CAVE CITY, Ky. –
During the period between the First and the Second World Wars (1919-1939), three top U.S. news stories caught the eyes of the rest of the world.
In 1927, Col. Charles A. Lindbergh won the Orteig Prize for making the first transatlantic, nonstop solo flight from New York City to Paris, France. Another story came in March 1932, as Lindbergh's infant son, Charles Jr., was kidnapped and murdered. But before that, a tragic event occurring in Kentucky on Jan. 30, 1925, would focus national and worldwide attention on the Kentucky National Guard for the next two weeks.
On Jan. 30, 1925, around 10 a.m., cave explorer William Floyd Collins, better known as Floyd Collins, became trapped by a falling rock while exploring Sand Cave near Cave City, Ky. He was looking for undiscovered caverns and a new entrance to Mammoth Cave.
This story has a Lindbergh connection, as well.
In 1921, while attending training at Camp Knox, Ky., Lindbergh and two friends spent their free time roaming the Kentucky cave country and made the acquaintance of Collins, who showed them around the area. During Collins's rescue attempt in 1925, Lindbergh was on scene to fly photos from Horse Cave to newspapers in Chicago. Lindbergh was also mentioned by a newspaperman when he claimed the photos were for his newspaper. Later, Lindbergh learned he delivered them to the wrong paper. These events were two years before Lindbergh's historic transatlantic flight.
Collins, born July 20, 1887, at Auburn, Logan County, Ky., had devoted most of his life to exploring the caverns in the vicinity of Cave City. With the advent of the automobile, Collins' work was inspired by nearby Mammoth Cave, which became a popular, accessible tourist attraction. The hunt for more caverns to rival Mammoth Cave's success instigated Kentucky's "Cave Wars" of the 1920s.
Seventeen rival commercial caverns used misleading advertising and other unscrupulous techniques to attract unwary tourists headed for the nationally renowned wonders of Mammoth Cave. The tourist trade proved lucrative, and poor farm families like the Collinses' searched their land for caves that might also attract visitors. Having entered his first cave at the age of six, Floyd was well-known in the area as a devoted, life-long--although reckless--cave explorer. His reputation was considerably enhanced when he discovered Crystal Cave on his family's farm in 1917.
After initial attempts to rescue Collins failed, his plight began to draw local and then national media attention. When subsequent attempts continued to fail, every newspaper and radio station in the country focused on Collins' tragic situation. In fact, a remote radio station set-up at the site of the disaster. It took an agonizing seventeen days for rescue crews to reach Collins, who had finally died by then. In those harrowing weeks, Floyd Collins's name was in every household throughout the United States, and his story quickly became a legend.
While Collins's rescue attempt was unfolding, the Kentucky National Guard became involved in other significant events around the commonwealth, making February 1925 a stressful time.
Here are some reports from that timeline:
Friday, Jan. 30, 1925
While cave exploring, Floyd Collins discovers a subterranean coliseum eighty feet high, about 300 feet from the entrance of Sand Cave. In his haste climbing back to the surface, he dislodged a rock pinning his left foot.
Saturday, Jan. 31, 1925
On Saturday morning, Jewell Doyle, the son of Bee Doyle, owner of the property where the cave is located, found Collins. Word of Floyd's predicament quickly spread through the Cave City community, and a crowd began to gather at the cave's entrance. Efforts were immediately initiated to free Collins, without success.
Sunday, Feb. 1, 1925
Once word got out of Collins' situation, the media and public descended on the site. As the day progressed, more and more people arrived; some offered their help, and others were curiosity seekers. They gained some success in widening and shoring up the cave, but this did nothing to improve Floyd's situation. The crowd outside became drunk and rowdy. A difference of opinion developed between the "outlanders" and the locals on the best methods to rescue Floyd. Arguments and fistfights frequently erupted between the rival factions, and their differences only deepened as time passed.
