Photo by Ron Simmons

Link Found Between 2 Two Major Cave Systems

New York Times, 12/2/72

CAVE CITY, Ky., Dec. 1 - Subterranean explorers announced today their discovery of a long-sought link between two of the world's major cave systems, which stretch for 150 miles underground.

The discovery was made three months ago by a party of five men and a woman that spent 16 hours, often in water up to their necks, worming seven miles underground to locate the long-suspected connection between the Mammoth Cave and the Flint Ridge Cave systems.

"It was like going through a huge bowl of spaghetti - except that we went through the tubes in the strands," said the party's leader, Dr. John P. Wilcox of Columbus, Ohio.

Aside from the cave systems here, the longest that has been found anywhere is the Holloch Holle, in Switzerland, which is 72 miles long.

Mud and Exhaustion

Mrs. Patricia Crowther of Arlington, Mass., a 29-year-old computer programmer who is the mother of two daughters, told in an interview of being soaked to the skin, caked with mud "like chocolate frosting" and almost exhausted, when the party inched through Hanson's Lost River and into the Mammoth Cave complex last Sept. 9.

"We were about at the end of our strength," said Dr. Wilcox, a research engineer.

He described sloshing forward hunched over through a four-foot-high passage that was three feet deep in water, coming to an opening in the labyrinth and finding a tourist trail through Mammoth Cave across which tens of thousands of people had probably passed.

The discovery ended almost a year of surveying, planning and exploration by the party, but the story goes back to at least 1799 when Elijah M. Covington, the Warren County surveyor, mentioned "two saltpetre caves" when defining local boundary lines.

Cave Found in 1809

A HUNTER NAMED Houtchins, whose first name has been lost to history, found the entrance to Mammoth Cave in 1809 while pursuing a wounded bear. During the War of 1912 valuable deposits of saltpeter in the cave were mined to make gunpowder and a half interest in the property was sold for the then enormous sum of ten thousand dollars.

Scientific rather than financial interest was stimulated in the mid-1800's by Stephen Bishop, a Negro guide, who discovered many new passages and labyrinths. But Floyd Collins focused national attention on the area.

Mr. Collins spent a decade exploring the Flint Ridge Cave system, dying of exposure in 1925 when trapped by falling rocks. The week of rescue efforts by miners and National Guardsmen attracted attention from coast to coast.

It was into the tunnels that were first explored by Mr. Collins that Dr. Wilcox and his party went seeking the link between the Flint Ridge and Mammoth Cave systems.

With Dr. Wilcox and Mrs. Crowther were Richard B. Zopf, 21, of Yellow Springs, Ohio, who started cave exploration just eight months ago; Dr. P. Gary Eller, 25, a research associate at Georgia Tech who plays "The Ballad of Floyd Collins" on a five-string banjo. Stephen G. Wells, 23, a graduate student in geology at the University of Cincinnati, and Cleveland F. Pinnix, 28, a National Parks Service Ranger who has been surveying its caves for two years.

Mrs. Crowther, described by her colleagues as a "gung ho caver," was credited by them with leading the way to the discovery. During a 21-hour trip on August 30 the 115-pound Mrs. Crowther was able to squeeze through a narrow canyon on which was found scrawled the name "Pete H," together with an arrow pointing toward Mammoth Cave.

By checking records the explorers concluded that the inscriptioin had been made by Peter Hanson, who surveyed the cave in the 1930's and was killed in World War II.

On Sept. 9 the party returned with candy bars, canned fruit juice and tinned meat. They brought surveying instruments and wore heavy sweaters, miners helmets and hiking boots.

The explorers spent two hours trekking through the relatively easy main tunnel in the Flint Ridge system, about two and a half miles.

Continuing south, two more hours brought them only another mile. The path was often covered with mud, although the party also had to pick its way through rockfalls.

They slithered through the opening found by Mrs. Crowther 10 days before, again found the inscription left by Hanson and continued on.

Over the next five hours they covered only a mile, sometimes slipping into the water, chilled in the cave's constant temperature of 54 degrees.

"We were stepping along gingerly hoping not to make waves because sometimes the water was up to our chin," Mrs. Crowther said.

In the glare of their torches, they could see crawfish and other aquatic animals that were totally blind, creatures that had never been exposed to the light before.

With Dr. Wilcox in the lead, they wormed their way to the underground Echo River, where he shouted back to the others: "I can see a tourist trail!" They had found their way to the Mammoth Cave.

The significance of the discovery is going to mean an increase in interest in cave exploration, according to Dr. Stanley D. Sides, president of the Cave Research Foundation, which helped support the expedition.

"The discovery also means more tourists," said Joseph Kulesza, superintendent of Mammoth Cave National Park. "We're already planning to add more guided tours."

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