Yes, they too were Kentuckians: Floyd Collins, cave explorer

By James C. Claypool

The death of Floyd Collins (1887-1925) is said to have constituted one of America’s most sensational media events of the 1920s.

Floyd Collins lived in western Kentucky’s cave region his entire life. He began exploring the extensive cave system in this region as a young man, and in 1925, the year of his tragic death, Collins was considered the foremost authority on the caves and cave systems of western Kentucky. In fact, some have gone so far as to label Collins “the greatest cave explorer ever known.” In 1917, Collins discovered Crystal Cave, which was located at the edge of the vast Mammoth Cave system, a discovery the Collins family tried to turn into a commercial enterprise. However, attendance at Crystal Cave was disappointingly low. In the hope that he might be able to uncover a new entrance to the area’s cave systems and thereby generate a new spark of interest in Crystal Cave, Floyd entered a nearby sandstone cave on Jan. 30, 1925. While crawling through a narrow crawlway that ran 55 feet below the surface, Collins became trapped and would remain so for 13 highly melodramatic days until he died from starvation and exposure.

Collins had become trapped in what the news media later dubbed “Sand Cave” after accidentally knocking over his lamp while exiting the cave. Crawling in darkness, he dislodged a 26 ½ -pound rock from the ceiling, which pinned his leg in a manner that made it impossible for Collins (and later his rescuers) to remove the rock. The next day friends discovered Collins trapped only 150 feet from the cave’s entrance. They took him hot food and ran an electric light down the passage to provide him light and warmth. This passage, however, collapsed on Feb. 4, leaving rescue teams with twin options — cutting a shaft from above or digging a lateral tunnel that would intersect from above.

A reporter from the Louisville Courier-Journal, William Burke “Skeets” Miller, spent several hours talking to Collins, and his dramatic reports of these conversations would gain Miller a Pulitzer Prize. Miller’s reports, along with regular news bulletins, were picked up by newspapers and radio stations nationwide. The event soon turned into a carnival as food and souvenir vendors set up shop and tens of thousands of people gathered outside the cave waiting to hear news of Floyd’s fate. After the collapse of the cave, which cut off communication to the outside, Collins lay alone and forsaken, his fate in the hands of his rescuers.

They reached him on Feb. 17, 13 days after he was trapped, but Floyd was dead. Realizing that it was too dangerous to remove the dead man, the rescuers left his body and hastily filled the shaft with debris. Two months later, relatives reopened the shaft, dug a new tunnel and removed the body. The family placed it in a glass-topped coffin in Crystal Cave, where it was on public display until 1961, when Crystal Cave was purchased by the National Park Service. In 1989, Floyd Collins was reinterred in a cemetery nearby.

Floyd Collins’s ordeal and death spawned several tributes, including two popular songs released in 1925, “The Death of Floyd Collins” and “The Floyd Collins Waltz.” His life and death also inspired a musical, a documentary film, several books, a museum and a number of other tributes. In 1951, Billy Wilder paid tribute to Collins in Ace in the Hole, a film that focused upon the media circus surrounding Floyd’s death. Black Stone Cherry, a band based in Kentucky, included a song entitled “The Ghost of Floyd Collins” on an album it released in 2008. Perhaps the strangest twist to the story of Floyd Collins took place on the night of March 18-19, 1929, when his body was stolen from Crystal Cave. The body was soon recovered but his left leg, the one that had been pinned by the rock in the cave, was missing and was never recovered.

Adapted from James C. Claypool’s book, Our Fellow Kentuckians: Rascals, Heroes and Just Plain Uncommon Folk, which is also a talk offered by Claypool through the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau.


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