The 1925 Cave Rescue That Captivated the Nation

In 2018, the heroic rescue of a Thai soccer team and their coach from a flooded cave dominated the news. But it wasn’t the first cave rescue to do so: In 1925, when Kentucky cave explorer Floyd Collins became trapped underground, the epic effort to rescue him gripped national headlines and transformed into a battle between heroism and folly, selflessness and selfishness, life and death.
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Image: iStock.
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Image: iStock. / Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Image: iStock.

Floyd Collins traipsed over damp leaves and thawing snow and stepped into the shadow of a cave. It was an unusually warm Kentucky winter morning—January 30, 1925—and a thick curtain of icicles hung from the lip of the cavern like the pipes of a church organ. The cave's mouth, a bow-shaped rock overhang that resembled a band shell, dripped with water.

Collins paid it no attention. This was a normal day at the office.

For weeks, the 37-year-old cave explorer had spent up to 12 hours every day clearing gravel, sandstone, and limestone from the narrow passageway winding below his feet, and today was no different. Collins removed his coat and hung it over a nearby boulder. He fiddled with his kerosene lamp and slung a rope over his shoulder. Then he dropped into a manhole-sized cavity in the ground.

When Floyd Collins emerged, he’d be one of the most famous people in the world.

Hour Zero

Collins dropped to his hands and knees and charged through muddy pools of snowmelt that numbed his fingers and soaked his trousers; behind him, the last beams of sunlight gasped. At five yards deep, he encountered a 4-foot drop and gently lowered himself down. He extended his kerosene lamp. The walls quivered orange.

Ahead, the cave clamped into a narrow shaft of jagged, loose rocks; Collins dropped to his belly and army-crawled under them. At 50 feet, he encountered the cave’s first squeeze, but Collins was unfazed: With proper technique, a man his size could squirm through a crack with less than 8 inches of clearance. He pressed his arms against his sides, exhaled deeply to flatten his chest cavity, rocked his hips and abdominals, and propelled his body forward with his toes.

Floyd Collins navigates a tight spot in Crystal Cave.
Floyd Collins navigates a tight spot in Crystal Cave. / From the Gordon Smith collection at the National Cave Museum; Diamond Caverns, Park City, Kentucky. Photo courtesy Bob Thompson.

On the other side, the cave widened. Collins crawled like a toddler until the earth pinched closed again. He wiggled through more body-hugging squeezes and emerged at a sloping pit barely wide enough to accommodate his body.

The pit dropped 10 feet and curled horizontally into a small cubby hole that terminated at a tight crack. His brother Homer would later describe it as “a chimney no bigger around than your own body, lined with projecting rocks that dig into your flesh and tear your clothing.” Collins had spent the previous days removing rocks from here, and the crack at the bottom finally looked passable. He eased down feet first and carefully rung his body through the enclosure. Rocks compressed his torso. Above, loose stones dangled millimeters from his neck.

The crack dumped Collins on a ledge. He brought his kerosene lamp forward and revealed a large room that dropped approximately 60 feet. Hungry to explore, he lassoed a rope around a boulder and repelled into the depths.

Then his lantern began to die. The explorer decided to turn back.

Collins pulled himself back to the ledge and carefully inched toward the horizontal crack. He laid down, flipped on his back, and pushed the lantern in front of him. He squeezed his arms against his sides, exhaled, and snaked forward into the squeeze.

Suddenly, the cave plunged to black.

Collins had knocked his lantern over, and the darkness was unfathomable. (Sight is so meaningless in these conditions that the fish living in the underground rivers of Kentucky’s caves have no eyes.) Collins, however, did not panic. He’d been caught in the dark before. He wormed toward the bottom of the 10-foot pit and dug his foot against what he thought was the cave wall.

He lunged forward. Behind him, a rock crumbled. His left ankle suddenly throbbed.

Collins instinctively paddled his feet, bucking the fallen rock with his right foot. Torrents of gravel tumbled around his legs and waist. The guilty stone wedged itself deeper into a crevice near his foot.

Collins heaved forward. He heaved backward. He did not move.

The explorer tried to breathe. He was effectively blind. His head sat directly below the 10-foot pit, and the cave hugged the rest of his body like a straitjacket. His left arm was pinned under his torso, his right by the rock ceiling above. He could not reach behind or ahead, nor could he roll over. Whenever he struggled, rocks tumbled into the abyss behind him or piled onto his feet. Under him, razor-like shards dug into his skin.

With his body wrapped in this stony cocoon, Collins clawed at the cave walls. Blood seeped from his fingernails. He began to sweat—and then shiver—until exhaustion swept him to sleep. He began a tormenting routine: sleep, wake, scream; sleep, wake, scream; sleep, wake, scream. Minutes melted into hours. His voice disappeared. His arms tingled numb. Pain radiated up his ankle.

For the next 25 hours, Floyd Collins received only one visitor from the world above: trickling beads of snowmelt that slowly, methodically, dripped onto his face drop, by drop, by drop.

Floyd Collins might have been a farmer, but he knew from an early age that the riches of Kentucky’s land lay not in the soil but in the tunnels below it. His family’s log cabin sat four miles from Mammoth Cave, an international tourist attraction that contained a palatial system of caverns bigger than most mansions. Dozens of smaller private caves dotted the landscape. Growing up, Collins dreamed of discovering his own.

Collins began exploring Kentucky’s caves alone when he was 6. As a kid, he’d ride to the Mammoth Cave Hotel with his father, Lee, and sell tourists rocks and arrowheads he had found underground. By 10, he had dropped out of school and was scouring local caverns with a lard-fueled lantern in pursuit of Native American relics. By 12, he had memorized the turns of the nearby Great Salt Cave and was venturing off established paths, discovering moccasins, tomahawks, beads, footprints—and even the occasional body of explorers who came before him.

Floyd Collins in Crystal Cave
Floyd Collins in Crystal Cave. / From the Gordon Smith collection at the National Cave Museum; Diamond Caverns, Park City, Kentucky. Photo courtesy Bob Thompson.

In 1910, when Collins was 14, a geologist from New York paid the young explorer $2 a day to be guided around this labyrinth. For two years, the farm boy taught the geologist the rudiments of caving as the geologist taught the farm boy the rudiments of geology. Those lessons later convinced Collins that all the caves in the region were connected.

As a teen, Collins regularly squeezed through cracks that made other explorers blanch, and his reputation as Kentucky’s best caver spread across the county. Locals spun wild stories about Collins diving into caverns and emerging miles away, popping his head out from an unsuspecting landowner’s hayfield like a gopher. Naturally curious, he once discovered a cave and taught himself how to play church hymns on the stalactites like a xylophone.

In 1917, Collins discovered a magnificent underground canyon with sheer vertical walls, a ceiling smooth as plaster, and a “flower garden” of white, orange, and brown gypsum formations. Convinced it could enrich his family, he named it Crystal Cave and began promoting it to tourists. Sadly, they never came: Beautiful as Crystal Cave was, it could only be reached via a tooth-shattering wagon trail that nobody dared to drive. Collins bought a taxicab to transport anxious visitors, but he was, unfortunately, a terrible driver. (Once, he literally hit the broad side of a barn.)

