Slaves explored, discovered cave paths at Mammoth Cave National Park

Published: Feb. 2, 2023 at 4:56 PM CST
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MAMMOTH CAVE, Ky. (WBKO) - The stories of Black history are entrenched at Mammoth Cave National Park, depicting the significance of enslaved African Americans’ success today.

The famous, dark, and hollow caves within Mammoth Cave National Park are filled with Black history.

“They were some of the first people to take our early visitors into the cave. But they also served as early explorers,” said Molly Schroer, Public Affairs Officer at Mammoth Cave National Park.

Over 200 years ago, enslaved African-Americans worked in the cave to create gunpowder used in the War of 1812.

“What’s ironic about the whole thing is they were working hard for us to keep our freedom while they didn’t have theirs,” said Schroer.

In the mid-1800s, slaves were then brought to Mammoth Cave to not only act as tour guides but go deep down into the caves to discover new paths and trails for visitors.

“Why that’s important today is we still go through those passages. Many of the areas were discovered by these guides, they were named by them. So their legacy has kind of carried on for over 200 years,” said Schroer.

Stephen Bishop was one of the first Black tour guides who discovered miles and miles of trails that visitors walk today. The cave displays one of the maps that Bishop hand-drew from memory back in 1845.

“He discovered areas in the cave, like the Mammoth Dome-- what we now know is Fat Man’s Misery-- everyone loves that section of the cave. He was the first person to cross the bottomless pit,” said Shroer.

Meanwhile, Bransford is essentially a “household name” within the park.

Bransford Monument unveiled at Mammoth Cave National Park

The great-great-grandson of Mat Bransford, Jerry Bransford, has suited up to guide at the park to this day where he walks the same trails once walked and founded by his late ancestors, five generations later.

“He (Mat Bransford) also has his signature throughout the cave and I know Jerry gets to walk past his great, great grandfather’s signature while down there,” said Schroer.

All this history and more is not only tucked within the walls of the cave but overshadows the mountains and rolling hills of the park.

“We celebrate it all year long. But you know, especially during the month of February, we’re happy to highlight it,” said Schroer.

After learning about the historical development of the caves, it is evident that these Black tour guides not only literally ‘paved’ the way for the caves, but are critical in the National Park’s popularity and prominence today.

“The wildlife is great, but really, it’s the people that have made this cave what it is,” said Schroer.

In honor of Black History Month, Mammoth Cave National Park will present ranger-led talks, guided walks, two presentations at local libraries, and special videos and visual displays that focus on the legacy of African American history at Mammoth Cave throughout the month of February. All events are free and open to the public with no reservations required.

Ranger-led talks will take place daily at 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. with additional talks occurring on Saturdays and Sundays at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. at the park’s visitor center.

Rangers will discuss the significant contributions African Americans have made to the cave and area tourism throughout Mammoth Cave’s history.

A ranger-led hike to the Bransford Cemetery will depart from the visitor center at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 18, and on Saturday, Feb. 25. The two-hour hike will meet in front of the visitor center where participants will then caravan over to the trailhead to begin the program. Visitors will be accompanied by a park ranger on a dirt and rock path through the forest about one-quarter mile to reach the Bransford Cemetery.