Monday, Feb. 2, 1925
Eight members of the Kentucky National Guard left Smiths Grove for Sand Cave. Under the command of two lieutenants, they would assist with the excavation there. The eight volunteer Guardsmen were the smallest men in the company. Throughout the rescue, additional Guardsmen were ordered to aid efforts at Sand Cave. The primary operations of these Guardsmen were to perform security in and around the cave entrance by forming lines to keep onlookers from hampering the work of the rescuers.
An air compressor and drill arrived from Louisville, but they decided not to use the tool due to the cave's sandy nature.
An attempt to pull Collins out while connected to a harness failed.
Newspapers, radio, and motion picture crews from all over the country would eventually arrive. Before long, the plight of one man, Floyd Collins, fighting for his life against nature, reached deep into American hearts.
Louisville Courier-Journal reporter, William "Skeets" Miller, arrived at Sand Cave. Miller was a small, tough and wiry lad, and crawled down into the wet, dark passage to interview Collins. Before he could see Floyd's face, he had to remove a small piece of oilcloth covering it. Collins related their initial meeting in his newspaper article:
"Put it back," said Floyd, "put it back—the water." Then I noticed a small drip-drip-drip from above. Each drop struck Collins' face. The first hours he didn't mind, but the constant dripping almost drove him insane. His brother had taken the cloth to him earlier in the day. This reminded me of the old water torture used in ages past. I shuddered."
Miller would make numerous trips down to Floyd, taking him food and water and assisting in the trapped man's rescue attempt. For his reporting and involvement in the rescue attempt, Miller received the Pulitzer Prize in Journalism.
Special Orders No. 15.
Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 149th Infantry, Smiths Grove,
First Lieutenant Edgar E. Cross with one officer and eleven enlisted men.
To maintain law and order in connection with the efforts being made to
rescue one Floyd Collins buried in a cave.
(sign) James A. Kehoe, The Adjutant General.
Tuesday, Feb. 3, 1925
A line of electric lights was taken into the cave, one of which was hung around Collins' neck, to give him some light as well as give him some heat. The first Kentucky Guardsmen arrived at Sand Cave, under the command of 1st Lt. Cross: Lieutenant Will S. Dorsey, Staff Sgt. J. Mack Kirby, Sgt. Byron Winslow, Sgt. George White, Pvt. James Fuqua, Pvt. Lee Thompson, Pvt. Milton Kirby, Pvt. Carter Davis and Pvt. Roy Brown.
Wednesday, Feb. 4, 1925
Part of the cave ceiling between Floyd and the surface collapsed as a result of the almost incessant rain, effectively cutting him off from all but voice communication with the outside world. But he continued to survive, even though his hope was rapidly dimming.
Due to the growing chaos and confusion at Sand Cave and the rescue operations' ineffectuality, the governor of Kentucky responded by calling on additional Kentucky Guardsmen and dispatching professional engineers to the site. While the soldiers established a protective perimeter around the cave entrance, the engineers worked on options to get Collins out.
Special Orders No. 16.
Service Company, 149th Infantry, Bowling Green, Kentucky.
Captain Julius L. Topmiller with three officers and seven enlisted men.
Purpose of maintaining law and preserving order.
(sign) James A. Kehoe, The Adjutant General.
During the night, in his capacity as Brigadier General, Lt. Gov. Henry H. Denhardt and other officers arrived and took command of the site at Sand Cave. As daylight broke, and with only a few wearied workers, it was more orderly than any time since Collins' plight was discovered.
The Guardsmen immediately set about policing the rough hillside, and Denhardt made his plans for organizing the rescue work. Rivalry among groups of workers had interfered with best efforts to release Collins over the previous four days. The commander hoped to overcome this by declaring a quasi-military rule, if necessary.
Rumors quickly circulated that Denhardt would declare Militia Law in the area.
A guard was assigned to Homer Collins, one of Floyd's brothers, to prevent his entering the cavern and hampering rescue efforts. Denhardt, the commander in charge, felt the increased risk of loss of life due to crawling in the cave was too great when there was no chance to render aid by such means.
Thursday, Feb. 5, 1925
Brig. Gen. Denhardt began directing the work around Sand Cave by establishing Military Police about the cave and its vicinity.