It didn’t help that other cave owners were busy playing dirty tricks. They regularly told tourists that Crystal Cave was closed. They blocked the road with boulders and wagons. One time, five goons demanded Collins hand over the lease to the cave—and beat him bloody when he refused. His brother Homer had to chase them off with a shotgun.

By late 1924, Collins was determined to discover a cave that could beat the competition and erase his family’s troubles. A few years earlier, a man named George Morrison had dug a new entrance into Mammoth Cave so close to Cave City, that, according to Roger W. Brucker of the Cave Research Foundation, it successfully “siphoned off one-third to one-half of Mammoth Cave’s revenue.” Collins wanted to find one even closer to town—and he knew just where to look.

Hour 25

On Saturday afternoon, Floyd Collins heard a voice call his name.

“Come to me,” he replied, waking from his stupor. “I’m hung up.”

Few people had worried about Collins when he didn’t return home Friday night. Earlier that same week, he had spent nearly 30 hours in the cave. He had been bunking at three different homes, and when he didn’t return, his host for that night simply assumed he was sleeping elsewhere. It wasn’t until late the next morning that locals realized he might be trapped.

The first person to brave the cavern, which was soon given the name "Sand Cave," was 17-year-old Jewell Estes. Lithe but inexperienced underground, Estes never reached Collins—he froze at the last squeeze—but he got close enough to call his name. Estes scurried to the surface when the trapped man yelped a response.

One by one, men attempted to reach Collins. Each emerged soaked in mud, solemnly swearing to never enter the godforsaken hole again. By mid-afternoon, dozens of locals from Cave City had gathered outside. All failed to reach the trapped man. “I wouldn’t go back in there for a cold thousand, bad as I need money,” stuttered one rescuer, Ellis Jones.

“Most Kentucky caves are dissolved out of solid limestone and are perfectly safe, whether small or large,” Roger Brucker told Mental Floss in an email. “By contrast, Sand Cave is a pile of sandstone and limestone breakdown blocks with mud fill holding the matrix together.” It was more tunnel than cave, and a loose ceiling of tumbling, crumbling rocks scared all who dared enter.

At 4 p.m., Collins’s 22-year-old brother Homer arrived from Louisville and saw dozens of men bickering outside Sand Cave. Homer ignored them, crept into the cavern still wearing his city clothes, and was greeted by the smell of cigarettes and alcohol that had been brought inside. When he stalled at the 10-foot pit above his brother’s head, he removed his pants, shirt, and shoes and slithered down in his underwear. According to Brucker and Robert K. Murray, authors of Trapped! The Story of Floyd Collins, the sight made Homer shudder:

"A problem immediately confronted Homer that frustrated every subsequent rescuer. If a person came into the chute headfirst, he was forced to work upside down and was compelled upon leaving to push himself feet-first up the sharp slant and then backpedal twenty feet more before he could turn around. If he dropped in feetfirst, as Homer had just done, he could not bring the upper part of his body down to Floyd’s level without contorting himself into almost impossible positions."

Worse yet, Collins blocked his own rescue. Pinched from the chest down, his hands and feet were out of view. Homer called up to have some food brought into the cave and fed his brother by hand, pouring a pint of coffee down his throat and bringing nine sausage sandwiches to his lips. Immediately, he began trying to remove the loose rocks clamped around Collins’s body, but new rocks tumbled to take their place.

Homer emerged hours later shivering violently, skin dangling from his fingers. As he recuperated near the cave’s mouth, dozens more men attempted to navigate Sand Cave. All failed. Nobody would reach Collins until Homer re-entered at midnight.

For approximately eight hours, Homer Collins white-knuckled a crowbar and hacked at the rocks clamped around his brother’s chest. The cave did not yield. By sunrise, Homer’s arms and back ached, his lungs burned, and his mind despaired. As Homer foisted himself into the dawn sunlight on February 1, he was greeted by a sea of unfamiliar faces. The smell of moonshine wafted gloomily through the damp winter air.

Hour 48

One genius suggested that Collins try to untie his shoes. Another suggested they send a contortionist down with a mallet and chisel. They talked about TNT and argued over cave-ins. They talked about gas torches and argued over gas poisoning. They talked about amputation and argued over blood loss.

Approximately 100 men stood outside Sand Cave drinking, squabbling, and failing to turn words into action. Floyd Collins couldn’t understand why. “Why does everybody just stay up there and talk?” he reportedly complained.

Outside the entrance to Sand Cave.
Outside the entrance to Sand Cave. / From the Gordon Smith collection at the National Cave Museum; Diamond Caverns, Park City, Kentucky. Photo courtesy Bob Thompson.

Collins seemed unaware that he was the victim of his own talent. Trapped just 60 feet below the surface at the end of a 140-foot corkscrewing tunnel, Sand Cave was, to him, an easy journey. But every man who attempted to needle through the cavern emerged pale from exhaustion and fear.

It disappointed Homer deeply. After his night shift underground, he had asked some teenage boys to deliver food and drinks to his brother, but even the teenage ego was no match for Sand Cave—the food and blankets were shamefully stuffed into cracks in the cavern walls. Grown men were just as unreliable. Countless self-professed heroes descended into the cave with food and supplies and returned with positive progress reports: Floyd is in good spirits! He’s wrapped in his new blanket! He devoured everything I brought!

All of them lied. With the exception of Homer, nobody reached Collins on February 1.

Homer would spent Sunday night removing rocks from Sand Cave. The following morning, as he dried off near a low-lying campfire, a baby-faced reporter from the Louisville Courier-Journal approached him.

“I hear you are the brother of the fellow who is trapped in the cave,” the reporter said.

Homer looked the kid up and down, glared at his fancy khaki suit, and answered his questions with snorts, harrumphs, and other non-committal grunts. Finally, he gestured to Sand Cave. “If you want information, there’s the hole right over there,” Homer said. “You can go down and find out for yourself.”

Homer underestimated the kid. His name was William B. Miller, but he went by “Skeets”—a nod to his wiry mosquito-like physique—and, as a 21-year-old reporter, he earned only $25 a week and rarely received a byline for his work. Frankly, he was more interested in singing baritone than in doing his usual chore of writing police briefs. So when the editors of the Courier-Journal mentioned that a man was imprisoned in a cave 80 miles south of Louisville, Miller jumped at the opportunity to tell the story.

And he wanted that story. So when Homer challenged him, Miller removed his suit, draped himself in coveralls, and grabbed a flashlight.

William "Skeets" Miller
William "Skeets" Miller. / From the Gordon Smith collection at the National Cave Museum; Diamond Caverns, Park City, Kentucky. Photo courtesy Bob Thompson.

