History Of Eastern Kentucky Karst
By Larry Simpson
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|~1 billion years BP: Collision of continents produces
Grenville Mountains, predating the Appalachians and creation of the
~750 my BP: Rodinia pulls apart creating rift valleys where
the Mississippi Valley and Cincinnati Arch now lie. New Madrid Fault
System is a present day remnant of this rifting. Rome Trough, a
graben-like structure, is created beneath what is now the Cumberland
~430my BP: The gradual uplift of the Cincinnati Arch begins
along a southwest axis in central Kentucky.
~360my BP: Alleghenian Orogeny forms southern Appalachian
Mountains as the north African coast of Gondwana drifts into the
south coast of Laurasia eventually forming Pangea.
~350my BP: Mississippian limestone that will become future
karst is deposited in a shallow inland sea.
~320my BP: Seas are replaced by periodic swamplands and
deltaic outwashes of clastics that eventually will form coal beds,
shale and sandstone caprock of the Cumberland Plateau.
~5.7my BP: Upper levels of Bone Cave in Tennessee are
~3.5my BP: Upper levels of Cumberland Caverns in Tennessee
~2.2my BP: Upper levels of Wolf River Cave are abandoned as
the Cumberland River and its tributaries are downcut.
~2my+ BP: Teays River and Valley is formed draining Kentucky
and Licking Rivers north into Ohio and possibly westward to Illinois
or eastward into Pennsylvania.
~1.8my BP: Upper levels of Zarathustra Cave in Tennessee are
abandoned as the Cumberland River and its tributary Obey River
~1.6my BP: Upper levels of Xanadu Cave are abandoned on the
~900,000 years BP: Sands, silts and muds are deposited in
Great Saltpeter and Sloans Valley caves. (Quartz pebbles were later
dated by Anthony and Granger.)
~70,000 to 18,000 years BP: a series of Pleistocene glacial
advances and retreats destroy the Teays River drainage, damming the
Licking River and New River and creating a 7000 square mile lake
nearly 900 feet deep in parts of Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia,
most likely including the Carter Caves area. During maximum
glaciation and minimum sea level, abundant melt waters allowed the
Mississippi River to flow 100 feet deeper than present effecting
other rivers of the Cumberland Plateau such as the Cumberland and
Kentucky Rivers. The final retreat allows the present path of the
Ohio River to form.
~10,000 to 35,000 years BP: Jaguars left tracks and remains
in Jaguar Cave, Tennessee.
~10,000 to 12,000 years BP: Clovis point deposited near
Cumberland River northeast of Nashville, Tennessee. Chert was mined
in western Kentucky for Clovis points. Cumberland fluted points were
made and distributed along the escarpment of the Cumberland Plateau,
one later found in Sloans Valley Cave Entrance. Fire was used at a
rock shelter in Jackson County. Flat head Peccaries, leave remains
in caves of Rockcastle and Wayne Counties, Vero Tapir in Rockcastle
~4500 years BP: Explorers using cane torches leave bare
footprints in Jaguar Cave, Tennessee.
3000 years BP: Woodland period peoples domesticate native
2200 years before present: Peoples of Adena Culture build
mounds in Kentucky. Caves used for water, habitation, burial,
possibly for minerals and ritual.
1750: Dr. Thomas Walker crosses “Cave Gap” later called
Cumberland Gap along an Indian and buffalo path into Kentucky that
would become Wilderness Road. He describes the entrance to Cudjo’s
Cave found near the gap.
1754-1763: French and Indian War. Cherokee settled
around the upper Cumberland in and around Burnside Kentucky, hold a
war Counsel at the sacred Doublehead Cave vowing to hold their land
against French and their Native allies from north of the Ohio. The
French are defeated, but the celebrated War Woman,
She-Who-Carries-The-Sun is killed in Battle.
1775: In the Watonga Treaty (1774) and the Overhill Cherokee
Treaty (Sycamore Shoals, 1775), the Cherokee sell all of eastern and
central Kentucky north of the Cumberland to the Transylvania Land
Company (Henderson Purchase). Daniel Boone cuts Boone’s Trace
through Rockcastle County and founds Fort Boonsboro on the banks of
the Kentucky River.
