This event was held at the
Gaston Co.Court House Gastonia N.C June 27th at 4pm
I am working at Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, as
a season and met this man, this is not SCV or SCVMC, but I felt this was a good
story, and wanted to share.
In Kentucky, a Family at the Center of the Earth
· By KENAN CHRISTIANSENFEB.
A Trip to Mammoth Cave, Ky.’FEB. 28, 2014
‘Grand, Gloomy and Peculiar’
Jerry Bransford remembers the short day trips his family used to make to Mammoth
Cave, half an hour away from their home in Glasgow, Ky. His father would tell
him stories about how his family first came to know the cave as slaves but
eventually became famous guides, starting a legacy that would last four
generations. He grew up wanting to feel what it would be like to walk in the
shoes of these men, whose renown had faded with time.
“Here were these men who had dedicated their lives to this place, but they were
barely a memory a few years after they left,” Mr. Bransford, 67, said last month
as he traced a path that the first guides doubtless took more than a century
ago. He is part of a continuous line of Bransfords and 10 years ago resurrected
a family trade that ended in 1939, two years before Mammoth became a national
park and none of the black guides were hired. In the early 1990s, the Parks
Department discovered Jerry living nearby and invited him back to continue the
legacy and become a fifth-generation guide.
“My whole mission as a guide is to tell their stories and give these men a place
that can never be taken away again,” he told me. And so he does.
NPS Ranger Jerry Bransford, a fifth-generation Mammoth Cave guide.
On tours, he talks about his great-great-grandfather Materson Bransford, a guide
known as Uncle Mat. He tells the story of Nicholas Bransford, Old Nick, who is
not a relative but who has the same surname because both men were slaves of the
same landowner from Glasgow. And he recounts the accomplishments of Stephen
Bishop, who worked alongside them, and who was known as “Columbus of the cave.”
These men were dauntless explorers of Mammoth, which once rivaled Niagara Falls
as the top tourist destination in the United States and inspired authors from
Ralph Waldo Emerson to Jules Verne. Over decades of service, for $100 a year,
they guided such notable figures as George Armstrong Custer, Emperor Dom Pedro
of Brazil, “the Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind and Grand Duke Alexis of Russia.
Adventurers from around the young United States and abroad would thread down
buffalo trails and old corduroy roads to spend a few days in a mustard-colored
cave suit, exploring the sublime wonders beneath the earth. I made my way there
by rental car through south central Kentucky, about an hour and a half from
In midwinter the rumpled hills that pitch and slump alongside the Dixie Highway,
now Highway 31W, are the same muddy-beige as a puma’s coat. It’s a scratchy
landscape, freckled with hokey and somewhat moldering amusements like Dinosaur
World and Big Mike’s Rock, Gift Shop and Mystery House (“An Oddity You Won’t
Want to Miss”).
But beneath the surface of this sinkhole plain lies an elaborate network of cave
systems that tangle and stretch for miles. With more than 400 miles of explored
passageways and possibly 600 more miles yet to be discovered, Mammoth Cave is
the largest of these — it is the longest known cave system in the world by far.
But it is also more than that.
“If you want to know the story of America, it’s preserved in Mammoth Cave,” is
how one guide recently explained it.
And no one understands this history more personally than Mr. Bransford, who
agreed to let me accompany him on a tour of its past. We began by strolling down
an ice-coated path to the cave’s entrance, through rows of leafless trees that
stood straight as telephone poles.
“Slaves used to hew these tulip poplars,” Mr. Bransford said in his folksy lilt
honeyed with rich Southern vowels. “They’d hollow them out to use as pipes, so
they could pump water into the saltpeter vats.”
Before it became a tourist spectacle, Mammoth was one of two saltpeter caves
awarded in a land grant just after the Revolutionary War to Valentine Simons for
a grand total of $80.
“We know the Woodland Indians had been in there long before him, though,” Mr.
Bransford said. “Tribes so ancient we don’t know their names would come in and
use mussel shells to scrape gypsum off the walls.”