Weighing just 117 pounds, Miller slowly slinked passed the squeezes. His muscles trembled and his teeth chattered. He imagined being suffocated under a crush of rocks. He felt water pooling below him. (People above had lit campfires near the lip of the cave, causing more snowmelt to pour in.) At the last tight spot, his heart thundering like a drum, Miller called for Collins and heard somebody groan “Uh uh.” Miller closed his eyes, inhaled, and slid haplessly down the 10-foot pit.

He landed awkwardly on Collins’s head, who grumbled his annoyance. The newsman apologetically scurried back up the pit, repositioned, and carefully slid down a second time. He tried asking the trapped man questions, but Collins was incoherent. So Miller took mental notes and skedaddled. It took him half an hour to reach the surface.

The physical and psychological toil of climbing out of Sand Cave would exhaust Miller, but it would also benefit his reporting: He immediately grasped how talented and fearless a caver Collins was—and just how difficult it would be to rescue him.

And when Homer saw Miller return to the surface muddy and numb, his suspicions ceased and hopes reignited. This boy, he thought, might be useful after all.

Hour 73

Earlier that night, Floyd Collins had seen angels. Wrapped in cloudy white linens, the messengers rode blazing chariots and left a trail of mouthwatering fragrances in their wake: The scent of liver and onions hot off the griddle, freshly frothed cow’s milk, and steamy chicken sandwiches. These sights and smells were hallucinations—products of Collins’s own deteriorating mind—but they were more pleasant than the nightmare reality he’d endure later that evening.

Monday, February 2 marked the arrival of a second outsider: Lieutenant Robert Burdon, a lean 33-year-old Louisville firefighter who walked and talked with a tell-it-like-it-is swagger that blurred between confidence and arrogance. Like hundreds before him, Burdon came to save Floyd Collins. Unlike hundreds before him, he, like Miller, was able to crawl within reach of the trapped man.

Upon seeing Collins for the first time, Burdon gaped in astonishment. “We’ve got a helluva problem here,” he said, shaking his head, “but I think we can get you out with a rope.”

Collins consented.

Burdon then peered into the hole clasping Collins’s body and grimaced. “We might pull your foot off.”

“Pull my foot off,” the trapped man said, “but get me out.”

It’s unclear if Burdon knew that Collins had lost touch with reality earlier that day, but the firefighter returned to the surface and insisted to the crowd that Collins had approved the rope-pull idea. The crowd muttered disapprovingly. Muscling Collins out sounded medieval—it would certainly break his foot, if not amputate it—and many worried that he might bleed out. Others advised that the knife-like rocks lining the cave walls might fillet his body. A doctor in the crowd offered a second opinion and professed that a rope-pull would stretch Collins’s internal organs like taffy.

Burdon was truculent. There was no other option, he said. The locals, whose well of ideas had dried up days ago, agreed. At 5 p.m.—Hour 79—a special body harness was brought to the cave. Homer Collins, Skeets Miller, and Robert Burdon slid into the darkness with a 100-foot rope.

Homer led the way. To calm his brother’s nerves, he fed the trapped man ham sandwiches, coffee, and whiskey. Relaxed by the company of food and family, Collins confessed that he didn’t actually want to lose his foot. Homer listened patiently. Then he spooned Collins a sedative that, in Burdon’s words, was designed “to build up his vitality to stand the shock if we did pull his foot off.”

Homer strapped the harness around Collins’s chest and knotted the rope. Above, Miller crouched at the top of the pit. Burdon clutched the cord further up the cave. Several other men assisted near the cave’s mouth.

On Homer's count, the rope went taught.

Collins gasped as his body elevated from the rubble. Burdon clenched his teeth and snarled at the men to tug harder. Miller jerked the rope and the trapped man wailed. Because Collins was trapped supine in a horizontal position with his lower body wrapped by rocks and gravel, his back warped into a letter “L.” Sand Cave filled with screams.

“Don’t do it! Don’t do it! Don’t do it!”

Homer couldn’t stand it. He began pulling in the opposite direction and somehow mustered the strength to wrench the cord from the other men’s hands. The rope, like Collins’s body, lay limp on the cave floor. No progress had been made.

Homer Collins is carried out of Sand Cave.
Homer Collins is carried out of Sand Cave. / The David Jones Collection

The team decided to leave and reevaluate. Everybody was shaken by the experience. Burdon fainted as he crawled toward the exit. Most of the men had to be carried away.

Outside, a growing crowd murmured. Milling among the throng was the only person left who could liberate Floyd Collins: His boyhood friend, Johnnie Gerald.

Hour 88

When Johnnie Gerald first heard that Floyd Collins was stuck in a cave, he shrugged, boarded a yellow school bus, and spent his evening chaperoning the local high school boys’ basketball team. The news did not trouble him. Gerald had explored caves with Collins. He knew that if anybody could wiggle out of a jam, it was his friend.

But after two days, Gerald felt a creeping dread and visited Sand Cave. The scene—a drunken crowd of now 200 people, nearly all of whom had no caving experience—appalled him. He was especially disgusted with Lieutenant Burdon and his plan to reel in his friend like a fish. Gerald knew more about cave rescues than most people. In fact, that previous summer, he had helped untangle Collins from a snag in Crystal Cave. When the rope crew left, all eyes fell on him.

Gerald slipped into Sand Cave and was disgusted to find bottles and clothes and, in the words of the Collins family patriarch Lee, “enough sandwiches in the cave to feed the whole crowd.” When Gerald reached earshot of the trapped man, Collins’s voice leapt with joy. “Let him down here!” he hollered. “He’ll get me out.”

Gerald was a stocky man. He weaseled by the squeezes but could not fit down the 10-foot pit. For three hours, he pried rocks away. Around midnight, he managed to slink down to his friend and began removing the gravel around Collins’s body.

Gerald would spend the next six hours trying to enlarge the trap. Collins’s torso appeared, then his hips, then his upper thigh. For the first time, Collins could wiggle his right leg, though it pained him to try. (The same was true of his arms and hands.) And while Gerald was still too big to reach beyond Collins’s knees, he succeeded in removing a half-ton of rock.

Before Gerald left, Collins reportedly told him “not to let anyone come down there but [him] and [his] party.” Gerald vowed to keep his word. He was convinced that outsiders with no caving experience, sincere as their intentions might be, were going to cause a cave-in. So when a team of professional stonecutters—who had been standing in the chill for five hours waiting to volunteer—approached Gerald with a plan to survey the passageway and chisel the limestone above Floyd’s head, Gerald pointed to the road and told them to leave.

When Gerald slept, the crowd acted as his gatekeepers. Lieutenant Burdon returned Tuesday morning around 10 a.m. and pitched his rope-pulling scheme again. (The previous night, he had wired his fire department and requested a fire hose hoist. “I thought that if I could get it down in the passage and get it working, I was sure that something was coming out, if it was Collins, minus a foot,” Burdon later told the Courier-Journal.) This time, the crowd assaulted him with obscenities. With Gerald in charge, Burdon’s authority was neutered.

