Friday, July 20, 2007

The Death of Floyd Collins

"Young people, all take warning from Floyd Collin's fate,/ And get right with your maker before it is too late./ It may not be a Sand Cave in which we find our tomb,/ But on that day of judgment, we too must meet our doom." -- Vernon Dalhart, "The Death of Floyd Collins."

Floyd Collins, spelunker, was born on this day in 1887 in Flint Ridge, Kentucky.

The Collins family made their living farming in Kentucky, but a good living it was not, for the Southern sinkhole geology of the region was not ideal for agriculture. It was, however, ideal for underground caves with remarkable mineral formations, and many farming families supplemented their meager incomes by opening the caves to tourists.

Floyd Collins was particularly adept at finding and navigating underground caves, and discovered the Crystal Cave in 1917, opening it for tours shortly thereafter -- although because it was off the beaten path, it was not too lucrative. Collins continued exploring, caught up in the commercial "cave wars," hoping to find an underground connection between his own caves and the popular Mammoth Caves nearby.

While navigating through a new cave he had discovered, the Sand Cave, Floyd became trapped when a 27-pound stone pinned his leg against the cold wet cave wall 70 feet below the surface. A day later he was discovered by his brother Homer, who attempted to dig him out without success. As more help was required, crowds of onlookers and newspaper reporters began to form outside the cave, causing a traffic mess for 12 miles from the cave entrance. Soon, Collins’ rescue became front page news around the country, with diminutive Louisville Courier-Journal reporter Skeets Miller squeezing through the passageways to deliver Floyd food and keep his spirits up (Miller would ultimately win a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the story).

Rescue efforts went awry when the cave pathways began to collapse as miners attempted to dig a vertical shaft to reach Floyd. On the 18th day of digging, the rescuers finally got to Floyd, but he had died just 24 hours before they reached him, on February 17, 1925. The Collins family had a glass coffin encased around his body and placed it in Crystal Cave, where cavers paid their respects to Floyd for years afterward until his eventual burial in a nearby rural cemetery.

Campers at Mammoth Cave National Park occasionally report seeing the ghost of Floyd Collins there.

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