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  • Writer's pictureDan Wagner

Great Onyx Lantern Tour in Mammoth Cave National Park

Experience Mammoth Cave as if you've stepped back in time to the 1800s with the Great Onyx Lantern Tour at Mammoth Cave National Park. The immersive tour takes visitors through chambers like the Spaghetti Factory, beside large dripstone formations such as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and through passages adorned with shimmering gypsum crystals. Uncover the intriguing tales of the Kentucky Cave Wars era and explore the cave's storied past, from its initial discovery in the early 1900s to its transformation as a privately owned wonder, eventually becoming part of Mammoth Cave National Park in 1961.

Great Onyx Lantern Tour

Bathrooms No

Water No

Stairs (20 descending, 20 ascending)

Duration 2 hours

At the entrance, park rangers hand out gas lanterns, the only source of light for the tour, before descending 20 stairs into the cave. Upon reaching the cave floor, visitors are greeted by the fascinating sight of the Spaghetti Factory—a room adorned with an abundance of long, slender stalactites resembling strands of spaghetti.

Great Onyx Lantern Tour

Within the Spaghetti Factory, one of the remarkable formations that catches the eye is the Leaning Tower of Pisa—a large, slightly leaning stalagmite located on the left side of the path.

Great Onyx Lantern Tour

After leaving the Spaghetti Factory, the tour continues along a compact dirt trail through a tubular passage named the Hall of Giants for a quarter mile. While walking the path, visitors might consider watching for fenced-off passages along the sides of the main cave. While these side passages are not included in the tour, they lead to four additional levels of the cave. The lowest level, located 360 feet below the surface, contains an underground stream known as the Lucy Kovah River.

Great Onyx Lantern Tour

At approximately a quarter-mile into the tour, visitors encounter the Hanging Gardens and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. These expansive dripstone formations, one ascending from the floor and the other descending from the ceiling near the center of the passageway, are thought to have begun forming nearly 300,000 years ago.

Great Onyx Lantern Tour

At this stop, rangers begin to delve into the cave's rich history, which began on June 12, 1915, when landowner L.P. Edwards discovered blocks of limestone, normally in horizontal position, now standing on edge as if the roof of a great cavern had fallen in.

Great Onyx Cave newspaper article

Edwards, convinced of the existence of a cave beneath the surface and aware of the potential financial gain, approached Edmund Turner with a proposal: to find a means of accessing the cave. Turner, respected locally and experienced in exploring nearby caves alongside renowned caver Floyd Collins, accepted the proposition.

They reached a handshake agreement that if a cave was indeed found, they would develop it into a tourist attraction and split the profits. Shortly thereafter, Turner excavated through the ridge and unearthed the cave, christened Great Onyx Cave for its remarkable formations. While Turner continued his explorations within the cave throughout the year, Edwards hastened to exploit its commercial potential.

In 1916, Great Onyx Cave welcomed its first visitors, but Edwards betrayed the handshake deal, refusing to honor the profit-sharing agreement. Tragically, within a year of the cave's opening, Turner fell ill and passed away, never receiving a penny from Edwards. Seizing the opportunity, Edwards deceitfully claimed sole credit for the discovery of Great Onyx Cave upon Turner's death.

Following the stop, the tour proceeds through a passageway with a relatively low ceiling embellished with tiny snowball-like gypsum formations, resembling those found along the Cleaveland Avenue Tour. The pristine state of the passageway is attributed in part to its late discovery. While many passageways in Mammoth Cave have been depleted of gypsum crystals due to Native American mining activities thousands of years ago, Great Onyx Cave remained undiscovered until the 1900s, preserving the vast majority of its gypsum deposits.

Great Onyx Lantern Tour

At the half-mile mark of the tour, rangers pause once more to delve into one of the cave's most historically significant areas—the Edwards/Lee property line.

Between 1916 and 1928, L.P. Edwards amassed wealth by charging admission fees to his Great Onyx Cave, capitalizing on the booming cave tourism industry. However, his success was halted in April 1928 when Feland Payton Lee initiated legal action, alleging that a segment of the cave was situated on his land and thus conducting tours constituted trespassing.

Great Onyx Cave newspaper article

As the suit progressed through the courts, a surveyor was enlisted to ascertain the precise location of the property line. Upon thorough examination, it was determined to be approximately half a mile from the cave entrance. Subsequently, boundary lines were etched into the cave floor, leaving one-third of the cave in Lee's hands.

In 1929, the Edmonson Circuit Court ruled in favor of Lee. Edwards then appealed the case to the Kentucky Court of Appeals, which upheld the lower court's ruling, affirming that property rights extended beyond the surface, encompassing the airspace above and the subterranean depths below. It was determined that Edwards had indeed trespassed, resulting in an order for him to remunerate Lee with $25,000, equivalent to one-third of the cave's profits.