This had consequences. Burdon might have been bellicose, but he was also a capable rescuer. Gerald and Homer Collins were incapacitated from exhaustion. “Skeets” Miller had stories to file. And nobody else in the crowd could lead a competent rescue. So as Burdon grumbled at the tipsy crowd outside the cave, Collins spent the morning of Tuesday, February 3, alone in a dark hole under their feet.

As he waited, newspapers plopped on doorsteps across the country. By the time most Americans finished sipping their coffee, Floyd Collins would be a household name.

Hour 103

The morning of February 3, the AP newswire picked up “Skeets” Miller’s reports from Sand Cave and distributed it to hundreds of member newspapers. For a young unknown reporter, it should have been a banner day. Instead, Miller spent it planning a rescue mission.

At 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Miller descended into Sand Cave. His plan: A chain of a dozen men would pass food, equipment, and rocks up and down the passageway. When their hands weren’t full, they’d reinforce the cave walls with boards. Like Homer Collins and Johnnie Gerald before him, Miller would attempt to remove the loose debris clamped around Collins’s body.

But there was one vital difference: Miller was small. Thanks to Homer and Gerald, the hole around Collins’s torso had about 5 inches of clearance. Miller still could not poke his head in, but he could prop his legs past Collins’s head and wiggle hip-deep into the tomb. From this awkward position, he could paw past Collins’s knee.

Earlier that day, the team had strung light bulbs through the cavern, and an orange glow now warmed the cubby hole. Over the next two hours, Miller passed up buckets of dirt and rocks. Eventually, he took a break and asked for some milk and whiskey to be passed down. As Miller fed the trapped man, Collins began to spill his heart out.

“I believe I would go to Heaven,” he said, “but I can feel that I am to be taken out alive and—with both of my feet.”

The next morning, the ensuing transcript would appear in another AP dispatch:

Monday was the first day when strangers came back to me. I kept working around, whenever I felt strong enough, thinking I could twist myself free. But each time I could hear pebbles falling into the deep hole right behind me. It caused me to shudder. I kept thinking what would happen if the rock above me would fall. I kept trying to drive my mind to something else, but it wasn’t much use … I couldn’t do much to help those who came to help me, but I knew a lot of people were willing to do all in their power. This gave me courage.
“Tuesday morning,” I thought to myself. “Four days down here and no nearer to freedom than I was the first day. How will it end? Will I get out or—” I couldn’t think of it. I have faced death before. It doesn’t frighten me. But it is so long. Oh God be merciful!
I want you to tell everybody outside that I love every one of them and I’m happy because so many are trying to help me. Tell them I am not going to give up: That I am going to fight and be patient and never forget them. You go out now, but don’t leave me too long. I want you with me and I’ll keep helping all I can to move some of this rock.”

Thanks to this interview, the Floyd Collins story transformed from a marginal curiosity to a nationwide event. From Los Angeles to New York, front-page headlines described the Kentucky man’s plight in sensational detail, using giant typefaces usually reserved for declarations of war.

photo illustration of headlines announcing the cave news
Floyd Collins made headlines around the country. / Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock

Had “Skeets” Miller never reached Floyd Collins, readers might have treated his story the same way they treated every other tragedy—as an abstraction. But they couldn’t. This interview peeled back Collins’s humanity and revealed a man with worries, courage, hope, and fear. “His patience during long hours of agony, his constant hope when life seem nearing an end, is enough to strengthen the heart of anyone,” Miller wrote.

“Amplifying this was Miller’s reporting of his OWN feelings of fear, horror, and determination to rescue this human being,” Brucker says. “Reporters are not supposed to report their own feelings, but Miller did.” In other words, Miller gave readers somebody to root for. “[E]verybody KNEW Floyd Collins when Skeets Miller told the story. You pray and cry and chew your fingernails for a friend like that!”

Admittedly, the story was also delicious gossip. Floyd Collins’s entrapment was the sort of national event that ignited debates across the bars, streetcars, barbershops, and dinner tables of America; it was the kind of story that allowed readers to bask in the righteous glow of their own opinions: If I were in charge, I would have done THIS!

In New York City, pedestrians crowded around department store windows to read the latest bulletins. Playhouses interrupted scenes to update audiences. In the nation’s capitol, President Coolidge and his Secretary of Commerce, the geologist Herbert Hoover, followed the story closely. Congress managed the feat of becoming more unproductive than usual. “[L]eaving the raging debates on the floor, Senators and Representative pause to ask about the latest news from Cave City,” Ulric Bell reported for the Courier-Journal. An opinion piece in the same paper called the situation “the most gripping story of a Kentucky event since the assassination of Gov. William Goebel.” That had been 25 years earlier.

At one point, Collins received a proposal from a Chicago booking office offering him $350 a week to star in a vaudeville show. His father, Lee, griped he wasn’t sure if that “that boy of mine will take the offer seriously.”

The one person immune to all of this hysteria, it seems, was the person who created it—“Skeets” Miller. On Monday morning, he had come to Cave City to tell a story. By Tuesday night, he was resolved to end it.

Hour 108

“I believe we can get to him,” Miller told his readers. “I believe we can save him yet. I know it.”

Just hours after his life-changing interview, Miller and his human chain were back in Sand Cave. The reporter planned to crawl feet-first on top of Collins, wedge a crowbar against the rock, and use a jack to lift the stone off Collins’s foot.

It did not go exactly as planned. The team couldn’t find an appropriately-sized jack. Miller settled on an undersized instrument and resorted to piling wood blocks against the cave ceiling, grasping the blocks with one hand while wrenching the jack with the other.

Shortly before midnight, Miller began his rescue attempt. The tool expanded. The crowbar clenched. Then it listed to its side and slipped loose. Miller immediately learned that performing this activity in such an awkward position caused tremendous pain in his abdominals, back, neck, wrist, fingers, and forearms. He resolved to ignore the pain until his muscles gave out.

When the next attempt suffered a similar fate, Miller tried a new angle. He clenched the loose wood blocks and twisted the wrench. The jack pressed into the crowbar. The tension increased. The rock lurched. Collins looked back and saw the stone tremble.

“Keep turning, fella!” He yelled. “It’s comin’ off!”

Lieutenant Burdon, who had joined the human chain, recalled, “I never heard anything so glad in my life as when he told ‘Fellow,’ as he called Skeets, that the rock was coming off his foot.”

Miller stared intensely at the rock. With each turn, the stone shifted. His body rushed with adrenaline. His fingers trembled. His back screamed. Rivulets of sweat burned his eyes. His heartbeat sped as one of the wood blocks began to slip and the sandwich of blocks began to teeter sideways. Suddenly, the rock settled back to its place on top of Collins’ foot.

Miller would try again. And again. And again. He added wood blocks. He removed wood blocks. He repositioned the crow bar. He used every crevice, cranny, and angle to secure a stable hold. The trapped man offered encouragement the whole way. “You can do it, fella,” he said. “I believe in you, fella.”