1775-1781: American Revolutionary War.
~1789: Big Jake Troxell marries Corn Blossom, daughter of
Chief Doublehead at Doublehead Cave.
1790: US Congress Declares war on Cherokee and other
indigenous peoples of southeastern Kentucky. Treaties signed in 1791
1792: Kentucky becomes the 15th state admitted to the Union.
1793: Fight between Indian raiding party from Ohio and
settlers near Murder Cave, which is named for hostages killed.
1798: John Baker discovers Great Saltpeter Cave and becomes
lost exploring it.
19th Century: Pioneers use caves for water, food storage,
camping, saltpeter: Saltpeter Cave, Carter County; Great Saltpeter
Cave and Teemer’s Cave in Rockcastle County; Sloans Valley and Peter
Pit caves in Pulaski County, and numerous others on a smaller scale,
reaching pinnacle of production during the war of 1812. Whiskey
brewed from springs along the Cumberland.
1801: mining begins in Great Saltpeter Cave.
1805: Dr. Samuel Brown, Saltpeter entrepreneur, buys Great
Saltpeter Cave. The following year he writes of several peter caves
in Jackson and Rockcastle Counties including Kinkaid’s Cave, later
called Great Saltpeter.
1806: Doublehead (Chuquilatague) cedes the final of ten
million acres of Cherokee land in Wayne and McCreary Counties
outraging many of the Cherokee, possibly resulting in his
assassination as a traitor by the faction led by Kahnungdatlageh.
1810: Massacre of Cherokee women and children at Yahoo Falls
in McCreary County (near Eureka Cave) marks the final dispersal of
Cherokee in Kentucky. Corn Blossom mortally wounded. Big Jake
Troxell thought dead but escapes.
1811-1812: New Madrid, several earthquakes occur near the
westernmost tip of Kentucky. Thought to be greater than a magnitude
of 8, they are said to have caused the Mississippi to flow
1818: Luke Munsell produces the first official map of the
state of Kentucky showing caves and karst features.
1832: Naturalist Constantine Rafinesque catalogues and
describes Kentucky caves and their fauna including two from
Mid-1800’s to mid-1900’s: Short Creek Spring is location
several grist mills over the years. Settlers begin exploring caves
1870-1910: Timber boom strips most old growth forest from
Kentucky causing sediment influx and increased flooding in many
1873: Cholera epidemics in Kentucky likely due to
contaminated water (and cave springs).
1877: USGS geologist C. J. Norwood first describes geologic
strata in Rockcastle County.
1888: A.L. Packard Jr. investigates fauna of Carter County
1896: Oligonuk Caverns overlooking Carter City may have been
the first tourist cave in the region. A spur rail line ran from
Garrison to Carter, Kentucky. On weekends tourists could take an
excursion train into Carter City and the Oligunuk Caves. (Ghost
Railroads of Kentucky.)
1930’s: attempt made to commercialize Stab Cave (AKA Taylor
1937: Daniel Boone Forest is created (originally called
1940-1942: Clyde A. Mallott & Floyd C. Mallott survey more
than 7.5 miles Sloans Valley Cave connecting Minton Hollow Cave to
the commercial section then called Cumberland Caverns. This map is
later published by the KGS as Malott, C.A., and McGrain, P., 1977, A
Geologic Profile of Sloans Valley, Pulaski County, Kentucky. Renfro
Valley Barn Dance is broadcast from Great Saltpeter Cave on WHAS
radio in 1940.
1941: Construction begins on Wolf Creek Dam, which will
contain waters of the Cumberland River flooding many caves including
parts of Sloans Valley, Cave Creek, Coral and Wells Cave as well as
the old city of Burnside, once a trading center of the Cherokees.
Construction halted for three years in World War II.
1949: Alabama biologist, J. Manson Valentine visits a number
of caves in Pulaski & Wayne Counties with Pulaski County Geologist,
Woodson Diamond, and publishes a paper on cave beetles (1952).
1950: W. R. Jillson and students from Transylvania College in
Lexington, survey lower levels of Sloans Valley (the commercial
section then called Crystal Cave). Jillson privately publishes
Geology of Crystal Cave in 1952.
