about caves. I visited many caves around the United States, including some spectacular ones in the west (Carlsbad Caverns and Ice Caves in New Mexico, Lehman Caves in Nevada's Great Basin National Park, Oregon Caves National Monument, and South Dakota's Jewel Cave and Wind Cave) as well as some further east (Kentucky's Mammoth Cave and Arkansas's Blanchard Springs Caverns). One highlight of my research was a trip through a wild cave (Cave of the Winds in Manitou Springs, Colorado).
But my most vivid memory concern a research trip to France where I was able to visit the cave of Lascaux (which is closed to everyone except scientists). I was fortunate enough to be allowed inside on a special tour with five other researchers.
I worked very hard on the book for a number of years. Sometimes, though, an editor or a publisher can change her mind. And that's what happened. Without warning or explanation, I was told that the publisher was canceling the contract for the book and would not be publishing it.
Rather than allow my hard work to go to waste, I have decided to share some of the stories from that book here.
Trapped! That was the only word to describe it. Floyd Collins was trapped in a cave. As a cave explorer, he was used to pushing through many tight spaces in dark and dangerous caves. But on Friday January 30, 1925, his luck had run out.
That morning, Floyd had decided to explore Sand Cave. The first seventy feet were tight but simple enough: the cave was wide enough to scoot or slide through. Then it narrowed to a smaller crack. That might have stopped many cave explorers, but not Floyd. Determined, he pushed his way feet first down the crack. So far, so good. But then a twenty-seven pound chunk of limestone broke off and pinned his left leg in the narrow groove.
No matter how hard Floyd tried to free himself, he could not budge the rock or his body. He was lying on his right side. Beneath his pinned left leg, his right leg was bent at an awkward angle; neither one could move. His right arm was wedged against his side. His left arm was free, but in the cold cave, it quickly became numb.
He fell asleep. When he woke up, he was in total darkness, for his lantern had gone out. Trapped and alone, all Floyd could do was wait for help to arrive.
How had he gotten himself into this predicament?
Floyd Collins had grown up in the cave country of Kentucky and had explored his first cave when he was six. He loved caves so much that he unwisely dropped out of school to spend more time on his hobby. As a teenager, he even saved most of the money he earned so that he could buy a piece of land with a small cave. He named it Floyd's Cave, removed some of the stone formations in it, and sold them to tourists.
Eventually, he discovered a large cave on his family's land. First called Wonder Cave, then Crystal Cave, it was filled with spectacular cave formations such as gypsum flowers, helictites, and draperies. The Collins family believed that they could make money by charging people to tour the cave. But the cave was four miles from the main highway, down a rutted and often muddy dirt road. Because they couldn't afford to improve the road, they were unable to attract many tourists to their cave.
But Floyd had another plan. Many caves in the area had more than one opening. He wondered if other caves closer to the main highway might connect to Crystal Cave. He thought that Sand Cave, on the land of nearby farmer, might provide a natural connection to Crystal Cave. That way tourists could park on the main road and walk through Sand Cave to reach the wonders of Crystal Cave.
Sand Cave wasn't much of a cave--just a passage twisting downward. An educated person might have had serious reservations about wriggling through such a narrow passage. But not Floyd. He believed that he could get himself out of any cave, especially if it was going to lead to a profit for him and his family.
Now Floyd was trapped. Because he had told no one where he was going, almost twenty-four hours passed before his friends and family found him. On Saturday, they helped free his upper body and warm him up a bit with a gasoline lantern. They widened the opening to the narrow passage and removed two bushels of rocks. But they needed help. On Sunday, his family offered a $500 reward for anyone who could free Floyd.
By Monday morning, newspapers across the United States had begun to report his predicament. Hundreds of people congregated outside Sand Cave. Members of the Louisville Fire Department were on hand, as were many newspaper reporters. In fact, one newspaper reporter even crawled into the cave and attempted to reassure Floyd-- afterwards filing new stories which won him a Pulitzer Prize.
Later that day, someone suggested pulling Floyd out of the cave.
"Go ahead," Floyd replied. "Pull me out even if you tear my foot off."
A harness was put around his body, and three men tried to hoist him free. They were able to straighten his position, but the rock that pinned his leg wouldn't budge. They, too, were forced to give up.
Eventually, rescuers were able to enlarge the passage and bring in a crowbar to dislodge the rock. They wiggled and moved it, but each time the rock slipped back into place. Then a dirt-and-rock slide crashed into Floyd, and the passage around him began to crumble. Workers refused to enter the narrow crawlspace, for fear that tons of rock would fall onto them, trapping them as well.
Since no one would go inside the cave, rescuers decided to sink a shaft that would intersect with Floyd. On February 16, they shaft reached Floyd. Miner Edward Brenner was the first to see Floyd's face. He was dead, with a cave cricket sitting on his nose.
When he was buried, his tombstone read: GREATEST CAVE EXPLORER EVER LIVED.
Copyright © James M. Deem. Taken from an unpublished manuscript by James M Deem. All rights reserved.