The one thing Collins could not offer—and what Miller truly needed—was a third hand. Around 1 a.m., he collapsed from exhaustion. The rock had not moved. “We all felt like sitting down right there and crying,” recalled Burdon. “It was awful.”

Before leaving, Miller adjusted Collins’s covers and looped a light bulb around his neck for warmth. When he crawled out of Sand Cave, his hands purple and bruised, he saw dozens of soldiers standing on the bluff over the cavern. The National Guard had arrived.

Hour 112

“Cave City is ‘Skeets’ crazy,” the Courier-Journal crowed the next day. “In fact, if Cave City were a kingdom, ‘Skeets’ could be the reigning monarch, without the slightest hint of revolt among his loyal subjects.”

Nearly everybody at Sand Cave would shower Miller with praise for his bravery. “Skeets Miller is one of the nerviest boys I ever saw,” Burdon said. “He not only deserves all the credit he has been given, but a whole lot more.” In the words of one fellow reporter: “The kid’s heart is really bigger than his shirt.” Whenever Miller left his hotel, tourists swarmed him to hear the latest. Soon, an informal bodyguard had to accompany him around Cave City.

But as Miller recuperated Wednesday morning, a new figure took command: Henry Carmichael.

Carmichael, the General Superintendent of the Kentucky Rock Asphalt Company, had been at the site since Tuesday, and he was appalled at how primitive the rescue attempts had been. Days earlier, he had sent men to help shore the cave with wood boards. At 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday, shortly after Miller’s failed jack attempt, Carmichael sent two men into Sand Cave to assess the structure’s stability.

infographic of the interior of Sand Cave
Sand Cave. / Infographic by Lucy Quintanilla. Images: iStock

Of all the people who crawled into Sand Cave that week, these men likely had the easiest time traveling the first 100 feet. The opening of the cave was wider than ever thanks to the removal efforts of the human chain, and new wood shoring kept the entrance stable. But as they descended deeper, the wood supports disappeared and the cave tightened more than usual.

Generally, the caves of Kentucky are remarkably stable. The rocks neither expand nor contract because the caverns maintain a constant temperature of 54 degrees. Not so in Sand Cave. The campfire snowmelt pouring into the tunnel and the presence of the human chain had caused the temperature and moisture content to fluctuate. Near the final squeeze, large cracks had formed. The ceiling was beginning to droop.

One of the volunteers saw this and felt woozy. He heard Collins moaning ahead, but he also heard the slow rumble of sliding rocks, and he insisted on turning around. The second volunteer, named Casey Jones, heard the same sounds but trudged onward. He arrived at the 10-foot pit, looked down at the trapped man, and tried to ignore the pebbles crashing behind him.

Miller once wrote that, “A minute seems an hour in there,” and it appears that’s what happened in the mind of Casey Jones. He’d later claim that he was near Floyd Collins for nearly two hours, but reports from the surface say it was just 15 minutes. What happened, exactly, is hazy. In their book Trapped!, Murray and Brucker attempt to reconstruct it.

As Murray and Brucker tell it, Collins begged Jones to come down. Every moral instinct told Jones to help. But every mortal instinct told him to turn around.

Self preservation won out at first. “Can’t now, Floyd,” Jones said. “But I will when I come back.”

Behind him, Jones’s partner begged to leave. Below him, Collins plead for company. “I’m thirsty,” he said.

Jones took the bait. He slid headfirst into the pit and hastily ladled Collins some coffee. But the trapped man, apparently still disheartened from the failed jack attempt, rejected it. With the rumbling intensifying above, it dawned on Jones that Collins wasn’t actually thirsty—he was lonely.

A voice cried from above. “For God’s sake, Jones come on! Come out! You’ll get us killed!”

Jones looked into Collins’s eyes, set the coffee down, and pulled himself out of the pit. He wiggled underneath the sagging ceiling and crawled toward a space that allowed him to look behind. He was terrified to see the passage closing like a vice.

Hours earlier, the bulb wrapped around Collins’ neck had illuminated this part of the cave like a beacon. But around 4 a.m. on Wednesday, February 4—Hour 114—the walls clamped and Sand Cave, once again, went dark. Collins’s sobs could be heard muffled behind the rocks.

“Stay with me,” he cried. “Oh please don’t leave.”

Hour 118

Miller and Lieutenant Burdon woke Wednesday morning confident they could save Collins that day. Miller planned to use an acetylene torch to burn away two rocks that had previously blocked his way. After that, jacking the rock would be much easier. He did not hear about the breakdown until he reached Sand Cave.

Miller was incredulous. But when he dove into Sand Cave and faced a pile-up of orange-gray rocks, his heart dropped. He attempted to move some of the stones, but each adjustment led more rocks to tumble. A large chunk of clay crashed onto his feet. “I managed to slide back over it,” Miller wrote, “but it frightened me.” When he returned to the surface, his nose was bleeding.

“He wouldn’t tell me what was the matter,” Burdon recalled, “but told me for God’s sake not to go back in there and to see that Homer Collins didn’t go in again.”

He needn’t worry about Homer, who was sidelined by a cough. He did, however, need to worry about Johnnie Gerald. Collins’s friend was infuriated. Gerald had warned everybody that putting dozens of people into Sand Cave would cause a collapse. Much of Wednesday would be wasted as grown men screamed over how to handle the cave-in.

crowds of people outside Sand Cave
The situation drew increasingly grim. / From the Gordon Smith collection at the National Cave Museum; Diamond Caverns, Park City, Kentucky. Photo courtesy Bob Thompson.

By the evening, under Carmichael’s orders, Gerald assembled a small crew and delivered an ultimatum: “There’s death down there,” he said. “The walls and ceiling are crumbling. Unless you are determined to take the biggest chance you ever took in your life, tell me now and stay outside.”

Over the next eight hours, Gerald would enter and leave Sand Cave at least five times. In the woods, men sawed trees and chopped logs to shore the cave walls. Underground, Gerald’s crew reinforced cracks and wobbling boulders with fresh strips of wood. Gerald assessed that about four barrels of rocks would need to be moved.

The first time Gerald descended, Collins could hear his friend crawling toward the pit and asked him to bring down a cheese sandwich. When Gerald explained that there had been a breakdown, the trapped man began to cry.

Motivated by the muffled sobs of his friend, Gerald surgically removed the fallen rocks. Within hours, a pillar of light was piercing the pile—the bulb around Collins’s neck illuminating the way. Soon, there was enough room to squeeze through. Gerald returned to the surface to gather equipment and told the men huddled outside that Collins would be joining them in an hour.

Hour 132

At 10:30 p.m. on February 4, Johnnie Gerald entered Sand Cave for his final time. He hunched past the newly shored walls, ferreted around the first squeeze, and crawled through the mud toward the breakdown. As he lurched downward, Gerald focused on his plan: He’d squirm past the rockfall and feed his friend. Then he’d use a grease gun to coat the rocks around Collins’s leg with Vaseline.

