CAVE CITY, Ky. (FOX 56) — During times of peace that lingered between World War I and World War II, a single falling rock captured the attention of the entire world.
William Floyd Collins was a cave explorer and a pivotal figure in a period of time known as the “Kentucky Cave Wars.”
Born in Auburn, just a few miles outside of Mammoth Cave near the Green River, Collins demonstrated an aptitude for spelunking at an early age. At the age of six, he was entering caves by himself in search of Native American artifacts to sell.
At the age of 14, Collins was paid to guide a New York geologist through the Great Salt Cave, a cave system Collins had long memorized in his many explorations.
In 1917, Collins uncovered an underground canyon with what has been described as sheer vertical walls, a ceiling as smooth as plaster, and a “flower garden” of white, orange, and brown gypsum formations. He went on to name it Crystal Cave and unsuccessfully tried branding it to tourists.
Sand Cave 1925
Collins, determined to compete in the lucrative cave wars, was searching for another cave entrance to Mammoth Cave and knew of another potential spot to explore.
He entered an agreement with Beesly “Bee” Doyle to explore what would be known as Sand Cave and share the profits if the cave proved to be worthy to showcase.
On Jan. 30, 1925, Collins entered into Sand Cave with only a single kerosene lantern. Part of his trek featured areas so tight he was forced to inch through on his stomach while pressing his lantern forward.
Word is Collins’ lantern began to flicker and, being the seasoned spelunker he was, knew how important having light was. On his return journey, he managed to get his ankle wedged by a large, heavy rock.
He was trapped.
The 1925 Kentucky cave rescue
The next day, Jewell, the son of Doyle, found Collins, and efforts to free him were launched. Word of Collins’ predicament spread and crowds of media and people alike began to swarm by Feb. 1.
On Feb. 2, eight members of the Kentucky National Guard left for Sand Cave to assist with the excavation. As the rescue attempts continued additional men from the National Guard gathered, primarily to form a perimeter around the site and ensure rescue efforts were not hampered by the public.
An almost incessant rain continued falling and by Feb. 4, part of the ceiling between Collins and the surface collapsed, which cut him off from all but voice communication with the world.
As rescue efforts continued on, by Feb. 8 there were rumors of this being a publicity stunt, and Collins wasn’t trapped in the cave at all.
Gov. William Fields directed the Kentucky Guard to gather sworn testimony of each person who saw Collins in the cave and then issued this statement regarding the rumors:
“I keenly regret the unfortunate A. P. [Associated Press] dispatch from Cave City, under date of Feb. 8, to the effect that many people of Cave City and vicinity believe that Floyd Collins is not entombed in Sand Cave. There may be idle rumors by irresponsible or uninformed persons that Collins is not entombed; but to give credit to such rumors at this time is most unfortunate. I am reliably informed that at least five persons reached Collins in Sand Cave and saw him in his unfortunate condition.
“The people, not only of Kentucky, but of the entire country, have generously contributed to the efforts to rescue Collins, and this unwarranted dispatch, whether through the ignorance or evil design of its author, can but have an ill effect upon the morale of those engaged, either by labor or cash contribution, in the worthy effort that is being made to reach the entombed man.
“That the country may know the truth, I have directed the military forces in charge at Sand Cave to forthwith convene a military court of inquiry and take the sworn testimony of each person who saw Collins in the cave.”
On Feb. 16, 18 days after Collins got trapped in the cave, rescue efforts finally broke through.
At 3:42 p.m. rescuers finally connected the parallel shaft with Sand Cave and found the Collins’ lifeless body.
An unnamed person on the scene was credited with reporting, “No sounds came from Collins at all, no respiration, no movement, and the eyes were sunken, indicating, according to physicians, extreme exhaustion going with starvation.
The belief was Collins had likely died on Feb. 15 after being trapped for 17 days. The medical examiner for the Kentucky National Guard and Dr. William Hazlett of Chicago expressed the belief he had been dead 24 hours.
Hazlett would later assert he had been dead between three to five days but Collins’ exact time and date of death are not known.
His body was removed on April 23 and he was buried on the hillside over Crystal Cave briefly. In 1927, his body was moved and placed in a glass-topped coffin and displayed in Crystal Cave.
In 1929, his body was successfully stolen and recovered near the banks of the Green River thanks to the tracking efforts of bloodhounds. Collins’ leg, which was trapped by the rock in the cave, was missing.
He was returned to Crystal Cave until 1989 when his descendants were granted their request of a “final burial” for Collins.
He was finally laid to rest at Mammoth Cave Baptist Church.
In 1971, the Kentucky Historical Society and Kentucky Department of Highways established a historical marker at the Old Entrance Road to Mammoth Cave in Edmonson County with the following inscription:
“Floyd Collins was first to explore Sand Cave. Fallen rock trapped him in narrow passage 150 ft. from entrance, Jan. 30, 1925. Rescuers reached him with food and heat for short time. Aid cut off by shifting earth closing passage. Engineers sank 55-foot shaft but were unable to reach Collins’ body until February 16. Rescue attempt publicized worldwide. Aroused sympathy of nation.”
His legend grew posthumously and he eventually would be credited as the world’s greatest cave explorer.
A special thank you to the Kentucky National Guard and the National Park Service for their contributions to this story.