Floyd Collins

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Floyd Collins
Floyd Collins.png
Born(1887-07-20)July 20, 1887
Auburn, Kentucky United States
Diedc. February 13, 1925(1925-02-13) (aged 37)
Cave City, Kentucky, United States
Resting placeMammoth Cave Baptist Church Cemetery, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky
OccupationCave owner, cave explorer
Known forCave exploration in Central Kentucky; being trapped in Sand Cave and dying before a rescue party could get to him

William Floyd Collins (July 20, 1887 – c. February 13, 1925), better known as Floyd Collins, was an American cave explorer, principally in a region of Central Kentucky that houses hundreds of miles of interconnected caverns within Mammoth Cave National Park, the longest known cave system in the world. In the early 20th century, in an era known as the Kentucky Cave Wars,[1] commercial cave owners and explorers in Kentucky entered into a bitter competition to exploit the bounty of caves for commercial profit from tourists, who paid to see the caves. In 1917 and 1918, Collins discovered and commercialized Great Crystal Cave in the Flint Ridge Cave System. But the cave was remote and visitors were few. Collins had an ambition to find another cave he could open to the public closer to the main roads, and entered into an agreement with a neighbor to open up Sand Cave, a small cave on the neighbor's property. On January 30, 1925, while working to enlarge the small passage in Sand Cave, Collins became trapped in a narrow crawlway 55 feet (17 m) below ground. The rescue operation to save Collins became a national newspaper sensation and one of the first major news stories to be reported using the new technology of broadcast radio.

After four days, during which time rescuers were able to bring water and food to Collins, a rock collapse in the cave closed the entrance passageway, stranding him in the cave, except for voice contact, for more than two weeks. Collins died of thirst and hunger compounded by exposure through hypothermia after being isolated for 14 days, just three days before a rescue shaft reached his position. Collins' body was recovered two months later.

Although Collins was an unknown figure in his lifetime, the fame he gained from his death led to him being memorialized on his tombstone as the "Greatest Cave Explorer Ever Known".[2]

Early life[edit]

Collins home (left) and 2nd cave ticket booth (right)
Collins home {1st cave ticket booth} (left) and 2nd cave ticket booth (right)

According to Homer Collins' account, William Floyd Collins was born approximately 4 miles east of Mammoth Cave, on the Collins family farm on Flint Ridge near the Green River in Kentucky. He was the third child of Leonidas "Lee" Collins and Martha Jane Burnett, who gave birth to eight children: Elizabeth (died at 3 months of age), James "Jim", Floyd, Annie, Andy Lee, Marshall, Nellie, and Homer.[2] Floyd began entering caves by himself at the age of six in search of Native American artifacts to sell to tourists at the Mammoth Cave Hotel.[3] In 1910, Floyd discovered his first cave, Donkey's Cave, on the Collins farm. In 1912, Edmund Turner, a geologist, hired Floyd to show him caves of the region. Consequently, Turner and Floyd assisted with the discovery of Dossey's Dome Cave in 1912 and Great Onyx Cave in 1915. In 1915, Floyd's mother passed away due to tuberculosis and Lee Collins married a Mammoth Cave guide's widow, Serilda Jane "Miss Jane" Buckingham.[4]

Great Crystal Cave[edit]

Stone stairway built by Floyd and his family leading down to Great Crystal Cave (later Floyd Collins' Crystal Cave)
Stairway built by Floyd and his brothers leading down to Great Crystal Cave (later Floyd Collins' Crystal Cave)
Stone entryway with metal door leading to Great Crystal Cave (later Floyd Collins' Crystal Cave)
Collins entrance to Great Crystal Cave (later Floyd Collins' Crystal Cave)

In September, 1917, while climbing up a bluff on the Collins farm, Floyd Collins noticed cool air coming from a hole in the ground. Upon widening the hole, he was able to drop down into a cavity that was part of a passage blocked by breakdown.[3] In December, 1917, after further excavation of the breakdown, Floyd discovered the sinkhole entrance to what he would later name "Great Crystal Cave."[4] Lee Collins deeded Floyd a half interest in the cave and they immediately decided to commercialize it. After tremendous preparation by the entire family, the transformed show cave was opened to tourists in April, 1918. The cave attracted a low number of tourists due to its remote location.[3]

Sand Cave - 1925 incident[edit]