We descended a long row of concrete steps, until the cave’s mouth frowned down
at us. It was 60 feet high and snaggletoothed with a two-pronged icicle that
looked like a chipped guillotine. It felt ominous and I could see why Jules
Verne had invoked the cave to describe caverns that endlessly led down in “A
Journey to the Center of the Earth.” From there, we crossed into a narrow
passage, and for the first time I could feel what previous visitors had
described as the “breath of the cave.” In summer, the cave exhales, pushing air,
and occasionally steam, out through sinkholes on the surface. But in winter, the
outside air was sinking in, creating a wind tunnel effect that gently pushed us
After we passed through a narrow passage, the ceiling flew away and we entered
an enormous circular chamber, called the Rotunda. Large sections of the floor
had been gouged. A series of wood-framed pits sat sunken in the dirt beneath the
antiquated pipeline Mr. Bransford had described. It looked like an
archaeological dig, still in progress.
It has been said that during the early 1800s, as many as 70 slaves labored in
these rectangular hoppers, streaming water over cave earth to leach nitrate
minerals from the soil. They would pipe this liquid, known as the “mother liquor,”
up to evaporation furnaces outside the cave, where it was boiled with potash and
processed into saltpeter.
“That’s right, one the primary ingredients for good black gunpowder,” Mr.
Bransford said. “Which was needed. We were in a war, after all.”
In 1812, after the British blockaded the eastern ports of the United States, the
newly liberated colonies were forced to find substitute sources for saltpeter in
places like Mammoth Cave.
“Sometimes I come here, and I can hear the moans and groans of these Americans,”
Mr. Bransford said. “And they were Americans, these slaves, fighting for the
cause of freedom, something they themselves would not possess for another 60
It was hard to look at the vats and not contemplate what Stephen Bishop might
have thought of them when he first passed by more than 20 years after they had
In their explorations, Bishop, Materson Bransford and Nicholas Bransford — all
teenagers — stooped, clambered and belly-crawled through the cave’s limestone
passageways in a darkness that was nearly tangible, navigating past shifting
rocks and sudden pits with little more than a haversack, some coiled rope and a
double-wicked lard lantern to cut the gloom.
They found cane-reed torches, gourd bowls and woven slippers left by prehistoric
Woodland Indians more than 5,000 years before. They heard the murmur of hidden
waterfalls without knowing their source. In some cases, Bishop found it.
Stephen Bishop 1838
In 1838, the year he started as a guide, Bishop became the first explorer to
cross the 105-foot-deep Bottomless Pit, which led to a range of discoveries,
including the tight, winding passage that he eventually dubbed Fat Man’s Misery,
and, at the very bottom level of the cave, more than 360 feet beneath the earth’s
surface, an underground stream teeming with eyeless fish and bone-white crawdads,
which came to be known as Echo River.
“Today we’re going to walk in the footsteps of these young masters of the cave,”
Mr. Bransford told our small tour group. (Mammoth gets about 600,000 visitors a
year, 400,000 of whom take the cave tour.)
We plodded down the passage known as Broadway on a wooden boardwalk, listening
to our footsteps on the slats. Over a railing, a jumbled pile of limestone
shards gives an idea what the path used to look like; it follows parallel to the
boardwalk like a quake-struck road.
There’s a surreal quality to walking in a vast space underground. Light and
shadow switch roles, and everything that’s not directly lit settles beneath a
hazy, comfortable gloom. At times, I’d catch myself looking at the wrinkled rock
or graceful vaulted avenues — or even farther into the cave, at cascading slumps
of butterscotch-colored dripstones — and feel as if I had somehow been
transported into an antique postcard.
Walking through the cave today, it’s hard to imagine just how lively it used to
Bands would set up in the Rotunda and float music down the corridors to a dance
floor at the end of Broadway. In summertime, ministers would bring their
congregations out of the heat and hold services in a recess of the cave known as
the Church. One of the more peculiar structures in the cave is a stone clinic,
which Mr. Bransford thinks might have even been built by Nick and Mat. It was
run by a physician named John Croghan, who bought the cave in 1839. Dr. Croghan
suspected, as had been a rumor since Mammoth had been a saltpeter mine, that the
cave’s pure air and climate were a natural cure for tuberculosis. He persuaded
at least 13 patients to contract to live for a year inside the cave, in canvas
huts placed at various heights.
