Stephen Bishop: Cave Explorer

By Judith Boogaart
Photos by Gary C. Berdeaux (caves) and Chip Clark (fish); Stephen Bishop image courtesy of Chuck DeCroix

This African-American slave became the “prince of guides” at Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.

A modern-day visitor explores Mammoth Cave, where Stephen Bishop gave tours in the 1800s.

Stephen’s lantern cast shaky shadows on the walls of Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. Hurrying after his guide, he stumbled along the rocky path. He couldn’t lose sight of Mr. Miller. He might not find his way back out.

Stephen was a slave owned by Franklin Gorin. Gorin had bought Mammoth Cave to develop it for tourists. Like many people in the 1830s, he didn’t worry about preserving the natural wonder. He wanted to make money from it. Since a slave wouldn’t need to be paid, Gorin decided to have 17-year-old Stephen trained as a guide.

Stephen knew little about caves, but he was expected to obey his master. Every day he followed his guide, Mr. Miller, over the cave routes. Stephen found he could easily remember the twisting passages and the formations that served as markers. Soon he knew the eight miles of cave routes as well as Mr. Miller.

Stephen gained his freedom in 1856, but died the following year. His body lies in the Old Guides Cemetery near the cave he loved.

But guiding meant more than knowing the trails. Stephen had to explain what visitors were seeing. He listened closely to learn facts and stories about the caves.

Soon Stephen began giving tours himself. He pointed out log pipes and wooden vats in the passages. These had been used in the mining of saltpeter to make gunpowder for the War of 1812.

He took visitors deep underground to Chief City. Here, early tribes had left behind slippers, gourds, and cane sticks. Stephen lit fires to show off the room’s huge size.

In Registration Hall, miners, guides, and visitors had used smoke from lamps or candles to write their names on the smooth ceiling. Legend says Stephen learned to read and write by studying them. Soon he added his name to theirs.

This passage is called Cleaveland Avenue.

Exploring Mammoth Cave

Stephen loved the cave. While giving tours, he spotted many leads off the main passages. He itched to explore them, and Gorin let him. More passages meant more cave tours—and more money for Gorin.

Stephen spent hours underground. He climbed up domes and down pits. In the dim light of his tin lamp, he squeezed through narrow tunnels and crawl spaces. He memorized landmarks such as special rocks or sand beds to guide himself back out.

One day, Stephen followed a twisting passage not on the tours. He climbed up a slick wall, over slopes, and down a 30-foot drop. He crawled through an opening partway up the passage wall. There he found a large dome no one had known about. Gorin was thrilled. It was named Gorin’s Dome, and newspapers printed stories of the discovery.

Thousands of spelunkers, amateur cave explorers, take guided tours of Mammoth Cave each year. Only experienced cavers explore and survey new passages.

Beyond Bottomless Pit

Stephen kept exploring, but one space always stopped him: Bottomless Pit. On tours, he lit scraps of paper and tossed them in. Visitors, watching them drift down, could never see the bottom. The pit gaped as wide as a country lane. No one had ever dared to cross it. But Stephen wanted to know what was on the other side.

On October 20, 1838, Stephen and a visitor decided to risk it. Using a ladder of cedar poles, they crossed over Bottomless Pit. Imagine inching over a yawning black hole on a crude ladder. “I’m not sure I would have tried it,” admits Chuck DeCroix, an experienced caver who guides visitors today. “They had poor lighting and no knowledge of what was below them. It would take guts to cross.”

Stephen’s courage paid off. He and the visitor found two miles of new passages that day. What beautiful stalactites, stalagmites, and gypsum rosettes they saw! Again Gorin was thrilled. He had a sturdy bridge built across the pit. Guides and visitors explored six more miles of passages that year.

Eyeless fish swim in the Cave's rivers.

Stephen discovered underground rivers in Mammoth Cave. He saw eyeless fish swimming in them. No one had heard of such creatures. Scientists came from all over the world to study them.

Stephen became famous for his dramatic tours. He gave boat trips on the rivers. He showed off a beautiful place called Snowball Room. Its ceiling was covered with white gypsum rosettes. He used lantern light and torches to make formations sparkle and glow. He sang songs to demonstrate the cave’s great sound. He told interesting stories. One visitor called him the “prince of guides.”

Stephen drew a new map of Mammoth Cave. Slaves didn’t usually get credit for their accomplishments, but the map was published in 1845 under Stephen’s name.

For 150 years, other people have continued to explore the cave. Today, 365 miles have been surveyed in the Mammoth Cave system. It is the longest cave in the world. Stephen Bishop found more miles of passage than any other guide of his time. His curiosity, determination, and courage helped him discover Mammoth’s secrets.

Six Spelunking Safety Rules

1. Get permission first.
2. Use the right equipment.
3. Tell two people your plans.
4. Take three lights each.
5. Take at least four people.
6. If lost or without light, stay put!

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