The western part of Kentucky is made up of karst, which means the ground is like Swiss cheese, with holes running through it. The most famous of these holes is Mammoth Cave, the longest cave system in the world. But it’s not the only cave. Mammoth Cave was an important saltpeter mine up through the War of 1812, but when the supply of saltpeter petered out, so to speak, it became a tourist attraction. Tourism grew slowly until the advent of the automobile, and then took off substantially. Around the beginning of the 20th century, landowners around the area who also had caves on their property wanted in on some of those tourist dollars, too.
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If you owned any property in the area, you searched diligently for a cave entrance, or even the presence of a cave underground, because you can always create an entrance. If you didn’t own land, you could work for someone who did. And competition was ruthless. The many tourist caves would employ “cappers,” whose job it was to bring in tourists, in any way they saw fit. They would waylay tourists and guide them to a cave, or hand out maps to a cave other than Mammoth. They would also sabotage a competitor’s business, up to and including killing them.
The Kentucky Cave Wars lasted for decades. You can still find a lot of caves around the area of Cave City. There’s Mammoth Cave National Park, plus Horse Cave, Hidden River Cave, Outlaw Cave, Diamond Caverns, Lost River Cave, Crystal Onyx Cave, Waterfall Cave, and more. If Mammoth Cave is ever fully explored and mapped, they may prove to all be connected. Read about the Kentucky Cave Wars at Smithsonian.
(Image credit: National Park Service)