Floyd Collins. His lapel ribbon reads
"Great Crystal Cave".
July 20, 1887|
Aburn, Kentucky, U.S.
|Died||c. February 13, 1925
Sand Cave, Barren County, Kentucky, U.S.
William Floyd Collins (cave explorer in central Kentucky, an area that is the location of hundreds of miles of interconnected caves, including the Mammoth Cave National Park. On January 30, 1925, while trying to discover a new entrance to the system of underground caves that were a popular tourist attraction in Kentucky, Collins became trapped in a narrow crawlway 55 feet (17 m) below the surface. The reports about efforts to save Collins became a nationwide newspaper sensation and among the first major news stories to become a major sensation on the new technology of home radio. After four days during which Collins could be brought water and food, a collapse in the cave closed the entrance passageway to everything except voice contact. Collins died of exposure, thirst, and starvation after about fourteen days underground, three days before a dug rescue shaft could reach his position. Collins' body was recovered two months later.July 20, 1887 – c. February 13, 1925 ) was a celebrated pioneer
Collins is also noted for having discovered Crystal Cave in 1917, although another caver received credit for many years. Crystal Cave is now part of the Flint Ridge Cave System of the Mammoth Cave National Park. Collins is sometimes referred to as "The Greatest Cave Explorer Ever Known", and this is inscribed on his tombstone.
Trapped in Sand Cave
The Collins family owned Crystal Cave, a tourist cave in the same general area as the Mammoth Caves. Although beautiful, Crystal Cave attracted a disappointingly low number of tourists because of its remote location. Collins hoped to find another entrance to the Mammoth Caves or possibly a new cave along the road to the Mammoth Caves and to draw some of the visitors to them. He made an agreement with three farmers who owned land closer to the main highway. If he found a cave with commercial potential on their land, the owners would pay to develop the cave, and Collins would share in the profits from operating it as a tourist attraction. Working alone over three weeks, he explored and expanded a hole that would later be named "Sand Cave" by news media.
On January 30, 1925, after several hours of work, Collins managed to squeeze through several narrow passageways; he claimed he had discovered a large chamber, though this was never verified. Because his lamp was dying, he had to leave quickly before exploring the chamber. He became trapped in a small passage on his way out. He accidentally knocked over his lamp, putting out the light, and in the dark he dislodged a rock from the ceiling, pinning his left leg. The rock weighed only 16 pounds (7.2 kg), but it was wedged in where neither he nor rescuers could reach it.
Collins was trapped just 150 feet (50 m) from the entrance. After being found the next day by friends, crackers were taken to him, and an electric light was run down the passage to provide him light and some warmth. Collins survived for over a week while rescue efforts were made. On February 4, the cave passage used to reach Collins collapsed in two places. Rescue leaders, chief among them being Henry St. George Tucker Carmichael, believing the cave impassable and too dangerous, began to dig a shaft to reach the chamber behind Collins. The 55-foot (18 m) shaft and subsequent lateral tunnel intersected the cave just above Collins, but when he was finally reached on February 17, he was already dead from exposure and hunger. As they did not reach him from the rear, the rescuers could not free his leg. The rescuers left his body where it lay and filled the shaft with debris. A doctor estimated he had died three or four days before he was reached, February 13 being the most likely.
With Collins's remains left in the cave, funeral services were held at the surface. Homer Collins was not pleased with Sand Cave as his brother's grave. Two months later, Homer Collins and some friends reopened the shaft. They dug a new tunnel to the opposite side of the cave passage, and recovered Floyd Collins's remains on April 23, 1925. The following day, the body was buried on the Collins family's farm near Crystal Cave (now known as Floyd Collins Crystal Cave). In 1927, Floyd Collins's father, Lee Collins, sold the homestead and cave. The new owner placed Collins's body in a glass-topped coffin and exhibited it in Crystal Cave for many years. On the night of March 18–19, 1929, the body was stolen. It was recovered, but the injured left leg was missing. After this, it was kept in a secluded portion of Crystal in a chained casket. In 1961, Crystal Cave was purchased by Mammoth Cave National Park and closed to the public. The family had objected to Collins's body being displayed in the cave, and at their request, the National Park Service re-interred him in Flint Ridge Cemetery on March 24, 1989. It took a team of 15 men three days to remove the casket and tombstone from the cave.