“Sometimes, during tours, people were shocked half to death to see these ghostly
figures emerge from those huts and ask about the outside world,” Mr. Bransford
It was Nick Bransford’s unfortunate job to blow a horn and summon the skeletal
patients to their meals. After four months, the experiment was aborted when
three of the patients reportedly died. Less than 10 years later Dr. Croghan died
Early tours were less structured than today’s, but in ways that made them more
animated, too. Guides lit dazzling Bengal lights, giving travelers a flash of
the cave wall’s fluted pockets or the majestic height of a dome. On Echo River,
they would paddle parties out in small boats and entertain them with a song; a
stanza later they would be duetting with the sound of their own voice.
Occasionally, inspired by the demonstration, a visitor would draw his pistol and
fire, sending a barrage of explosive echoes thundering back.
One time, while Bishop was taking a party over the river his boat tipped and all
the lamps were extinguished. Through chin-deep water and in complete darkness,
he led the tourists with the sound of his voice, until five hours later Mat
Bransford arrived to save them.
As we stopped under a low shelf, Mr. Bransford tilted his lamp, casting a glare
on the ceiling, where dozens of names were written on the tan stone in thick,
black lettering. In the firelight, they looked like the bold, oil-black
signatures you might find on an old map.
“For a nickel or a dime, the guides would lash a candle to a stick and write
your name up on the ceiling,” Mr. Bransford said. “It was a good way to earn
With practice, the guides learned to use their lanterns to create illusions that
are still part of the tour.
In the area of the cave called the Star Chamber, the guides, from a concealed
location, would reflect light off chips of gypsum on the ceiling, making it
appear as if there were a window to the starry sky above.
This experience inspired Emerson, who in his essay “Illusions” wrote that he saw
a comet flaming among the constellations in the cave and declared the
transformation both strangely beautiful and complete. He wrote that he sat on
the rocky floor and enjoyed the view, while his companions sang, “The stars are
in the quiet sky.”
Occasionally, adventurers would come to test their limits in the cave. In 1863
the stoic, risk-averse Nick Bransford was somewhat comically paired with a
brassy Englishman named F. J. Stevenson, and the two went on a series of
misadventures. For the pleasure of his client, Nick scrambled across precarious
ledges, illuminating the cave’s remote crags, while Mr. Stevenson watched in
gleeful horror, until he became so giddy that he beckoned his weary guide down
to help him reach the very same spot. The relationship was finally terminated
when Mr. Stevenson left Nick to wait on a mud bank for several hours, when they
were exploring the cave’s underground rivers. Upon his return, Stevenson noted
in a journal that Nick “had made up his mind that I had met with an accident and
that he would be left alone to die in the darkness... He swore he would go no
more with me on voyages of discovery for love or money.”
Even though the guides enjoyed a certain celebrity underground, it didn’t shield
them from the hardships of slavery or life in the years that followed. Nick
bought his freedom — partly through money he earned selling the cave’s eyeless
fish to tourists. He was thought to have gone to Nashville, but soon he moved
As Mr. Bransford said, “He found out that just because you have some document
that says you’re free doesn’t mean people will treat you any better.”
The hardest story for him to tell is the one of Mat Bransford, his great-great-grandfather.
Before the Civil War was over, three of Mat’s children were sold to slave buyers.
Sometimes, the guides would scrape their names into a wall to show where they
had been. Today, when Mr. Bransford gives tours, he always notices the ones that
were made by his family. So far, he has counted 14, but the one that gives him
pause is in an area known as Gothic Avenue. It says simply, “Mat 1850.”
“Whenever I see a signature from my kin, I feel awed by what they did,” he said.
“But when I see Mat’s, it just knocks me down. I don’t know how anyone can have
their kids taken away and never get them back.”
Mr. Bransford spent a long time trying to locate firsthand accounts that
mentioned his great-great-grandfather. One day he found a rare interview, taken
from a journal of a Union soldier and abolitionist, who had taken a liking to
Mat and tried to persuade him to go to Nashville, where he could live out his
life as a free man. But as the interview says, “the old man said he couldn’t
part with the cave.” And even when freedom finally came, the Bransfords never