The floor of the cavern raised, and walls closed in a few feet ahead of Collins. This would be the last time his voice would be heard.
Guardsmen belonging to the 149th Infantry, Headquarters, Kentucky National Guard were listed as on duty at Sand Cave. Bowling Green Officers, included: Brig. Gen. Henry Herbert Denhardt, Maj. Hubert Cherry, Capt. Alex M. Chaney, Capt. J. L. Topmiller, Lt. Daughtry, Lt. Martin, Lt. Potter, and Lt. Will Runner. Bowling Green Privates included: Bryson, Durbin, Jenkins, Moseley, Oakes, Omans, and Pedigo. Smiths Grove Lieutenant Edgar E. Cross was listed with Privates Brown, Davis, Fugua, Kinslow, Kirby (1), Kirby (2), Marr, Philpot, Skaggs, Thompson, Wells, and Whittle, also from Smiths Grove.
Friday, Feb. 6, 1925
Tunneling began on a shaft about fifty feet from the cave's entrance aimed to strike the original cavern just about the location of Collins. The radio test conducted indicates Floyd was still alive.
Denhardt sent a telegram to Adjutant General James A. Kehoe at Frankfort stating, "Work progressing wonderfully well. Everything moves smoothly. Confident Collins is alive and that we will save him."
Homer Collins evaded Guardsmen and entered the main passageway into Sand Cave to see if his brother was still alive. He was gone some time, and a party was organized to go in after him. When he reappeared, no action was taken against Homer, who was in a highly nervous state.
Eleven more National Guardsmen arrived on the scene at Sand Cave.
Saturday, Feb. 7, 1925
Adjutant General Kehoe and Captain E. B. Blackwell arrive at Sand Cave after driving in from Frankfort. Denhardt continued to direct the rescue attempt, and fifty Guardsmen maintained order. Newspapers reported the measured tread of Kentucky Troops beat a staccato to the frenzied picking by miners digging a new shaft.
Denhardt ordered Homer Collins and John Geralds, Floyd's life-long friend, away from the cave. Geralds, involved in the rescue effort, criticized the methods used publicly. Both men were called to National Guard headquarters and informed that their presence was undesirable because it slowed the work. Officers warned them if they returned, they would be ejected forcibly. Both agreed not to offer further interference.
Additionally, newspapers reported that a truckload of ammunition and other supplies was en route to Cave City from Frankfort by way of Louisville, despite denials by National Guard officers that any such ammunition had been ordered. Eight hundred rifle rounds were reportedly found in a baggage car at Frankfort. A newspaperman there had climbed into the coach and said he counted 2400 rounds in boxes consigned to Capt. J. L. Topmiller at Cave City.
Fourteen other Guardsmen were called in from Bowling Green. The extra Guardsmen were said to aid control of the large crowds hampering the mine workers.
Special Orders No. 18.
54th Machine Gun Squadron, Cavalry, Frankfort, Kentucky.
Major Carl D. Norman, report to Brigadier General Henry H. Denhardt;
remain on duty until relieved by General Denhardt.
(sign) Major William A. Clarke, Jr., Assistant Adjutant General.
Sunday, Feb. 8, 1925
While rescue efforts continued at Sand Cave, at Bevier, Muhlenberg County, Ky., tensions between union and non-union miners at the Rogers' Brothers coal mine quickly escalate into a shooting battle. In the process, several hundred shots were fired into the homes of two miners by so-called "Raiders."
The firing created a state of terror in the community, and fears of vengeance led Gov. Fields to order troops sent there at once; some even withdrew from guard duty at Sand Cave. The troops were under the command of Maj. Clark, Kentucky Guard's Assistant Adjutant General.
Back at Sand Cave, nearly 15,000 spectators were reported seen at the location. Some estimates range from ten thousand to as high as fifty thousand present at various times. The site turned into a carnival-like atmosphere with vendors selling souvenirs, hot dogs, sandwiches, popcorn, and balloons to the curiosity seekers that had flocked to see the tragedy. Moonshine was also readily available and sold on the sly.