Newspaper reporter William Burke "Skeets" Miller of the Louisville, Ky., Courier-Journal reported on the rescue efforts from the scene. Miller also talked with and interviewed Collins in the cave, receiving a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage. Miller's reports were distributed by telegraph and were printed by newspapers around the country and abroad, and the rescue attempts were followed by regular news bulletins on the new medium of broadcast radio (the first broadcast radio station KDKA having been established in 1920). Shortly after the media arrived, the publicity drew crowds of tourists to the site, at one point numbering in the tens of thousands. Vendors set up stalls to sell food and souvenirs, creating to a circus-like atmosphere. The Sand Cave rescue attempt grew to become the third-biggest media event between the world wars. (The biggest media events of that time both involved Charles Lindbergh—the trans-Atlantic flight and his son's kidnapping—and Lindbergh actually had a minor role in the Sand Cave rescue, too, having been hired to fly photographic negatives from the scene for a newspaper.)
The attention over the rescue attempt of Collins created interest in the creation of Mammoth Cave National Park, which Sand Cave now is a part. Fear and superstition kept cavers away from Sand Cave for decades. The National Park Service has sealed the entrance with a steel grate for public safety. Expeditions into Mammoth Cave showed that portions of Mammoth actually run under Sand Cave, but no connection has ever been discovered. In the 1970s, cave explorer and author Roger Brucker and a small group entered Sand Cave to conduct research for a book about Floyd Collins. The team surveyed Sand, and discovered an opening in the tunnel collapses through which a small caver could crawl, showing that it would have been possible to feed and heat Collins after February 4, 1925. They proceeded as far as the passage where Collins was trapped; it was choked with gravel and unsafe to excavate. In April 1983, George Crothers led an archaeological investigation that documented many 1925 artifacts in the cave. These were removed for preservation.
The life and death of Floyd Collins inspired the musical Floyd Collins by Adam Guettel and Tina Landau, as well as at least one film documentary, several books, a museum, and many short songs by cavers. Ace in the Hole is a 1951 film by Billy Wilder, based on the media circus surrounding the attempted rescue of a man stuck in a cave; the film depicts a fictional incident, Collins is mentioned by name in the dialogue. Floyd Collins biography is told in the books Trapped! The Story of Floyd Collins by Roger Brucker and Robert K. Murray (ISBN 0-8131-0153-0) and The Life and Death of Floyd Collins by Homer Collins as told to Jack Lehrberger and published by Cave Books. He is mentioned in two novels by Kentucky writers Robert Penn Warren and James Still: The Cave and River of Earth.
In 2006, actor Billy Bob Thornton optioned the film rights to Trapped! The Story of Floyd Collins and a screenplay was adapted by Thornton's writing partner, Tom Epperson. However, Thornton's option expired, and the film rights were acquired by producer Peter R.J. Deyell in 2011.
An annual play is performed at the Green River Amphitheatre in Brownsville, Kentucky, titled The Story of Floyd Collins. The play is based on Floyd Collins himself and also depicts the Collins family interacting at the time of the rescue attempt.
Fiddlin' John Carson and Vernon Dalhart recorded "The Death of Floyd Collins" in 1925. Kentucky-based rock band Black Stone Cherry has a song entitled "The Ghost of Floyd Collins" on their 2008 album Folklore and Superstition. John Prine & Mac Wiseman released a song entitled "Death of Floyd Collins" written by Andrew Jenkins on their 2007 album Standard Songs For Average People.
References in popular culture
- Brucker, R. and Murray, R. Trapped! the Story of Floyd Collins, University Press of Kentucky, 1983. ISBN 0-8131-0153-0 
- Black Stone Cherry Ghost of Floyd Collins, from the album "Folklore and Superstition", 2008.
- In the 1951 movie Ace in the Hole, Kirk Douglas's character mentions Floyd Collins as an example of a human interest story that swept the nation and won the Pulitzer Prize for the Louisville reporter that covered it. Douglas's character said Floyd Collins survived 18 days before dying.
- "Floyd Collins Book Acquired by Producer Peter R.J. Deyell". Broadway World. 2011-04-26. Retrieved 2011-06-26.