But as Gerald approached the cave-in, he gasped. Light no longer twinkled through the stones. The cave ceiling had crumbled again.

Laying on his hands and knees—frozen by shock and despair—Gerald stared motionless at the pile for more than 15 minutes. It’s difficult to imagine what spun through his mind as he tried to process what this meant for his friend. He began to yell.


Suddenly, a rock tumbled onto Gerald’s head. He rubbed his scalp and called out again. “Floyd!”

This time, a moan rumbled from the other side.


“I’ve done gone home and gone to bed,” Collins mumbled.

Fearing that his friend was slipping out of consciousness, Gerald willed himself to clear the passage. He ignored the pain pulsating through his skull and began clawing at the stones before him.

Then a sharp, heavy rock dropped from the ceiling and landed squarely on his back.

No more than 15 minutes later, Johnnie Gerald returned to the surface and said: “I would not go back in that derned place if they’d deed me the State of Kentucky.”

Hour 142

“We’ve ended all hope of reaching Collins by the easier method—through the cave’s mouth,” Lieutenant General H. H. Denhardt bellowed [PDF] to the engineers and miners assembled outside Sand Cave. “It is now up to you men to drill through the ground directly to Collins’s side. Spare no expense. The pursestrings of Kentucky are open. Ask what you want.”

On Thursday, February 5, the state assumed control of the Collins rescue. Lieutenant General Denhardt, a pugnacious man who reportedly told Homer that it would take “men with brains” to get Collins out, was placed in charge. His first directive was to ban everybody from entering Sand Cave. His second order: Dig a shaft.

Denhardt asked Henry Carmichael to lead the dig. Carmichael enlisted his employees from the Kentucky Rock Asphalt Company and received volunteers from a handful of other organizations: The Louisville & Nashville Railroad, The Southern Signal Company, the U.S. Mines Rescue Team, engineers from the State Highway Commission, and representatives sent directly from the Governor of Kentucky. Local townspeople were mostly excluded.

This stirred palpable resentment. When a geology professor visited the cave to assess the best place to dig, locals groused that he had picked the wrong spot. They complained as trees were felled and rocks were removed to clear away a dumping site. They complained as officials waited for equipment to arrive. They complained that digging a shaft would take too long. Homer resented the fact that “the chief exponents of the shaft were mostly men who had not been down to Floyd.”

Tarps were placed over the shaft to protect it from the rain.
Tarps were placed over the shaft to protect it from the rain. / From the Gordon Smith collection at the National Cave Museum; Diamond Caverns, Park City, Kentucky. Photo courtesy Bob Thompson.

Even Miller, once a sunbeam of optimism, despaired. “[A] few hours ago, an undaunted man lived on his faith and hope,” he wrote. “Through the hours of agony he kept his eyes on an imaginary ray of light, but the light is dark forever.”

(Other reporters, however, saw the general’s arrival more positively. “For the first time since Collins had been trapped, work was going ahead in a systematic manner,” wrote an anonymous colleague. “Everybody around the entrance of the cave seemed to have something to do and was doing it in the most expedient manner.”)

Yet tests soon proved what the locals already knew—that all of this fancy heavy machinery was useless. The cave inhaled exhaust from the gas-powered engines; the fumes would kill the trapped man. The engineers and miners, who had wasted hours assembling a heap of state-of-the-art equipment, realized they’d have to dig a 55-foot shaft with picks and shovels.

At Hour 146 on Thursday, the first ounces of earth were moved. Carmichael, who had no knowledge of caves but placed his faith in his quarrying experience, estimated that his team of 75 volunteers could dredge up 2 feet of soil per hour. If they worked around the clock, they would be digging a lateral tunnel into Sand Cave within 30 hours.

The first ton of dirt and clay was moved easily. To maintain efficiency, Carmichael closely monitored his workers and yanked them from duty the instant their progress dragged. But by evening, their pace was already lagging. At 10 feet, the shaft narrowed. Only two men could work at a time. At 15 feet, shovels thumped against boulders. A system of pulleys and buckets was assembled. Mules hoisted rocks out. Railroad tracks were laid to ferry refuse to the dump site.

The sun set and rose. On an unusually warm Friday, melted groundwater seeped into the shaft and softened the walls into a crumbling morass. The pace of digging fell to a wimpy 6 inches per hour. Carmichael’s 30-hour timetable passed unceremoniously with the shaft just 17 feet deep.

Locals watched helplessly from the wings. Collins’s father Lee paced, limped, and prayed. Lieutenant Burdon, worried that the trapped man was dying of hypothermia, earned permission to use a 75-foot hose to blast warm air into the cavern, a decision that made Johnnie Gerald erupt. He accosted Carmichael and essentially accused him of murder. General Denhardt responded by banning Gerald from the rescue site and directed the National Guard to escort him away. This inflamed the locals further, who chattered about chasing the troops with their varmint guns. Talk of an armed insurrection, however, eventually cooled into resigned grumbling.

By the time Gerald returned home, cars with unfamiliar license plates were clogging the roads. A wave of humanity was careening toward Cave City that these parts of Kentucky had never seen.

Hour 215

Over the previous week, reporters, photographers, sketch artists, telegraph operators, radio operators, and other members of the media had stormed Cave City. Miller’s reporting appeared in more than 1200 newspapers across the country. Silent film crews captured footage. Most notably, radio operators posted regular bulletins from the site.

“The Floyd Collins story was one of the very first stories that started being broadcast by radio,” Jackie Wheet, a park ranger at Mammoth Cave National Park, says. “Instead of newspapers gradually trickling from city to city, people were instantly hearing about it. And it stirred people up more than normal.”

In 1925, radio was a relative novelty—the first commercial station was not yet five years old—but news of Collins’s entrapment revealed the power of this new form of media. Broadcasting information in real-time, radio reports helped draw more than 400 automobiles to Sand Cave by Friday. By Sunday, the number of cars increased tenfold.

At least 10,000 people visited Cave City (pop. 690). For two miles, a centipede of vehicles clogged the road leading to Sand Cave. Pastures transformed into mud parking lots. Cash nearly evaporated from banks. Restaurants ran out of food. Homes converted into temporary hotels. Accommodations became so limited that visitors paid luxury rates to nap in bathtubs.

The scene resembled a carnival. Vendors hawked hot dogs, hamburgers, and tawdry knickknacks. Dainty families stretched blankets on the grass and held picnics. Snake oil salesmen sold miracle potions. Moonshiners peddled white lightning. Scattered religious groups sang hymns and whispered prayers. Pickpockets waited for the faithful to close their eyes. As Reverend James Hamilton delivered a sermon to 5000 people, con artists roamed the crowd asking for “donations” to aid the work crew. A juggler appeared.

spectators gathered at Sand Cave
Hordes of spectators gathered at Sand Cave. / From the Gordon Smith collection at the National Cave Museum; Diamond Caverns, Park City, Kentucky. Photo courtesy Bob Thompson.