Rumors began to circulate that the whole thing was a "publicity hoax" cooked up by the newspapers or by Floyd himself—and that there was no one trapped in the cave after all. These rumors led Gov. Fields to order Denhardt to hold a court of inquiry to determine the validity of the claims.
Monday, Feb. 9, 1925
Kentucky Guardsmen from Cave City and Livermore (Company K, 149th Infantry) took control of the situation at Bevier. Captain Orin Coin was in command of twenty-six Guardsmen there.
Governor Fields directed Denhardt to convene a military court of inquiry at Sand Cave and "Take sworn testimony of each person who saw Collins in the cave."
The governor's statement, made public, read as follows:
"I keenly regret the unfortunate A. P. [Associated Press] dispatch from Cave City, under date of February 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."
General Order No. 6. (Feb. 9, 1925)
Court of Inquiry
Cave City, Kentucky
10:00 a.m., Feb. 10, 1925.
Brigadier General Henry H. Denhardt, President
Lieutenant Colonel Henry J. Stites, Member
Major W. H. Cherry, Member
Captain John A. Polin, Member
Captain Julius L. Topmiller, Member
Captain Alex L. Chaney, Recorder
Said Court shall have the power and authority to summon and compel the attendance of witnesses; to swear them in all respects to conduct the Court in accordance with the established rules and procedure as laid down in the Manual for Courts Martial of the United States Army.
(sign) James A. Kehoe, The Adjutant General.
Tuesday, Feb. 10, 1925
On Tuesday morning, the military court of inquiry convened. While events continued to unfold at Sand Cave and Bevier, Gov. Fields sent four Kentucky Guard officers to Hazard, ky., to attend and observe sessions during a separate court of inquiry. The governor ordered this inquiry to probe into the conduct of some Perry County officials. First Lieutenant Arch Cope of the 38th Military Police Company was to act as a special bailiff of the court, if necessary. The other three Guardsmen were listed as: 2nd Lt. Arch Smith, 38th Military Police Company; 1st Lt. Edmund H. Taylor, Jr., Headquarters, 54th Machine Gun Squadron; and 1st Lt. John W. Watson, Headquarters Detachment, 54th Machine Gun Squadron. Governor Fields did not expect any trouble at Hazard; however, he believed the Guardsmen's presence would have a good effect on the situation.
Wednesday, Feb. 11, 1925
Two phony telegrams were received at Cave City, claiming that Floyd was not in the cave and that he was outside and safe. One of the telegrams was supposedly from Floyd.
General Denhardt reported that cots and blankets were not sufficient for the laborers at Sand Cave. Governor Fields immediately ordered Gen. Kehoe to send three tents, 30 cots, 100 blankets, and some trousers along with other equipment to Cave City. Highway Department trucks picked up the State Arsenal items in Frankfort and transported them to Sand Cave.
A detachment of the Troops sent to Bevier, was then sent to Cleaton, a half-mile away, following the firing on the Louisville & Nashville's southbound passenger train that happened the evening before.
Thursday, Feb. 12, 1925
The walls of the shaft being worked on by the rescuers began to collapse due to the condition of the soil and rain.
Late afternoon in Bevier, two Guardsmen were fired upon while traveling on a train from Elk Valley to Bevier. The shooting occurred as the train came into Bevier.
Friday, Feb. 13, 1925
On the morning of Friday the 13th, the men working the shaft said they could hear Floyd coughing. Denhardt reported his office had received more than 2,000 letters—most offered advice on how to free Collins.
Saturday, Feb. 14, 1925
The military court of inquiry delivered its finding, Floyd was definitely trapped in Sand Cave.
Sunday, Feb. 15, 1925
By this time, most people had given up all hope that Floyd Collins was still alive.
Monday, Feb. 16, 1925
At 10:30 a.m., Homer Collins broke through the military guard on duty at the cave and almost succeeded in reaching and going down the shaft when a rumor stated Floyd was being brought up the shaft.
At 3:42 p.m., rescuers reported they finally connected the parallel shaft with Sand Cave and discovered Floyd Collins' lifeless body: "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."
