Kentucky is blessed with a staggering number of beautiful caverns, but I wonder how many people take the time to visit them? Furthermore, even among well-seasoned amateur spelunking enthusiasts, I wonder how many have been to some of these lesser known historic subterranean treasures? There are scores more, even more obscure than these, but these are some examples that pique my arbitrary interest for your perusal:
1. Russell’s Cave - Everyone in Lexington’s heard of Russell Cave Road, of course, but did you ever stop to ponder the existence of the actual cave that is its namesake? It’s located approximately seven miles to the north of Lexington, on the grounds of the former Mount Brilliant Mansion which is now demolished. The cave itself isn’t exactly a joy to spelunk through – its passages are filled with standing water and mud – but it’s the rich history of the place that makes it exciting to me. (The cave is on Mount Brilliant Farm and is no longer open to the public.)
Named after Revolutionary War hero Col. William Russell,, it was most famously the location of a bloody fight between abolitionist Cassius M. Clay and Samuel M. Brown. Clay, as the story is told, was heckling and disrupting a political rally when an offended Brown struck him from behind and then fired a shot at him point blank. The bullet, it’s said, amazingly struck the blade of the Bowie knife in Clay’s shirt pocket. sparing his life and giving him time to rebound and overttake the stunned Brown. Clay killed Brown and tossed his body in the waters of the cave entrance.
Additionally, Transylvania University’s Constantine Rafinesque surveyed the area and reported finding a Native American burial mound nearby, indicating that Russell’s Cave was of some sacred significance to ancient dwellers of this land.
2. Eleven Jones Cave. Not far from the corner of Eastern Parkway and Poplar Level Road in Louisville, you’ll find the mysterious Eleven Jones Cave. However, you probably won’t want to visit it. The cave has very high levels of carbon dioxide which become immediately pronounced just inside the entrance. Within minutes of entering the cave you’re in danger of passing out from oxygen deprivation, and ulimately, poisoning and death. The last major scientific survey of Eleven Jones Cave, in 1967, was conducted using oxygen tanks to breathe.
So what’s so exciting about this toxic tunnel? Well, I’m intrigued by the legend for which the cavern is named – the story has long been told about a “crime family” of eleven men named Jones. Some say they were literally brothers; others say they’re not literally related but simply adopted the Jones name as part of the organization (kind of like the band, the Ramones.) The Jones gang allegedly used the cave as a hideout in the 1800s and stashed their loot there from bank robberies, counterfeiting schemes, and various other nefarious deeds.
There are very old reports of some cave passages being large enough to drive a horse and carriage through, but this description doesn’t currently fit what is known about the cave – so either the reports are wrong or there are still more sections of Eleven Jones Cave that remain to be rediscovered.
3. Crystal Cave. Located directly beneath the Beaumont subdivision in Lexington, Crystal Cave is the second largest cavern system in Fayette County (Russell’s is the first.) Unfortunately, the cave closed in 1970 and no longer available to the public. Even biologists haven’t often been granted access to the cave, said to be filled with wall after wall of amazing purple crystals, Pleistocene fossils and a rare species of beetle known to exist in only a half-dozen central Kentucky caves. This has been a source of considerable contention between the world of science and the world of real estate development.
Onyx Cave in Cave City
4. Onyx Cave. Recently, while making my book-tour rounds promoting The Devil And Daniel Boone, I stopped in at Onyx Cave in Cave City. Since it’s in such close proximity to the colossal Mammoth Cave, checking out this smaller one was something I’d never quite gotten around to. I’m glad I’m finally making up for lost time, because Onyx Cave is a beautiful and little-known wonder.
Onyx Cave presents you with a sampling of some of the most common and uncommon geological features you could ask for – stalactites and stalagmites, helictities, “cave coral”, dripstones, drapery, and “cave bacon”.
It’s high on a hill on Huckleberry Knob Road overlooking the Dinosaur World attraction, and is not be confused with the Great Onyx Cave, which is closer to the Mammoth Cave system on Flint Ridge.
5. The Great Saltpetre Cave. Although it was a bustling tourist attraction with tours, ballroom dances, weddings and concerts up until the 1970s, the Great Saltpetre Cave went through a long period of disuse and obscurity. For a time, it was only opened to the public once a year for a Mother’s Day event.
But recently, a new round of “Music On The Mountain” bluegrass concerts have been held there to fundraise for the Rockcastle Karst Conservancy which helps preserve the natural wonders therein.
In the War of 1812, the cave’s plentiful supply of saltpetre made it a key site of military interest. Sixty to seventy men were employed by the government to mine the cave of its saltpeter. This was cruucial to the war effort, as British blockades prevented overseas shipments of saltpeter from reaching American shores. The cave was also mined for saltpetre during the Mexican-American War and the Civil War.
The Great Saltpetre Cave is located in the Mt.Vernon/Renfro Valley area, and you can find more information on visiting it here.
Cub Run Cave in Cub Run
6. Cub Run Cave. In 1950, two young boys in Cub Run made an intriguing discovery: a small hole in a rock outcropping was emitting freezing cold air. Their suspicions that they’d discovered a cave were confirmed as they hacked apart the rocks to make the hole big enough to crawl into. They found themselves in a mud-filled passageway, and crawled 60 feet further to find the tunnel opened up into a large chamber with more passages going off into darkness.
Excitedly, they went back to tell everyone what they’d found. Unfortunately, you can always leave it to grown-ups to screw up a good thing: the underground cave system sprawled beneath more than one person’s property, and a bitter dispute between landowners subsequently erupted. Unable to come to any agreement on how to share the cave, they instead sealed it back up and put it out of their minds for the next 55 years. Thankfully, Cub Run Cave was finally reopened and made available to the public in 2006. It’s one of only four caves in the United States to have a rare formation called “Box Work”, and hosts a plethora of critters such as cave crayfish, lizards, cave crickets and three different species of bats.
Jeffrey Scott Holland is a native Kentuckian, painter, writer, actor, musician, paralegal – and interested in all things. He joins a growing stable of talented, interesting regular columnists for KyForward.com, bringing his gift of a well-turned phrase, quirkiness and humor to entertain and enlighten — and sometimes provoke — our readers. He can always be reached at any time, by anyone on the planet, at firstname.lastname@example.org.