In his dispatch to the Courier-Journal, Miller spun the festivities positively. “If Floyd Collins could have looked from his underground prison today he would have seen thousands of strangers trying bravely to get a ringside seat in the fight being made to save him.” It’s true. Approximately 2000 people huddled around a barbed wire fence circling the rescue site. But most of these tourists—much like the smaller crowds that had assembled outside Sand Cave since Collins’s entrapment—did not come to help. They came to see Floyd Collins pulled worm-like from the earth, dead or alive.

As darkness fell, it became clear this wasn’t going to happen. By 5 p.m., the funhouse atmosphere dissipated. Most visitors left without ever attempting to approach the cave.

As able-bodied men gripped steering wheels and puttered out of Cave City, volunteers at the shaft wiped away sweat and applied bandages to blistered hands. As families left Cave City smiling about newly-made memories, a grieving family paced the muddy woods dreaming of a day when they could escape a living nightmare. As the sun set and horns honked, a celebrity nobody knew lay underground in lonely silence, a fading light bulb as his only memento from the surface.

Above him, children clutched blue balloons. These, too, were mementos—each stamped with the words SAND CAVE.

Hour 228

Under a ceaseless gray drizzle, mud oozed languidly down the walls of the excavation site. A large white tarpaulin hung above the shaft and gutters ringed its edges, but it didn’t stop pools of frigid water from soaking the ankles of men working at the bottom. Above, generators rumbled as pumps slurped water.

As Sunday waned, rainclouds swarmed. The shaft carved 25 feet deep—still not halfway to its goal—and descended at a vexing rate of 4 inches per hour. Earlier that day, Carmichael resorted to dynamite, but the explosives barely chipped the boulders blocking the way.

But morale was steady. Among the throng of Sunday gawkers, flappers, and picnickers were dozens of volunteer reinforcements. Some were calloused engineers and miners. Many were not. Ten students from the Western Kentucky Normal High School, a handful of them football players, would arrive that week with excuses from class. (“Six hundred other students stand ready to come if additional aid is needed,” a school spokesman said.) Even the trusty Brotherhood of Hobos sent aid. One drifter lifted spirits by wailing on his harmonica.

The scale of the operation was impressive. “It would surprise Floyd Collins if he could see the electric lights, where before he has seen only stars,” Miller wrote. “It would astonish him to look in on the hospital, with physicians and nurses waiting patiently, and the derricks, powder magazine, kitchen and mess hall, blacksmith shop, rest tent, lunch and fruit stands, restaurants and a taxicab stand—and all of them busy.”

Some of these volunteers believed Collins was still alive. A radio amplifier had been jerry-rigged to the wire that connected Collins’s light bulb. (A scientist believed the amplifier could detect vibrations whenever Collins moved.) Indeed, the amplifier crackled 20 times every minute, a hopeful sign that Collins might be breathing.

men with equipment outside Sand Cave
People continued to hope for the best. / Hulton Archive/Getty Images

But the attitude at the rescue site did not reflect the progress, which was woefully stagnant. Boulders tilted from the shaft’s slimy clay walls and teetered against the timber shoring. Carmichael worried these rocks might crush his workers and suspended the dig for eight hours as the walls were secured.

Monday and Tuesday passed. On Wednesday, February 11—Hour 288—rain showers hardened into snow flurries. Fingers and mud froze. When temperatures rebounded, the shaft walls moldered again, and new tests showed that Collins’s light had winked out. The shaft plumbed 44 feet.

As old dramas replayed in the shaft, new dramas unfolded above ground. On “Carnival Sunday,” Lee Collins had been seen begging visitors for donations, a sight that sparked the imaginations of conspiracy theorists. Cynics claimed that Floyd Collins wasn’t trapped at all. Rather, the family, the newspapers, the railroad, and Cave City were staging a money-grabbing hoax. Many newspapers, which were running out of things to say, reported on these rumors. Some conspiracy theorists went so far to attempt discrediting the rescue by sending telegrams from “Floyd.” Take this message from Kansas.


These theories were easy to dismiss. New accusations of criminal negligence, however, were not. One rumor suggested that the Collins family, intoxicated by publicity, were deliberately delaying Collins’s rescue. Others charged that Johnnie Gerald had intentionally blocked rescuers from entering Sand Cave because he worked in real estate and had a financial interest in Crystal Cave—and therefore an interest in Collins’s demise. A resentful Robert Burdon told papers that Johnnie Gerald was “guilty of nothing short of murder.”

These accusations could not be ignored. Cajoled by the Governor of Kentucky, General Denhardt convened a military court of inquiry. For the entire week leading up to Valentine’s Day, as Floyd Collins lay squeezed in a catacomb below, a panel of military brass interrogated dozens of rescuers and witnesses: Homer Collins, “Skeets” Miller, Johnnie Gerald, Robert Burdon, and more. (Their testimonies, as well as Miller’s reports, were important primary sources for this story.)

The inquiry showed that Gerald did indeed reject help. But so had Burdon, Carmichael, and Denhardt. They were not hungry for publicity, but starved of trust. Each rescue team believed that the competing rescuers were incompetent. Which was partly true: The people with knowledge of caves lacked organizational skills; the people with organizational skills lacked knowledge of caves. The resulting tension—a cocktail of mistrust, pride, and exhaustion—caused the rescue to sputter from the start.

On Valentine’s Day—Hour 360—the court concluded that no foul play had been involved. By that point, 55 feet of dirt and rock had been excavated. Carmichael gave the order to burrow sideways into Sand Cave.

Hour 411

Seventeen days trapped underground. Twelve without food or water. Four without heat-giving light. While the odds were not in Floyd Collins’s favor, rescuers held out hope that he was alive. Newspapers circulated old stories of miners who’d survived underground for longer periods of time. Churches sent donations to the rescue workers and readers mailed letters of encouragement. One Chicago fortune-teller sent sketches of coffee grounds that had settled at the bottom of her mug. They formed the shaped of a heart—proof, she said, that Collins was alive.

Reporters pressed against the barbed wire fence surrounding Sand Cave. More than two dozens telegraph operators stood by. Seven airplanes idled in a pasture, waiting to transport photographic negatives to distant newsrooms. At 1:30 p.m. on Monday February 16, a chisel penetrated Sand Cave.

Workers frantically tugged at rocks to widen the hole. Finally, a rescuer named Ed Brenner flashed his light into the gloom and, upon confirming that they had broken through the 10-foot pit, gripped a shoring board and eased into the cave.

According to Miller, “For the next five minutes those remaining in the shaft proper watched that hole without blinking.” Inside, Brenner aimed his light toward the trapped man and watched the cave sparkle. Cave crickets scurried. He trained his eye on the glimmer and saw the source. Collins had a gold tooth—it was shimmering in the light. It did not move.

Brenner hollered to be helped out and shook his head: “Dead.”