It appeared Collins had likely died the previous day after he was entombed for seventeen days. Both, Capt. C. E. Francis, Medical Officer of the Kentucky National Guard, and Dr. William Hazlett of Chicago, expressed the opinion that Collins had been dead 24 hours. Later, Dr. Hazlett stated Collins had been dead between three and five days. Floyd's exact time and date of death are unknown.
At nearly the same time rescuers reached Floyd, Collins Aviation Field was being dedicated in his honor. It was described as a small flying field that was not level, with the sides and ends sloping toward the center. Five airplanes were at the airfield, where State Senator William Henry Jones made a brief speech. Jones would go on to serve as Kentucky's 32nd Adjutant General, 1927-1931.
Adjutant General Kehoe collapsed in the Sand Cave rescue camp while talking with a group of men that evening. Kehoe, prostrate on the ground, was given first aid and removed to a tent adjoining the Red Cross hospital unit. A few minutes later, they announced that Kehoe, weakened from long hours working night and day, had fainted from exhaustion and that his condition was not serious. However, he sustained a fractured finger in his fall.
At the Rogers' Brothers Coal Mine in Bevier, Guardsmen were, again, fired on by snipers. The first shots came when Lt. Cameron Brown and Sgt. Claude Barnes checked sentry posts. They were shot at twice again later, on Feb. 20 and Mar. 5. The Guardsmen eventually traded shots with the unknown individuals that were firing down on them from a hill near the mine. No one was injured either time. The Guardsmen remained on duty at Bevier until Mar. 13, 1925.
Tuesday, Feb. 17, 1925
The Collins family decided to leave Floyd's body in its natural tomb. A funeral service was conducted in the afternoon at the mouth of the shaft dug to rescue him.
Later that day, a coroner's jury ruled that Floyd Collins had come to his death "from exposure caused by being accidentally entrapped in what is commonly known as Sand Cave."
Wednesday, Feb. 18, 1925
At 7:00 a.m., the last three members of the 54th Machine Gun Squadron, under Warrant Officer Dan W. Cline's command, left Sand Cave. A total of seventeen officers and thirty-five men had been on duty during the rescue effort.
Special Orders No. 24.
Medical Department, 149th Infantry, Bowling Green, Kentucky.
Major Morton M. Moss and Captain Charles E. Francis.
Proceed to Sand Cave, Kentucky, remaining on duty for such days as necessary.
(sign) James A. Kehoe, The Adjutant General.
As a very tragic occurrence, it is interesting to note that the rock which held him in place was only 75 pounds. Also, the events at Sand Cave gave rise to scores of poems and popular songs and almost as many feature articles and book-length studies that described and critiqued rescue efforts. Robert Penn Warren's novel, The Cave, is based almost entirely on the Floyd Collins story, as is Billy Wilder's motion picture, Ace in the Hole.
One of the most bizarre events to occur surrounding the Floyd Collins's story was Collins' body's subsequent travels from the time of its removal from Sand Cave, which did not occur until Apr. 23, 1925.
Collins' body was embalmed on Sunday, Apr. 26, 1925, and buried on the property of Crystal Cave, where his family was living at the time. In 1927, the family sold the property. The new owner, Dr. Harry Thomas, had an idea to get tourists to the cave. He had Collins' body dug up and placed in a glass-topped coffin. He then set it in the center of the cave so visitors could get a peek at Floyd's corpse. This macabre tourist attraction worked, and tourists came in droves.
On the evening of Sept. 23, 1927, there was an unsuccessful attempt to steal Collins' body from Crystal Cave. A second attempt proved successful on Mar. 18, 1929. Bloodhounds were brought in at its disappearance and tracked the body to the banks of Green River. Authorities immediately brought it back to Crystal Cave. Unfortunately, Collins was returned with one leg missing.