Nearly a century later, the boundary lines that were etched into the cave floor in the 1930s endure, serving as lasting markers highlighted by rangers during the tour.

Great Onyx Lantern Tour

If the tour is running on time, park rangers will guide visitors a brief distance from the property line to a fascinating historical cave feature marked with the inscription "Floyd Collins 1914." Beyond its association with one of Kentucky's most renowned cave explorers, what makes this inscription intriguing is the date: 1914. Given that the cave was not officially accessed from the surface until 1915, Collins must have reached this spot through another cave passage, establishing him, rather than Edwards and Turner, as the cave's first explorer.

At this point, the tour retraces its path towards the entrance, pausing en route at Helictite Hall, which sits adjacent to the Hanging Gardens and the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs formations. This particular section of the cave is celebrated for its profusion of helictites—peculiar formations whose growth patterns continue to confound geologists to this day. Many of these formations initially develop as typical stalactites before inexplicably veering off at a 90-degree angle and growing sideways. While geologists have speculated that the Earth's rotation might trigger this sudden change in direction, no theory has yet been substantiated.

Great Onyx Lantern Tour

As the tour advances through Helictite Hall, park rangers pause again to highlight a cluster of peculiar formations known as the Possum Family. These formations bear a striking resemblance to actual possums, seemingly sprouting from the cave's ceiling.

Great Onyx Lantern Tour

Following Helictite Hall, the tour resumes its journey back to the entrance, briefly stopping once more to discuss the ongoing efforts to connect Great Onyx Cave to Mammoth Cave, an effort that has proven futile for more than 100 years.

Great Onyx Cave newspaper article

As the tour wraps up, lanterns are collected, and visitors board the shuttle back to the visitor center. Those interested in learning more of the history of Great Onyx Cave may consider sitting towards the front of the bus, giving them the opportunity to engage the rangers with questions. One such topic of interest could revolve around the unfortunate demise of Clell Lee, an employee of Great Onyx Cave. Amidst the tumultuous era of the Kentucky Cave Wars, animosity between competing caves reached a fever pitch. Rival caves spared no effort in their confrontations, resorting to tactics such as posing as police officers and redirecting traffic, stealing signposts, sabotaging roads to impede access to their adversaries, burning down ticket offices, and even breaking in and destroying precious rock formations.

Tensions reached a tragic climax on July 8, 1921, when Clell Lee visited the Mammoth Cave post office. An altercation ensued between Lee and Mammoth Cave's postmaster, Lee Ferguson, upon learning that Great Onyx Cave had received no mail. The exchange escalated, culminating in Ferguson fatally shooting Lee in the back twice.

Another topic for discussion could involve the uncovering of uranium within Great Onyx Cave. Following the passing of L.P. Edwards in 1938, his daughter Lucy and her husband W.P. Cox assumed responsibility for the cave's management. It wasn't until seventeen years later, in 1955, that Cox stumbled upon substantial uranium deposits within the cave's main avenue. This discovery prompted the involvement of nuclear physicists from the renowned Oak Ridge National Laboratory, notable for their contributions to the Manhattan Project during World War II, who conducted extensive scientific studies throughout the cave.

Great Onyx Cave newspaper article

Yet another worthwhile discussion could center on the prolonged endeavor of the National Park Service to acquire Great Onyx Cave.

Great Onyx Cave newspaper article

Back in 1931, during the formation of the Mammoth Cave National Park, efforts were made to purchase the cave and its surrounding land from L.P. Edwards. However, when Edwards declined the offer, the Mammoth Cave National Park Commission pursued eminent domain, leading to a trial where the cave was valued by a jury at $398,000, a sum beyond the commission's budget.

Despite this setback, attempts to acquire the cave persisted over the next thirty years, marked by negotiation stalemates where both parties couldn't find common ground on terms. Lucy Cox, during one such negotiation, emotionally emphasized the deep familial connection to the land and cave, stating: "My mother was born on this farm, which has been in our family for 100 years, and my father, the late L.P. Edwards, discovered our cave in 1915. We have been showing it ever since. It is our life. Would you part with a treasure for a song?"

It wasn't until January 1961, after three decades of efforts and failed negotiations, that a deal was finally reached, with a payment of $365,000, securing Great Onyx Cave's inclusion into the national park.

Fourteen years later, in 1975, cave tours recommenced, and to this day, Great Onyx Cave stands as one of the most sought-after cave tours offered at Mammoth Cave National Park.

Visitors interested in exploring Great Onyx Cave should be aware that there are several other caves nearby bearing the name "Onyx," such as Crystal Onyx Cave and Mammoth Onyx Cave. Although these caves offer their own unique wonders, it's important to note that they are not affiliated with Great Onyx Cave or the National Park Service.



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