Mammoth Cave Restoration Field Camp


In 1989 the first of the annual week-long Restoration Field Camps was conducted at Mammoth Cave from July 23 to July 29. This Field Camp was organized by David Irving as a preliminary event to the National Speleological (NSS) convention to be held in Sewanee, Tennessee the week following the Field Camp. Bob Ward, the Cultural Resource Specialist at Mammoth Cave, was The National Park Service (NPS) person in charge of the Field Camp. The NPS had conducted two weekend clean-up events prior to the week long Field Camp as a trial run to determine if the NPS and NSS cavers could work well together and accomplish the objectives of both groups. The weekend events met with great success.

The Field Camp was a cooperative event between the NSS and the NPS. The NSS provided manpower and the NPS provided lodging at the Maple Springs Research Center as well as a restoration project worthy of the time and investment of all participants.

The participants provided their own food, cook and bedding. The NPS provided lodging in a house at Maple Springs that was a former Ranger Station. There were 18 participants at the start of camp. However, the Field Camp was visited on Monday evening by representatives of a British Army caving group who were in the US caving in Tennessee and had heard of the Field Camp. They expressed a desire to join the Field Camp and on Tuesday afternoon four of them joined the Field Camp efforts with the remaining three arriving on Wednesday.

This first week long Field Camp concentrated on Great Onyx Cave. Great Onyx Cave is a former commercial cave within the Mammoth Cave National Park boundaries. This cave had been used by the NPS for a lantern tour but was currently not used because repairs were needed to the entrance stairway and some handrails in the formation areas. The weekend clean-up events had been conducted here and it was felt by the NPS that additional restoration work could be conducted here with no impact on existing tours in Mammoth Cave. There were many clean-up and restoration projects that the NPS had on their wish list but with manpower and budget limitations they had been unable to accomplish them. This first Field Camp would allow some of them to be completed.

The former owners of Great Onyx had maintained the cave in very good condition by prohibiting the type of graffiti seen in many other commercial caves of the same era. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of their method of disposal of worn out benches, handrails and stairs. It seems their philosophy was "out of sight out of mind." They disposed of obsolete materials (mostly decayed wood) in side passages and any place that was not visible from the tour route.

The clean-up project was to remove as much of this material as possible from the cave. The NPS felt that in addition to being unsightly, the decaying wood provided an unnatural food source for the cave life and thus created an abnormal ecological condition to exist within the cave. It was thought that removal of the wood would help bring the conditions closer to a normal state.

The first area to be worked was just beyond the pit to the river where several feet of decayed wood had accumulated. The wood was placed into bags about 1.5 by 3 feet in size and hauled out in wheelbarrows to the foot of the entrance stairs where it was stacked. There were several concrete blocks and some concrete that had served as the base for benches which was also broken up and hauled out to the entrance stairs.

Each day as we exited the cave for lunch we formed a bucket brigade up the entrance stairs and removed the accumulated concrete and sacks of wood. These were emptied into a farm truck with high sides that had been staged at the entrance . The bucket brigade scenario was repeated each day at quitting time. Several days of work resulted in enlarging the passage by a foot or two as the accumulation of rotten wood was removed.

Wednesday was planned as a half work day and at lunch time part of the group left to take a free lantern tour of Mammoth Cave, some went to the water slide in Cave City and some remained at Great Onyx to explore and take photos.

With the addition of the British Cavers in the cave on Wednesday our progress surged forward. These folks with their "ceiling burner" Petzl carbide lamps were truly awesome workers. They felt that the time we required (around 30 minutes) to wheel loaded wheelbarrows from the work area to the entrance area (about a 3/4 of a mile of cave passage) was too long and began to race through the cave with loaded wheelbarrows trying to beat each others times. The winning time was 7 minutes and 26 seconds. Those loading the bags had a hard time keeping up with those manning the wheelbarrows.

By Thursday we had accomplished all (and more) that the NPS had planned for the week. Beyond the area where we had been working in was a set of wooden stairs that descended to the river. The stairs were in poor condition with missing, weak and broken steps. It was decided that removal of the stairs was desired. The Brits set a couple of bolts at the top of the stairs and we began to disassemble the stairs while tied in to ropes in the stairway passage. Material was removed both through the stairway passage and through the pit on the entrance side of the of our previous work area. By quitting time on Friday the majority of the stair material had been removed from the river area to the entrance area.

Saturday brought reward trips for those Field Camp participants with any energy left. These trips were led by Cave Research Foundation personnel. The easy trip was to be about 4 hours in Unknown Cave while the hard trip was to be a through trip in the Historic Entrance and out the Austin Entrance. The hard trip lasted 12.5 hours.