Mammoth Cave and the Making of Place

Article excerpt

Occupation, use, and symbolic construction of place in the Mammoth Cave region of Kentucky has resulted in five distinct eras of place-making during the past two hundred years. The connectedness of Mammoth Cave to the larger national stage is revealed through struggles over control and development that wrought successive transformations upon the cultural landscape. The symbolic import of the world's largest cave altered as, in turn, resource extraction, tourism, and environmentalism became the dominant ideology influencing development in the Mammoth Cave region. This paper positions the process of place-making at Mammoth Cave within the changing scene of American society and culture.

KEY WORDS: place-making, Mammoth Cave, tourism, identity, historical geography


Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, has long been recognized as an outstanding feature of the natural landscape and a quintessentially American place. Starting in the early nineteenth century, numerous authors pointed out arresting traits, particularly its grandeur of length and endemic flora and fauna, to support the notion that Mammoth Cave belongs to the pantheon of distinctive and praiseworthy American places, those that, like Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon, are both a source of pride to the American nation and somehow defining of it. Its popularity provided the impetus for the creation of one of the first national parks in the eastern United States. Recognition of Mammoth Cave's distinctiveness was expanded to a global scale in the late twentieth century with UNESCO World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve designations. Mammoth Cave, however, has been marked by struggles over control, development, and symbolic construction of place, struggles that reflected general trends in American society to an extent that belied the cave's peripheral location in rural southcentral Kentucky (Fig. 1). This paper plumbs the symbolic shaping of Mammoth Cave, namely the processes by which this place was connected to the larger national stage and took on iconic meaning within American culture. National events and cultural movements influenced economic development of the Mammoth Cave region, and, in turn, Mammoth Cave figured in the formation of an American national identity.


At the start of the twenty-first century, however, Mammoth Cave is, to a certain extent, a forgotten place, It has been forgotten, not by tourists, who still number between one and two million annually, but by scholars of tourism, national parks, and culture studies who have largely overlooked it, An emerging body of literature on the history of tourism in North America links regional development of scenic places to larger social, economic, and political issues, and ponders the multiple ways that visitors have imagined such places (e.g., McGreevy 1994; Brown 1995; Rothman 1998; Neumann 1999; Shaffer 2001). Yet, scholars of tourism have largely neglected Mammoth Cave, which, after Niagara Falls, was one of the earliest focal points of mass tourism in the United States. The notable exception is Sears' (1989) chapter devoted to nineteenth century travelers' accounts which depict Mammoth Cave as a form of sacred landscape, a Romantic shrine to the scenic and sublime. My essay is designed, as a start in addressing this lacuna, to recover some of the culture history of this understudied, but important southern locale. It is based on a variety of archival materials, including published accounts by travelers, guide books, local histories, business papers related to the Mammoth Cave Estate housed in the Janin Family Papers in the Huntington Library of San Marino, California, and the Croghan Family papers in the library of Historic Locust Grove in Louisville, Kentucky.


With a mapped extent of over 330 miles, Mammoth Cave is the longest known cave system in the world. Home to over 130 faunal species, many endangered, such as the gray bat, or found only in the Mammoth Cave region, such as the Kentucky cave shrimp, it is a site of ecological importance. …