Horse Cave, KY

By Nicole Musgrave

Descending into the cave

Descending into the cave

On the Sunday of the Bowling Green community intensive, RUX members traveled 43 miles northwest via Highway 31W to the city of Horse Cave in Hart County, KY.  We decided to take 31W, also known as the Dixie Highway, because it was a well-traveled road during the height of automobile tourism in the 40s and 50s, until the construction of Interstate 65.  This period of history is inscribed on the landscape along 31W, through the signs of old roadside attractions and through motels and hotels, some of which (like the Wigwam Village) are still in operation, some of which are closed and empty, and some of which are used as small apartments for the area's impoverished residents.  The views from 31W also show signs of the region's long history with tobacco farming, such as the many slatted barns that dot the landscape, and the large tobacco warehouse near town that claims, "Sell your tobacco with Bale for the highest sale." 

Photo by the Kentucky Folklife Program's Virginia Siegel

Photo by the Kentucky Folklife Program's Virginia Siegel

Horse Cave, a small city of about about 2,250, was built around the cave.  The Hidden River Cave runs right along Main St. in downtown Horse Cave, KY.  We had the good fortune of getting a tour of the cave from Dave Foster and Micah of the Hidden River Cave & American Cave Museum.  

My group's guide for the cave tour was Micah.  Micah grew up in Horse Cave and has been caving since he was around 8 years old.  He shared with us some of the history of the city and the cave, including how the cave was originally the city's primary water source, and how folks used to entice tourists traveling to and from Mammoth Cave National Park into the city by advertising the cave as "free air conditioning."  Micah also talked about the cave's history of pollution: for nearly 40 years, the cave was closed because of the large amounts of pollution caused by residential and industrial dumping.  But in the 80s, efforts were made to restore the cave back to a healthy state.  Hidden River Cave is now a model for cave restoration.

Micah wowed us with stories about cave exploration.  He shared with us the memory of the first time he made his way into Sunset Dome, a room of the cave more than 5 acres large that was once open to the public, but became inaccessible in the 1940s.  Micah recalled that in his youth, he never thought he would ever see Sunset Dome.  When he finally did make it into Sunset Dome, he remembers being overcome with emotion, having to sit down on the cave floor to take it all in.  There, he came upon a portion of a street lamp on the cave floor next to him, an artifact from early 1900s when the the room used to be lit for tourists.  Micah's since been able to take his young son and many other visitors to experience the vastness and wonder of the room.

RUX members catch their breath on one of the platforms on the way out of the cave.  Because cave atmosphere tends to be higher in carbon dioxide, breath can become shorter when inside.

RUX members catch their breath on one of the platforms on the way out of the cave.  Because cave atmosphere tends to be higher in carbon dioxide, breath can become shorter when inside.

Horse Cave and some of the surrounding areas saw a decline in tourism with the construction of Interstate 65, which diverted tourist traffic away from these small towns.  Horse Cave has taken great effort to rebuild the tourist economy in the area, and Hidden River Cave & American Cave Museum is one initiative that is moving the needle in that direction.  Our time in Horse Cave helped me deepen my understanding of the way in which landscape informs economy, history, culture, and identity. 

Savannah Barrett