NORTH CAROLINA

Flag Rally

This event was held at the Gaston Co.Court House Gastonia N.C June 27th at 4pm

KENTUCKY

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 Louisville.

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 forward.

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 years.”

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 been abandoned.

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

SLIDE SHOW

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 be.

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 said.

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 of tuberculosis.

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 money.”

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 back.

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 did.