In the early decades of the 20th century, Kentucky was in the grips of what are now known as the Cave Wars. All throughout the state, subterranean adventurers were competing for tourist dollars by touting their own guided cave explorations in and around the region’s crown jewel, Mammoth Cave. And at the height of the Kentucky Cave Wars in the 1920s, a young explorer and entrepreneur named Floyd Collins was poised to outdo the competition. He had found what he believed to be his ace in the hole: a previously-undiscovered cave system hidden away on the property of a farmer right near Mammoth Cave.
Collins dubbed it “Sand Cave” and quickly struck a deal with the property owner, Beesly Doyel, to split the profits they’d inevitably earn from untold numbers of visitors anxious to explore this underground wonderland. Collins shrewdly recognized the appeal of Sand Cave’s most unique feature: a large grotto chamber that opened up and dropped about 60 feet — and the camber was only a mere 300 feet from the cave’s entrance. The passageways leading to it were tight and dangerous, but he knew that if he could clear a traversable path, Sand Cave would become known not just across the state, but across the country.
Ultimately, Floyd Collins was proven right. Sand Cave did make national headlines — but the cost was his own life.
While exploring the cave in January 1925 in preparation for what he was sure would be a forthcoming tide of visitors, Collins accidentally dislodged a 27-pound rock on his way out. That rock pinned his leg and trapped him inside. Collins was discovered a day later by Beesly Doyel’s son Jewell, but he couldn’t be pulled out. He was alive and well, a mere 150 feet from daylight, but he was stuck and there was simply no way to get him out.
Almost immediately, the news spread like wildfire, and soon enough, Sand Cave was swarming with visitors – some who had come to try and help Collins escape, others who had simply come for the spectacle.
Over the next 17 days, rescuers tried with all their might to reach Floyd Collins and pull him to safety. Meanwhile, thousands of people flocked to the entrance of Sand Cave to be a part of what had become a national media spectacle, one of the very first in the era of mass communication. Radio broadcasters descended upon the cave’s entrance. Vendors selling hamburgers and souvenirs set up booths. A journalist named William “Skeets” Burke Miller got close enough to Collins to speak with him and conduct a series of interviews that would later earn him a Pulitzer Prize. None other than Charles Lindbergh flew negatives of the few photos captured of a trapped Floyd Collins from the scene to newspaper offices so that they could be printed throughout a nation that was now captivated by the story of this doomed man.
Unfortunately, the attempted rescue was in vain, and Floyd Collins died in Sand Cave circa February 13, 1925 – but the story didn’t end there.
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