Caves are abundant throughout much of Appalachia and have long proven to be a popular draw for adventure-seekers. The challenges inherent with caving come in many forms from such dangers as slipping and tripping on rocks; getting perpetually lost inside the cave only to go deeper and deeper from safety; hypothermia brought on by extreme cold temperatures and wetness; dehydration from a lack of a sufficient water intake; and, finally, rockfalls that can occur without any prior warning. That last danger is one a young Kentucky man named Floyd Collins would become all too familiar with as an unfortunate rockfall would make him a household name for a time in the early 20th century.
The Collins family owned the land above Crystal Cave in the aptly named Cave City, Kentucky. The Crystal Cave was discovered in 1917 by the family’s youngest son, Floyd Collins, and was opened soon after as a tourist attraction. Unfortunately, the Crystal Cage didn’t prove to be a very profitable venture as access to Crystal Cave proved to be too challenging for most explorers to tackle. Young Floyd, however, was undaunted in his quest for riches from the caving business and he soon hatched an idea to develop another local cave. An aspiring entrepreneur, Collins struck a deal with a man named B. Doyel to develop the Sand Cave, which had a more appealing and accessible location, in exchange for a cut of half the profits.
On January 30, 1925, Floyd Collins entered the Sand Cave on a scouting mission to see what the conditions were like inside. An experienced caver, he soon discovered this cave to be full of challenges as it was riddled with extremely tight spaces making exploration a very difficult proposition. He noticed his kerosene lantern begin to flicker as it became low on fuel while snaking his way through one of the many suffocatingly snug stretches of the cave. Floyd knew that losing his light inside the unfamiliar cave would be a severe test to his safety so he decided it was time to begin a speedy exit.
In his haste to get out of the cave, Floyd’s dragging foot knocked loose a large rock which promptly fell then wedged in between his ankle and the wall of the cave trapping him. As his upper body was well into one of the many tight spots in the cave, he was unable to use his hands to free himself from his precarious position. The more he moved to try to free himself the more he realized he was completely stuck alone in the cave. After some time had passed, it was discovered that Floyd was missing and rescuers entered the cave in an attempt to find him.
It didn’t take long for searchers to locate Collins as he was stuck a mere 150 feet from the entrance to the cave. Their various attempts to free him having all failed, they became desperate and brought in engineers, geologists and, finally, miners to figure out a way to get him safely out of the cave. Rescuers were initially able to get food and water to Collins to keep him nourished, however, that came to an end after a few days when a collapse blocked physical access to him, although they could still communicate with him for a time. Day after day passed by with no resolution as poor Floyd Collins lay helpless and immobile. Eventually, after all else had failed, rescuers began to dig what would be a 55-foot shaft into the cave to reach him.
News of Floyd’s predicament travelled and before long a large crowd began to gather to view the spectacle. Before long it became national news which generated even larger crowds descending on the area around the opening of Sand Cave. As is all too often the case, it didn’t take long before opportunists began to sell concessions and souvenirs in the worst kind of display of capitalism. The Commonwealth of Kentucky was forced to send troops into the area to maintain order among the crowd that now numbered in the thousands.
The national interest in the sage continued to swell as the days continued to pass with no resolution. Eventually news organizations built up to giving out hourly radio updates on the rescue efforts. A journalist named William Burke “Skeets” Miller from the Louisville (KY) Courier-Journal made several trips into the cave to interview Floyd Collins on his condition. Miller would go on to earn a Pulitzer Prize for his journalism efforts in covering the plight of Floyd Collins. He was also helpful in easing Collins suffering somewhat by helping dig out some of the dirt from around him. Miller was a very small man who earned the nickname “Skeets” in short for “mosquito” due to his diminutive frame which came in handy in gaining access to Collins.
Finally, on February 17, 1925, the shaft finally made it to Collins but the thirty-seven year old Floyd Collins was found to have been dead for several days, February 13th being the likely date of his passing. The official cause of death was ruled exposure as he had succumbed to the elements inside the cave. Officials decided to seal the cave with the body of Floyd Collins still inside of what had become his dark, damp tomb.
Funeral services were held outside the cave but the Collins family wasn’t satisfied with this decision so they eventually decided to have him removed from the cave. It would be two months later before his family would have him removed from the cave and buried in a grave closer to their home. On April 23, 1925, they were finally able to recover the remains of Floyd Collins and brought him back to the family farm near Crystal Cave in Cave City. In 1927, the family sold the farm and accompanying cave to new owners and moved away.
In a macabre decision to take advantage of the notoriety of the incident, the new owner displayed the body of Floyd Collins in a coffin with a glass top so that he would serve as a tourist exhibition at Crystal Cave. The story takes another bizarre turn as the body of Floyd Collins was stolen on March 18, 1929. The body was eventually recovered less the infamous left leg that had sealed his fate as it has never been located again.
In 1961, Crystal Cave was purchased by Mammoth Cave National Park and closed to the public. The Collins family was able to eventually persuade the National Park Service to have him reinterred in the Flint Ridge Cemetery, which took place on March 24, 1989. His family had his headstone inscribed with the honorary title, “The Greatest Cave Explorer Ever Known.”
The life and death of Floyd Collins has inspired numerous songs, books, and a recent documentary entitled “The Death of Floyd Collins” by Kentucky filmmaker/author Michael Crisp (available for purchase on Amazon). His life was relatively unremarkable but his death left a lingering and sensational impression, may he finally rest in peace. – Shane
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