The coroner would later claim that Collins had been dead for approximately three days. If accurate, Collins died shortly after his lonely light bulb, his last link to the world above, had darkened.

The following morning, officials decided to keep Floyd Collins entombed between the limestone jaws of Sand Cave. With the shaft walls buckling, wrestling the body out was too dangerous. “It seems that earth, using the corpse as a bait, is waiting to crush anyone daring enough to venture in,” Miller wrote.

On Tuesday, February 17, motion picture cameras captured the weary Collins family as it said goodbye to their son and brother. A choir sang “Nearer, My God, To Thee”—the same hymn Collins loved playing on his old stalactite xylophone. Cave City soon emptied, soil filled the shaft, and the name of Floyd Collins, which had monopolized front pages for two weeks—unprecedented coverage for a non-political event in the United States media—faded.

Contrary to rumors, the Collins family returned to farm life no richer. After the National Guard packed up, locals saw old man Lee scouring the rescue site for glass bottles. Meanwhile, the owner of Sand Cave, Bee Doyle, erected a sign on the highway.


For 50 cents, curious visitors could stare at the gaping hole that swallowed a man Doyle had once called friend.

Hundreds of rescuers returned home without any compensation. A handful lucked into vaudeville contracts and toured theaters across the country, tantalizing audiences with heroic first-person accounts. For his efforts, William “Skeets” Miller received an offer of $50,000 from the Chautauqua lecture circuit. He turned it down. Instead, he returned to his job reporting for the Louisville Courier-Journal. The next year, his coverage of the Collins tragedy was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in reporting.

Workers pray over the exhumed body of Floyd Collins.
Workers pray over the exhumed body of Floyd Collins. / The Gordon Smith collection at the National Cave Museum; Diamond Caverns, Park City, Kentucky. Photo courtesy Bob Thompson.

Homer Collins toured vaudeville stages for eight months, regaling crowds with stories of his brother’s childhood. The performances, however, were not for personal gain. Ever since his brother was declared dead, Homer vowed to get him out. “I kept thinking of Floyd lying in the muck where he had suffered beyond our power to imagine,” he wrote. “I would never have peace of mind if he remained there.” Homer used the profits to retrieve his brother’s body: On April 17, seven miners re-dug the shaft and penetrated Sand Cave—this time behind Collins’s corpse—and removed the rock pinning his leg. It weighed just 27 pounds.

On April 26, 1925, Collins was lowered into a grave in the family cemetery. A stalagmite headstone marked his plot.

He did not rest there long.

In 1927, a struggling Lee Collins sold Crystal Cave to a dentist named Dr. Harry B. Thomas. Times had been tough. Tourism plummeted after Collins died—the same publicity that had lured unimagined numbers to the Kentucky cave region convinced thousands more to avoid it—and as profits shrunk, the sleazy tricks of local cave owners intensified. Numerous cave explorers followed Floyd Collins’s path as they sought out “the next big cave.”

The federal government noticed. Shortly after Collins died, Congress authorized a prior motion to convert Mammoth Cave into a National Park. “The government realized that as locals continued trying to discover more caves that could compete with Mammoth Cave, you’re going to have to make more rescues,” Jackie Wheet, a national park ranger, says. One solution was to purchase the land and control who went underground. “In my opinion, the Floyd Collins tragedy was a huge catalyst in making Mammoth Cave a National Park.”

Unfortunately, Lee Collins would sell his stake in Crystal Cave before Washington began aggressively purchasing land. And in his deal with Dr. Thomas, he agreed to a morbid clause: that his son’s body could be exhumed and displayed in a glass-covered coffin inside the cavern. In return, Lee earned $10,000.

The gimmick would work. To the horror of the rest of the Collins family, visitors flocked to Crystal Cave to view the embalmed body of “Greatest Cave Explorer Ever Known.” In 1929, grave robbers stole Collins’s corpse and attempted to chuck him into Kentucky’s Green River, but the body got tangled in a bush. Dr. Thomas recovered the remains and locked a chain around the coffin.

The coffin of Floyd Collins rests in the Grand Canyon of Crystal Cave.
The coffin of Floyd Collins rests in the Grand Canyon of Crystal Cave. / The Gordon Smith collection at the National Cave Museum; Diamond Caverns, Park City, Kentucky. Photo courtesy Bob Thompson.

Thirty-two years later, in 1961, the U.S. government finally purchased Crystal Cave—with Collins still inside—and eventually closed public access to the cavern. In 1989, the body was re-interred in a Baptist cemetery.

By that time, 64 years after his death, many of Collins’s beliefs about the Kentucky cave region had been vindicated. Crystal Cave was valued at the life-changing amount he believed it deserved. The National Park had bought it for $285,000—more than $2 million today. Professional cavers also confirmed Collins’s hunch that the caves in the region were, in fact, connected. With 405 miles of passageways, the Mammoth Cave system is now the world’s longest.

One cave, however, remains isolated.

Near the sign welcoming visitors to Mammoth Cave National Park is a short and pleasant wooden boardwalk that gently curves under a canopy of oak trees. The woods are quiet and the path is often empty. Whitetail deer nibble at plants feet away. An overlook gazes upon a sinkhole ringed by a conspicuous lip of crescent-shaped rock. Moss and lichen dangle from the ledges. Below looms the dark chamber of Sand Cave.

“Sand Cave is still separate,” Ranger Wheet says. “It has never been connected to the rest of Mammoth Cave.”

In 1977, Roger Brucker went into Sand Cave. “It was the scariest cave I have ever been in,” he says. His crew found some bottles and cans, pieces of wood shoring, a steel poker, fragments of an army blanket, and a pair of electric wires. A few years later, the cave entrance was permanently sealed with a steel gate, bolted and welded shut.

The entrance to Sand Cave today
The entrance to Sand Cave today. / Nicholas Frost, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Meanwhile, hundreds of professional cavers continue to explore the 400-plus-mile Mammoth system. To this day, they still stumble upon evidence of Floyd Collins’s famous early cave explorations, sometimes finding the letters “FC” scratched into rocks. “[Collins] was doing all of this decades before us with a rope and some bean cans,” Wheet says, “and here we are with all of our fancy gear today, just rediscovering what this guy was doing with very primitive gear.” So far, these explorers have discovered tunnels wriggling below Sand Cave but have failed to find a passage connecting it.

They probably never will. Geologically, it’s likely that Sand Cave is connected to the rest of the Mammoth Cave system. But the truth is, after what happened here in 1925, nobody is determined to search for the missing link. Once upon a time, there lived a man fearless and talented enough to find it—that man, sadly, is gone.

Interested in learning more about the Floyd Collins tragedy? Mental Floss recommends Roger W. Brucker and Robert K. Murray' excellent book Trapped! The Story of Floyd Collins and the visually stunning book The Floyd Collins Tragedy At Sand Cave, part of the Images of America series. Fans of theatre should seek out performances of Adam Guettel and Tina Landau's Obie-winning musical, Floyd Collins.

A version of this story originally ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2023.