Sand Cave at Mammoth Cave National Park

Collins hoped to find another entrance to the Mammoth Cave or possibly an unknown cave along the road to Mammoth Cave and draw more visitors and greater profits. He made an agreement with three farmers, who owned land closer to the main highway. If he found a cave, they would form a business partnership and share in the responsibilities of operating this tourist attraction. Working alone, within three weeks, he had explored and expanded a hole that would later be called "Sand Cave" by the 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 grotto chamber, though this was never verified. Because his lamp was dying, he had to leave quickly before losing all light to the chamber, but became trapped in a small passage on his way out. Collins accidentally knocked over his lamp, putting out the light, and was caught by a 26-pound rock that fell from the cave ceiling, pinning his left leg. He was trapped 150 feet (50 m) from the entrance.

After he was found the next day by a friend, crackers were sent to him and an electric light was run down the passage to provide him lighting and some warmth. Collins survived for more than a week while rescue efforts were organized. On February 4, the cave passage collapsed in two places. Rescue leaders, led by Henry St. George Tucker Carmichael, determined the cave impassable and too dangerous and began to dig a shaft to reach the chamber behind Collins.[5] The 55-foot (18 m) shaft and subsequent lateral tunnel intersected the cave just above Collins, but when he was finally reached on Monday, February 16th, by miner Ed Brenner, he was "cold and apparently dead."[3][4] Floyd's friend, Johnnie Geralds, was allowed to go into the lateral tunnel and positively identify the body. Dr. William Hazlett and Captain C.E. Francis, National Guard medical officer, were then unsuccessful in an attempt to reach the body but Brenner went in front of them to the body and was able to follow their examination instructions for the official death declaration to be made.[3] It was estimated Floyd had been dead for three to five days,[4] with February 13th the most likely date.[2] Because he could not be reached from behind, the rescuers could not free his leg. They left his body in place and filled the shaft with debris.

Media attention[edit]

NPS marker describing Carnival Sunday and indicating the location of the barbed wire barrier constructed to keep people away from Sand Cave during the attempted rescue of Floyd Collins.

Newspaper reporter William Burke "Skeets" Miller from The Courier-Journal in Louisville reported on the rescue efforts from the scene. Miller, of small stature, was able to remove a lot of earth from around Collins. He also interviewed Collins in the cave, receiving a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage[6] and playing a part in Collins' attempted rescue. Miller's reports were distributed by telegraph and were printed by newspapers across 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 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.)[6] Since the nearest telegraph station was in Cave City, some miles from the cave, two amateur radio operators with the callsigns 9BRK and 9CHG provided the link to pass messages to the authorities and the press.[7]

Burials and exhibition of body[edit]

Floyd Collins' final grave, with epitaph
Mammoth Cave Baptist Church, established in 1827 - the cemetery to the left of the church is the burial ground of famed cavers Edmund Turner and Floyd Collins.

With Collins's body remaining in the cave, funeral services were held on the surface. Homer Collins was not pleased with Sand Cave as his brother's grave, and two months later, he and some friends reopened the shaft. They dug a new tunnel to the opposite side of the cave passage and recovered Floyd Collins' remains on April 23, 1925.[6] The body was taken that day to Cave City for embalming at J.T. Geralds and Brothers funeral home. Following a 2-day visitation at the funeral home, on April 26, 1925, his body was transported to the Collins family farm[4] and buried on the hillside over Great Crystal Cave,[3] which Lee Collins renamed "Floyd Collins' Crystal Cave." In 1927, Lee Collins sold the homestead and cave to Dr. Harry Thomas, dentist and owner of Mammoth Onyx Cave and Hidden River Cave.[4] The new owner placed Collins' body in a glass-topped coffin and exhibited it in Crystal Cave for many years.[6][8] On the night of March 18–19, 1929, the body was stolen. The body was later recovered, having been found in a nearby field, but the injured left leg was missing.[6][8] After this desecration, the remains were kept in a secluded portion of Crystal Cave in a chained casket. In 1961, Crystal Cave was purchased by Mammoth Cave National Park and closed to the public.[8] The Collins family had objected to Collins' body being displayed in the cave and, at their request, the National Park Service re-interred him at Mammoth Cave Baptist Church Cemetery, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky in 1989.[6][8] It took a team of 15 men three days to remove the casket and tombstone from the cave.