1952: Wolf Creek Dam fully operational. Lake Cumberland
1954: McGrain publishes Geology of Carter and Cascade Caves.
Lake Cumberland reaches an all time low of 665.1 due to drought.
1957: Charles Fort surveys Blowing Cave in Wayne County
possibly the first cave survey in that County. Ralph Ewers, Tom
Klekamp, Paul Howeiler, Al Geiser and others form the Cincinnati
Speleological Society, exploring caves in Carter County among
others. Ralph Ewers at the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History
creates a 16mm on cave life in Bat Cave and other caves in Carter
County. Thomas C. Barr Jr. begins investigation of cave fauna of
1959: Eureka Cave in McCreary County makes national news when
explorers claim the cave is bigger than Mammoth. Roy Davis maps
Eureka, reporting its length of just over a mile in NSS News. In
Carter County, Joe Voigt and COG members survey Jarvie Roark's Cave
and others of Tygarts Valley in the 50's and early 60's.
1961: Greater Cincinnati Grotto (GCG) chartered by the NSS.
The Grotto initiates the Kentucky Cave Survey as an on-going
project, publishing a list of over 35 caves in Franklin County,
Kentucky. First annual meeting is held at Bat Cave, Carter Caves
State Park. (Later to be known as Karst-O-Rama)
1962: Al Geiser, aided by members of the GCG begins his
mapping of Sloan’s Valley Cave, also known to the locals as Tater
Cave. University of Texas Grotto Members, Thomas Costello and
William Russell visit Rockcastle, and Pulaski Counties surveying
Great Saltpeter, Sinks of Roundstone and Pine Hill Caves and
exploring many more. They also visit Sinking Valley caves in Pulaski
County. Tom Barr and others found the Blue Grass Grotto (BGG). GCG
holds second annual meeting at Sinking Creek, Pulaski Co.
1966: Great Saltpeter Cave commercialized. A group of Boy
Scouts from Cincinnati, Ohio begins the first survey of Wells Cave,
mapping 15,000 feet. Philly Grotto cavers explore several caves and
in Pulaski County including Slavey Pit.
1967: Wayne White publishes Speleography of Great Saltpetre
1968-1970: Emergency grouting of Wolf Creek Dam is credited
with saving the dam, but does not solve the problem, cavernous
limestone bedrock below the dam.
1969: Dave Beiter begins the fourth survey of Sloans Valley
Cave and is joined by Lou Simpson who spearheads efforts by Columbus
Ohio Grotto (COG) and the Blue Grass Grotto (BGG) surveying more
than 24 miles, the longest in the Cumberland Plateau. Cavers from
GCG explore multiple entrances in Hound Hollow that will eventually
be surveyed as Coral System, the second longest cave survey of the
Cumberland Plateau. The Coral Cavers will eventually be joined by
DASS surveying the cave with additional help of COG & Cleve-O
Grotto. Sinkholes for in embankment of Wolf Creek Dam on Lake
Cumberland “due to the karst geology of the site characterized by an
extensive interconnected network of solution channels in the
1970-1980: COG surveying in Pulaski & Wayne counties, DASS
surveying Pulaski, Buck Creek; GCG surveying in Rockcastle, BGG
surveying in Rockcastle Jackson, Pulaski & Wayne counties. Ken
Tankersley surveys caves of Jackson County.
1972: G. Odell & J. Rebmann publish Caves of Rockcastle
County. Beiter & Cooper report discovery of blind cave fish in
Sloans Valley Cave. Coral/DASS cavers begin second survey of Wells
Cave that will eventually exceed eleven miles. Ewers completes
geology master’s thesis for the University of Cincinnati using data
and photos from Coral, Wells and Sloans Valley caves.
1973: SWORCA (South West Ohio Regional Caving Association)
discover the Miracle Mile in Goochland beginning a survey that will
add five miles to the two previously mapped in the longest cave
surveyed in Rockcastle County. Werner Jud and SWORCA Cavers
discover Blind cave fish in Coral.
1974: Cave Run Lake is completed by Army Corps of Engineers.
Miami Valley Grotto forms.
