Friday, October 19, 2007

Lovecraft's Skewed View of Mammoth Cave

The excellent local (Kentucky) writer, Byron Crawford, wrote this essay in the Louisville Courier-Journal today. Mammoth Cave was extremely popular in the 19th century in contrast to Lovecraft's conception of it as a creepy lonely hole in the ground in his youthfully imaginative Best in the Cave. However, Stephen Bishop might well have been a model for the cave explorer. It is virtually impossible for Lovecraft in 1904 to have studied Mammoth Cave and not read of Bishop.

Slave guide recalled for Mammoth effort in exploring cave

Byron Crawford in Louisville Courier-Journal 19 October 2007

When the light is right, you may still see dim letters spelling out S-T-E-P-H-E-N left by the smoke from a tallow candle on the ceiling of Mammoth Cave more than 150 years ago.
Slave guide Stephen Bishop used a mirror to prevent candle wax from dripping into his eyes as he left his imprint on the giant cave he was exploring -- and some of his S's are backward.
Yesterday members of the Cave Research Foundation, who are holding their 50th annual meeting at Mammoth Cave National Park, paused during their tour of the same passageways that Bishop once charted to hear a few pages of his fascinating life story.

Tour leader Roger Brucker -- co-author of "The Longest Cave" and author of the soon-to-be-published historical novel about Bishop's cave experiences, "Grand, Gloomy and Peculiar" -- frequently stopped to read excerpts from his manuscript and share observations about Bishop's role in the cave's development.

"He's kind of the pioneer cave explorer in this country … and really the prototype of modern cave guiding," said Brucker, a founding director of the Cave Research Foundation. "He was the economic engine that put Mammoth Cave on the map between 1840 and 1855."

Bishop's winning personality, coupled with his knowledge of and obsession with the cave, made him easily the most popular guide of the era.

"He has occupied himself so frequently in exploring the various passages of the cavern that there is now no living being who knows it so well. The discoveries made have been the result of his courage, intelligence and untiring zeal," stated an account published in "Stephen Bishop, The Man and the Legend," by former cave historian Harold Meloy.

Bishop's first owner, Franklin Gorin of Glasgow, bought Mammoth Cave in 1838 and assigned the then 17-year-old Bishop to be a cave guide. In October 1839, when Gorin sold the cave to John Croghan, the owner of Locust Grove in Louisville, Bishop was sold as part of the cave and remained a guide.

"He was the first American cave explorer that we know about who was systematic in what he did," Brucker said. "He was so good at it that his owners wrote about his exploits to European papers and papers in New York, and he achieved some fame in his own time for his discoveries."
Croghan asked Bishop to sketch a map of the passages which was published in a book called "Rambles in Mammoth Cave."

The book became the basis for later guidebooks, and reprints may still be bought in the park gift shop.

Bishop's wife, Charlotte, was a manager of the Mammoth Cave Hotel dining room who had worked for Croghan at Locust Grove.

Bishop died in 1857 and is buried in the Old Guides Cemetery on a ridge near the cave entrance.
The Cave Research Foundation, which was founded 100 years after Bishop's death, continues to explore the 367 miles of known passageways in Mammoth Cave in the belief that natural connections will be found to many more miles of what already is the world's longest cave.
"It's within a few hundred feet of a 110-mile cave system called Fisher Ridge and within several hundred feet of the Martin Ridge Cave system, which is about 32 miles long," Brucker said. "If those are connected -- and some of us feel that's a certainty -- that would put us over the 500-mile mark."

Stephen Bishop, they sure could use your help.

Byron Crawford's column appears on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Reach him at (502) 582-4791 or Comment on this column, and read previous columns, at

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