On July 1, 1941, Mammoth Cave became part of the National Park Service. In 1961, the National Park Service purchased Crystal Cave and restricted access to Floyd's coffin. Finally, in 1989, Floyd's descendants requested he be given a "final" burial. His coffin was removed from Crystal Cave and buried at Mammoth Cave Baptist Church, now a part of Mammoth Cave National Park. Floyd's body was buried and put on display a total of four times.
In 1971, the Kentucky Historical Society and Kentucky Department of Highways established a historical marker at Old Entrance Road to the cave area, KY 255, in Edmonson County. Marker number 1385 near Sand Cave reads 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."
By Feb. 19, 1925, the tragedy at Sand Cave, which made banner headlines across the country for more than two weeks, was off the front pages. During the second attempt to bring Floyd out of the cave in April, only a small group of locals were present to see his remains reach the surface. None of his family were reported present for that moment. Although, at his funeral held at Crystal Cave, an estimated five hundred witnesses attended that ceremony.
Although Floyd failed to use standard cave-exploring techniques of the day, his failure and resulting death have instilled the necessity to use proper safety measures while venturing into the underworld. Even though we consider him reckless in his cave exploration, his legend grew as he became known as the world's greatest cave explorer.
Kentucky Guardsmen at Sand Cave
Brig. Gen. James A. Kehoe, Kentucky's Adjutant General, his aide, Capt. E. B. Blackwell.
Brig. Gen. Henry H. Denhardt, Seventy-Five Infantry Brigade, overall commander. Additionally, Lt. Col. Henry J. Stites, Maj. W. H. Cherry, Capt. John A. Polin and Capt. Alex L. Chaney served as members of the court of inquiry.
Capt. Julius L. Topmiller, Service Company, 149th Infantry, Bowling Green, had direct control of the men on duty at the cave. Service Company also patrolled posts at the sand hole:
1st Lt. Henry J. Potter
1st Lt. Eldred Daugherty
2nd Lt. William H. Martin
Warrant Officer Dan W. Cline
Eleven NCOs and enlisted men
Seventy-Five Infantry Brigade, Headquarters Company, Bowling Green:
1st Lt. H. T. Runner
2nd Lt. Allen
Ten NCOs and enlisted men
Battalion Headquarters Company, 149th Infantry, Smiths Grove:
1st Lt. Edgar E. Cross
2nd Lt. Will S. Dorsey
Eleven NCOs and enlisted men
Fifty-fourth Machine Gun Squadron, Cavalry, Frankfort:
Maj. Carl D. Norman
Four NCOs and enlisted men
Medical Department, 149th Infantry, Bowling Green:
Maj. Morton M. Moss
Capt. Charles E. Francis
Annual Report of the Chief, National Guard Bureau, 1925.
Appendix K, pp. 69-70.
5th Army Corps Area: Kentucky
Sand Cave, Kentucky. 02 February to 18 March 1925.
Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 149th Infantry – 02-17 February 1925, Sand Cave. 2 officers and 15 enlisted. Preserve order.
Headquarters, 54th Machine Gun Squadron – 02 February-18 March 1925, Sand Cave. 1 officer.
Service Company, 149th Infantry – 03-19 February 1925, Sand Cave. 4 officers, 1 warrant officer and 11 enlisted. Preserve order.
Medical Detachment, 149th Infantry – 03-19 February 1925, Sand Cave. 5 enlisted. Preserve order.
Troop A, 54th Machine Gun Squadron – 09-18 February 1925, Sand Cave. 2 officers.
Headquarters Company, 75th Brigade – 13-24 February 1925, Sand Cave. 2 officers and 9 enlisted. Preserve order.
Medical Detachment, 149th Infantry – 16-18 February 1925, Sand Cave. 2 officers.
Warrant Officer: 01.
Total personnel: 54.
Hazard, Kentucky. 10 February to 11 February 1925.
Headquarters, Fifty-fourth Machine Gun Squadron, 2 officers.
Thirty-eight Military Police Company. 2 officers.
Total personnel: 4 officers.
Bevier, Kentucky. 8 February to 21 February 1925.
Company K, One Hundred and Forty-ninth Infantry. 1 officer and 32 enlisted. To preserve order.
Total personnel: 33.