1975-77: A concrete diaphragm wall is constructed at Wolf
Creek Dam to prevent undermining by bedrock karst features. Feb. 9,
1977, Lake Cumberland reaches low level during construction (677.85
ft), opening many submerged passages previously below the lake.
1979: Thomas Barr and Donald Harker Jr. publish Caves and
Associated Fauna of Eastern Kentucky.
1980s-90: Cavers fight to prevent a proposed garbage landfill
draining into Sloans Valley. Cavers, speleologists and local groups
testify at hearings. BGG & MVG begin surveying in Long Hollow and
Sinking Valley systems.
1981: Lake Cumberland reaches (675.1ft.) allowing Mike
Johnson to make previously sumped Coral and Dave’s Cave connection
1983: Jon Thompson & cavers from Pulaski County and
Cumberland College form the Lake Cumberland Speleological Society.
They resurvey (Pulaski County) Wind Cave finding new passage.
A flash flood in Rockcastle County traps GCG cavers in Precinct 11
Cave. Dr. Horton Hobbs & WUSS survey Saltpeter-Moon System and other
caves in Carter County.
1984: (May 13) Big Flood in Pulaski & Wayne Counties,
eight-inch rain raises Lake Cumberland to highest level ever
(751.7), flooding Coral & Wells Caves and many others to new
heights. Doc Daugherty and MVG surveying Ranch Cave and Big Sink in
1985: Percy (Doc) Dougherty edits Caves and Karst of
1986: Attempt made to get permit to strip mine Long Hollow,
permit withdrawn 1987. Strip mines are initiated above Hail Cave and
Pourover Cave on east and west sides of Buck Creek.
1989: Great Saltpeter Preserve is formed.
1990-2000: GCG surveying Rockcastle County Caves. COG, DUG, GCG,
MVG & others survey Black House Mountain Caves.
1998: Plans announced to build I-66. The proposed preferred
route would take the interstate through prime karst including Wells
and Coral Caves. Lee Florea alerts cavers and a loose coalition of
cavers and environmentalists are formed to challenge the proposed
route (Kick-66). Cavers and hydrologists critique karst aspect of
1999-2000: Partly in response to I-66 and other ecological
threats, regional Grottos, project cavers and the Kentucky
Geological Survey form the Kentucky Speleological Survey to house
maps and GIS data and to inform state planners of karst locations.
Lee Florea and others begin surveying other caves in the possible
alignment including Kneeshredder, forming the Shreddites survey
June 2000: the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet scraps plans
for the southern alignment over Wells and Coral Caves and initiates
a new study of possible alignments to the north.
August 2001: NSS Convention is held at Great Saltpeter Cave.
Hydrologic field trip tours Sinking Valley. Jason Gully begins
series of sump dives and surveys in Short Creek, Sinking Valley and
Coral Cave along with Sam Freshour, Steve Keene and Sue Sharples.
2002: Planning stage for the Northern Bypass of I-66 around
Somerset begins. Business and political leaders convince the KYTC to
move I-66 further north, possibly threatening the Sinking Valley
System. Lee Florea, Jason Gulley and others begin surveying caves of
Sinking Valley with a grant from the NSS.
2003: Jim Helmbold, a DASS Caver, donates land including two
entrances to Wells Cave to the NSS for a preserve. Chris Johns and
Larry Simpson film The Caves of Sinking Valley to document caves in
the I-66 corridor.
2004: Rockcastle Karst Conservancy Formed. Preliminary Karst identification for the I-66 proposed
corridors between Somerset and consultant, Gannett-Fleming, begins
London. Geologists identify karst features. Biological survey of
caves by Dr. Julian Lewis begins. Bat survey by Price Sewell is
2005: Jim Currens and the Kentucky Geological Survey begin a
dye trace study of karst in the proposedI-66 corridors for the KYTC.
KGS surveys Light Hole Cave.
2006: Preliminary phase for plans to pour a new grout curtain
into bedrock 25 feet below Cumberland Dam to prevent failure of dam.
The new waterpark in Somerset is damaged by sinkhole collapse
shortly after the park is opened.
2006: Rockcastle Karst
Conservancy obtains ownership of the Great Saltpetre Cave in
Rockcastle County, Kentucky.
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