In popular culture[edit]

The life and death of Collins inspired the musical Floyd Collins by Adam Guettel and Tina Landau,[9] as well as one film documentary, several books, a museum and many short songs. Ace in the Hole (alternative title, The Big Carnival) 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, but Collins is mentioned by name in the dialogue. He is mentioned in two novels by Kentucky writers Robert Penn Warren and James Still: The Cave and River of Earth.

Within the popular (and attributed as the first) Internet creepypasta, Ted The Caver, Collins is mentioned by way of the primary subject of the story, a small cave passage that contained what is assumed to be a Hodag; wherein the passage is christened Floyd's Tomb.

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.[10]

Fiddlin' John Carson and Vernon Dalhart recorded "The Death of Floyd Collins"[11] in 1925. Kentucky-based rock band Black Stone Cherry has a song titled "The Ghost of Floyd Collins" on their 2008 album, Folklore and Superstition. John Prine and Mac Wiseman released a song titled "Death of Floyd Collins," written by Andrew Jenkins, on their 2007 album Standard Songs For Average People. Roulette records released "The Tale of Floyd Collins" by Ronnie Hawkins as the B side of his 45 RPM single "The Ballad of Caryl Chessman" in 1958 [12]

Floyd Collins is mentioned in Mark Z. Danielewski's postmodern novel House of Leaves (p 334 of the Pantheon Books 2nd edition).

The story of Floyd Collins is also included in the novel Supernatural: The Usual Sacrifices by Yvonne Navarro.[13]

The poet Clark Coolidge's 1978 book Own Face (United Artists) features a photo of Floyd Collins on the cover and a number of poems in the book make reference to Collins, caving, and related matters. Sun & Moon Press published an edition of Own Face in 1993.

The story of Floyd Collins' death is mentioned on the television show The Blacklist.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Cave Wars - Mammoth Cave National Park (U.S. National Park Service)". Archived from the original on 2018-12-15. Retrieved 2017-01-02.
  2. ^ a b c Murray & Brucker, Robert & Roger (1979). Trapped. G.P. Putnams Sons. ISBN 978-0-8131-0153-8.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Collins, Homer (2001). The life and death of Floyd Collins. John Lehrberger. St. Louis, MO: Cave Books. ISBN 0-939748-47-9. OCLC 58721613.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Benton, John (2017). The Floyd Collins Tragedy at Sand Cave. Bill Napper, Bob Thompson. San Francisco: Arcadia Publishing Inc. ISBN 978-1-4396-5950-2. OCLC 972292052.
  5. ^ "Cave floor expands and entombs Collins". Journal and Courier. February 5, 1925. p. 1. Archived from the original on December 28, 2017. Retrieved December 28, 2017 – via Newspapers.com.open access
  6. ^ a b c d e f Bukro, Casey (March 26, 1989). "Folk hero's burial ends 3 generations of anguish". Chicago Tribune. p. 19. Archived from the original on December 28, 2017. Retrieved December 28, 2017 – via Newspapers.com.open access
  7. ^ DeSotto, Clinton: 200 Meters & Down - The Story of Amateur Radio, 1936 - American Radio relay League p.162 ISBN 978-0-87259-001-4
  8. ^ a b c d Bukro, Casey (March 26, 1989). "Folk hero's burial ends 3 generations of anguish 2". Chicago Tribune. p. 20. Archived from the original on December 28, 2017. Retrieved December 28, 2017 – via Newspapers.com.open access
  9. ^ "Blackfriars goes underground for new musical". Democrat and Chronicle. May 3, 2002. p. 19. Archived from the original on December 28, 2017. Retrieved December 28, 2017 – via Newspapers.com.open access
  10. ^ "Floyd Collins Book Acquired by Producer Peter R.J. Deyell". Broadway World. 2011-04-26. Archived from the original on 2011-06-17. Retrieved 2011-06-26.
  11. ^ "The Death of Floyd Collins (Edison Blue Amberol: 5049)". 1925. Archived from the original on 2022-01-11. Retrieved 2018-01-20.
  12. ^ Roulette Records 45 RPM single R-4321 The Ballad of Caryl Chessman/The Tale of Floyd Collins 1958
  13. ^ Navarro, Yvonne (2017). Supernatural: The Usual Sacrifices. Titan Books. p. 194. ISBN 978-1-7832-9857-0. Archived from the original on 2022-01-11. Retrieved 2020-10-02.

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