This 1835 Map Shows Incredible Detail About the Longest Cave System in the World

Caitlin Dempsey

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Mammoth Cave in central Kentucky is the longest cave system in the world.  The cave system was declared a national park on July 1, 1941 and a World Heritage site on October 27, 1981.  

More than 400 Miles of Cave Passages

Mammoth Cave is a limestone labyrinth  with more than 400 miles (640 km) of surveyed passageways.  This is twice as longest as the second-longest cave system, Sac Actun underwater cave located in Mexico.  

Karst topography, the natural process of limestone erosion that built Mammoth Cave, was responsible for its formation. Rain and rivers gently dissolve and mold soft limestone during this process, resulting in a massive cave network.

The cave system continues to be surveyed, leading to new discoveries and additions to the total length.


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Creation of Mammoth Cave National Park

Mammoth Cave was established as a national park on July 1, 1941. The park experiences over two million visitors a year and about 500,000 people participating in cave tours.

Mammoth Cave National Park's Broadway, or "Main Cave," passage is a massive subterranean river channel that was long abandoned by the waters that produced it. 
Mammoth Cave National Park’s Broadway, or “Main Cave,” passage is a massive subterranean river channel that was long abandoned by the waters that produced it.  Photo: NPS, public domain.

Visitors to Mammoth Cave National Park can go on lighted tours for some of the caves, notably Grand Avenue, Frozen Niagara, and Fat Man’s Misery.

Mammoth Cave is a World Heritage Site

In 1981, Mammoth Cave was designated a World Heritage Site due to its extensive cave system and unique cave and karst landscape geology.

1835 Map of Mammoth Cave

In 1835, Cincinnati-based surveyor Edmund F. Lee created this elaborately detailed map of Mammoth Cave.  

Hired by the owners, Charles Wilkins and Hyman Gratz, of the cave to survey it, he spent three months walking daily through the cave system.  

Impressed by what he saw, Lee, in his published 30-page booklet to accompany his map, described Mammoth Cave as the being “ranked among those great and extraordinary curiosities… It is remarkable above other caves, on account of its vast dimensions, the number and extend of its branches, the striking examples of the sublime and beautiful architecture of nature which it exhibits – the spacious halls, the lofty domes, the unfathomable pits, the subterraneous cataracts, the echoes, the beautiful groves of stalactites, the various colored incrustations, the strange and fantastic forms – all of which tend to produce upon the mind a deep impression of the truly wonderful and sublime.”

First Accurate Map of Mammoth Cave

All of this knowledge from those daily ventures into Mammoth Cave were poured into creating this highly detailed map showing the first eight miles of the cave system.

Lee’s map was the first accurate map of Mammoth Cave.  An overview of the geographical layout is presented along with profiles for each of the main branches, detailing the height and condition of the passageways.  

A digitized high resolution scan of the map can be viewed online at the Library of Congress.

More

Lee, E. F. & Doolittle & Munson. (1835) Map of the Mammoth Cave: Accompanied with notes. Cincinnati: Doolittle & Munson. [Map] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2006626050/.

Edmund Lee, “Notes on the Mammoth Cave, To Accompany A Map” (1835). Kentucky Library Research Collections. Paper 12. https://digitalcommons.wku.edu/dlsc_kl_non_mat/12 Quinlan, P. H. (2004). Beneath Their Feet: A Novel about Mammoth Cave and Its People. iUniverse.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.