A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The Death of Floyd Collins film revisits tale
of famous cave explorer and his sad fate

By Michael Crisp
Special to KyForward

The Death of Floyd Collins is a project very close to my heart. As a Kentuckian, I’m often attracted to projects that tell compelling stories about Kentucky people, and Floyd’s epic journey, as well as the sad fate that befell him, definitely fits into this category. In the early part of the 20th century, the tourism industry was rapidly growing, especially in Kentucky, where thousands of tourists flocked annually to behold the wonders of Mammoth Cave. By the 1920s, a handful of men were combing the lands near Mammoth Cave in the hopes of finding other caves that they could turn into popular tourist attractions as well.


By 1925, Floyd Collins believed he had found such a cave, and in late January, he began his descent alone into a small, underground tunnel that the media would later call “Sand Cave.” After burrowing approximately 100 feet deep into the cave, Floyd’s leg became stuck by a rock that had dislodged from the wall after he was attempting to return to the surface.

A day passed before it was discovered that he was missing, and after his friends and family found him, they soon found out that the rock pinning his leg would make rescuing him nearly impossible. As word spread of his predicament, the media was dispatched to Sand Cave to cover the story. A young newspaper reporter named William “Skeets” Miller entered the cave on multiple occasions, and was able to converse at length with Floyd as rescuers continued to work around the clock to free the helpless man. The Louisville Courier-Journal newspaper published Miller’s daily conversations with Floyd, which led to a global interest in the story.

The public’s fascination with the story reached its peak when approximately 50,000 people came to Sand Cave nine days after Floyd had become trapped. Nicknamed “Carnival Sunday,” the large crowd featured families who had arrived with a morbid curiosity about Floyd’s fate, as well as food and beverage vendors, preachers, and other onlookers.

As word spread of his predicament, the media was dispatched to Sand Cave to cover the story. (Newsreel still courtesy the author)

As word spread of his predicament, the media was dispatched to Sand Cave to cover the story. (Newsreel still courtesy the author)

During the first week of the ordeal, would-be rescuers were able to bring Floyd food and water, but a cave-in that occurred a week after his entrapment prevented them from providing him with any further provisions. Knowing that Floyd’s time was running out, the Kentucky National Guard was sent to Sand Cave. After some hesitation, they decided to dig a vertical shaft of their own in an effort to reach Floyd.

By the time they reached Floyd, which was 18 days after he had first entered the cave, he was dead. Although public interest in Floyd had now waned, his story had not yet come to an end. In fact, it was just beginning.

Floyd Collins represented the adventurous spirit of 1920s Americana. He was a man who dreamed of fame and fortune, and sought to find them within the subterranean tunnels of America’s heartland. Unfortunately, he became a cautionary tale for those who dared to risk everything in the hopes of attaining these earthly goals.

As with our previous films, The Death of Floyd Collins combines archival footage, rare photographs, recreations and interviews with people who are close to the story. One of our interviews is with Floyd’s niece, Mildred Collins, who as a baby was present at Sand Cave during the attempted rescue.  

“I remember the song that came out on the radio after the tragedy,” says Mildred Collins. “It was called ‘The Death of Floyd Collins,’ and we had a record of it that we‘d play on our record player. One day my daddy (Andy Lee Collins, who was one of Floyd‘s brothers) came home and caught us listening to it, and he took it off the record player and broke it. He didn‘t like us listening to that song because it brought back bad memories.”

The baby is Mildred Collins, who is being held by her father, Floyd's brother Andy Lee Collins. (Newsreel still courtesy the author)

The baby is Mildred Collins, who is being held by her father, Floyd’s brother Andy Lee Collins. (Newsreel still courtesy the author)

Although a great deal of our film was shot in Cave City, which is where Floyd’s entrapment occurred, we chose to film our recreations on a privately-owned, wooded farm in Johnson County, Kentucky. The farm, which was located just outside of Paintsville, featured several sandstone caves, including one that bore an uncanny resemblance to the real Sand Cave.

There were several challenges we faced in making the film, but perhaps the most challenging aspects occurred during our recreations. First off, there wasn’t electrical power available at the farm, so one of our producers, Wade Smith, provided a generator for the shoot that was able to power the cameras and the lights. Also, the location was fairly remote, and required crossing a stream that was about 10 feet wide and 3 feet deep. Wade assembled a crew and was able to build a sturdy bridge so our actors and crew members were able to cross the creek and reach the shooting location safely.

Due to the remote location, food and beverages weren’t readily available, but Paintsville native (and actor) Ronnie Lee Blair was able to secure food and beverages from the local McDonald’s in Paintsville, which provided all of our on-set catering.

Our film will be released this coming February, however we are in need of completion funds to complete the project. These funds will assist us in distributing the film, screening it theatrically, and placing it in various film festivals throughout the country.

By contributing to this project—HERE—you will help us with our goal of bringing Floyd’s incredible story to a wider audience, allowing others the opportunity to learn about this amazing man and the many things he accomplished in his lifetime.

Our funding goal is $25,000, which will assist us in distributing the film, screening it theatrically, and placing it in various film festivals throughout the country. We are accepting donations of all sizes, many of which include exciting perks, such as theatrical premiere movie tickets, collectors edition DVDs, listings in the film’s credits, and much more.

Whether or not you are able to donate to this campaign, we would still like to personally ask you to assist us in getting the word out about our film. Please visit (and “like”) our Facebook page, and encourage others to do so as well. Also be sure to use the Indiegogo share tools as well in order to help us continue to promote this film project.

The crew on location in Paintsville (Photo provided)

The crew on location in Paintsville (Photo provided)


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Michael Crisp wrote this column for AppalachianHistory.net, where it first appeared. He is the director of “The Death of Floyd Collins,” a documentary film that revisits the tragic tale of the famous cave explorer Floyd Collins. In 1925 Collins became the center of a national media circus after becoming trapped for two weeks in a cave in Western Kentucky. Crisp’s previous documentary film directing credits include “A Cut Above: The Legend of Larry Roberts,” “When Happy Met Froggie,” “Legendary: When Baseball Came to the Bluegrass,” and “The Very Worst Thing,” which won the Storyteller Award at the 2010 Redemptive Film Festival in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

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