W hen you think of Kentucky, you’re probably thinking of horses, and that’s because this is the state that is also known as the Bluegrass State, where many pastures grow this highly nutritious type of grass that helps with the thoroughbred horse industry. And where there are horses, there’s also riding, and this state takes the lead when it comes to equestrian culture. But, before you strap the horse saddle on your trusty steed, you should know that this isn’t the only attraction you can find, as Kentucky is home to more than 130 known caves, and most of them can be toured.
One, in particular, you can consider visiting is located in Horse Cave, or under it to be exact, and it is called the Hidden River Cave. It stretches over approximately 10 miles and the changes it went through throughout history still have noticeable remnants today.
About the Cave
As it is often the case, the cave was created thousands of years in the past, Horse Cave having been built around it later, in the 1850s. The name comes from the flowing river inside which doesn’t allow for any stalactite or stalagmite formations, but instead houses many species of fauna that are specific to caves, such as the cavefish or the eyeless crayfish. This underground system is one of the largest in the state and has a border with the Mammoth Cave, although experts from the ACCA (American Cave Conservation Association) claim that they will sooner or later connect naturally. Some of the perks of having this underground creation in Horse Cave is that there is a continuous supply of cold water, and, during hotter months, the large opening also acts as a natural air conditioner. Those, coupled with the shade provided by the trees grown by the entrance, make the entryway a popular gathering place during summer.
Activities to look forward to
When visiting the cave, there are many activities you can take part in. You can opt for tours, adventure-type activities, and more leisurely options that include strolling about and listening to those who are there to tell you about the interesting events the cave has been through. Even if there are no interestingly-shaped formations to examine, inside you’ll find cave-dwelling creatures, domes, caverns, and many other spaces and crevices that are history-rich, including the remnants of the water pump that used to provide drinking water and electrical power for the townspeople.
To step down into the cave you’ll have to take the 230-step staircase, and pick one of the tour options provided by the ACM (American Cave Museum):
- The Public Guided Tour – Lasting between 45 and 60 minutes, these tours don’t call for pre-scheduling. You’ll be crossing the world’s longest bridge that runs underground and follows the river, which takes you into the Sunset Dome, the biggest one in the U.S. that is also free-standing. This tour includes historical facts, stories about the city, and a look at the mechanical remnants, the fauna, and the flora of the cave.
- The Adventure Tour I – Lasting 3 hours, this one will give you a taste of what wild caving is like. You will, however, have to make a reservation 2 days ahead. Prepare an outfit that you don’t care for but that can also keep you warm, as you’ll be getting muddy while you explore by crawling around.
- The Adventure Tour II – Lasting 5 hours, this tour is the best possible experience if you’re trying to see everything there is to see. As with the previous option, this tour calls for a 2 days’ notice for reservation-making. We recommend that, other than an outfit similar to the one we described before, you also get appropriate footwear to keep everything dry and comfortable for the duration of 5 hours, both will help you focus on the close-up experience.
If you need an adrenaline booster, the 30 miles per hour ziplining across the 70 feet high sinkhole entrance or the rappelling down the 75-foot tall limestone walls might be good picks.
For lighter activities that won’t take too much energy, there’s always the option of visiting the museum to find out more about geology, archeology, wildlife, and history through interactive exhibits, or you could take the awarded phone tour above the cave that can show you the pathways you would be in if you were walking underground.
As you might be thinking, everything mentioned thus far hasn’t always been this way. Although not much is known about how the cave’s discovery happened, records show that people were exploring it as early as the 1800s. To make its history easier to follow, we’ll go through the known events chronologically:
- 1908 – The constructions on the land above are bought by a local dentist named Dr. Thomas, therefore the cave is owned by him.
- 1900s – The cave becomes the town’s water supply due to a water pump (a hydroelectric generator) installed on the river’s flow. Dr. Thomas’ action brought the town on the map as well, thanks to the power it supplied, getting it among the first to have lights that were powered electrically.
- 1916 – Due to its natural air conditioning abilities, the cave becomes an attraction, and so, touring starts to take place.
Garbage Disposal and Sewage
While the river provided fresh water and power to light up the city, the citizens were busy using the cave in ways that did nothing to benefit them. As the inside of the cave was out of plain sight, many thought of it as an ad-hoc garbage and sewage disposal system, throwing in anything that wasn’t of use anymore and clogging up the passages, wells, and any other ‘empty space’. This escalated to the point where the quality of the water was unsalvageable, in the 1930s, and the smells were so off-putting that touring had to be stopped, in 1943.
Local industries were just as comfortable with this practice, and many spilled their sewage in the cave as well. Even with the construction of a sewage treatment plant in 1963 things weren’t looking up, as the waste coming from it was dumped in wells that connected to the underground passages, thus having the cleaning process go nowhere. Year by year, the whole situation only got higher in terms of pollution, 1975 being a notable one because of a huge leak from a gasoline tank into the underground system. Only when this problem started affecting other area caves did the government begin to address the situation by issuing Horse Cave with daily fines of thousands of dollars.
Pollution’s Effect on the Cave’s Ecosystem
With pollution levels being this high and stretching over a couple of decades, it was only natural that the fauna inside the cave, which thrived due to the flow of the river, eventually died out. The reasons were mainly the toxicity of the water, the lack of oxygen, and the horrendous smells, and it didn’t take long for the ecosystem to be disrupted because the types of fish and other living beings that reside in caves require a very stable environment to thrive.
Remedying the Pollution
In 1987, the ACCA decided to relocate to Horse Cave, and, as enough is enough, they started working on getting rid of the pollution in the Hidden River and improving the conditions inside the cave so that the ecosystem could thrive again. To do all that, they started with cleaning initiatives that involved some citizens as well, and seeing as things started to pick up, the ACCA announced in 1987 that they are staying for good. In 1989 there was a second try with a sewage treatment plant, and this time it was thought out properly, thus the cave went from the worst condition imaginable to the most pristine in quite a short time (fast-forward to 2015, research showed that the quality of the water is slowly getting back to being drinkable).
Reviving the Tours
To regain the attention of tourists, ACCA built the American Cave Museum sometime in the 1990s and managed to bring back the excitement that was once filling up the city. With a new and organized way of touring and by providing new types of entertainment for the visitors, the Hidden River started becoming highly sought out by cave enthusiasts.
If you ever happen to stumble into Horse Cave, you’ll know you need to take time to visit the wonderful underground system of the Hidden River Cave. And, who knows, maybe you’ll make some memories to last a lifetime.