Mammoth Cave Restoration Field Camps    1989 - 2000  


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 effort 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” Petzel 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.


The second annual Mammoth Cave Restoration Field Camp was held on July 29 to August 4, 1990. This year Norm Rogers had volunteered (was drafted) to be the coordinator of the field camp. Sunday afternoon a few of the participants had a preview of this years work area when Bob Ward led them in the elevator entrance to the Snowball Dining Room and the Cathedral Domes areas.

 This year an additional building was available for our use.  This was an air conditioned bunkhouse and contained about 34 bunks.  This greatly increased the space available and eliminated the need for people to sleep on the floor as some had last year.  Also two additional toilet and shower areas had been created out of the garage attached to the house we used last year making a total of four now available greatly reducing the long wait for a shower after a day in a dirty cave.

 On Monday morning the group was split up to cover the three main project areas. (It appears that last years experience had convinced the NPS that one project wasn’t sufficient for a weeks worth of volunteer effort by dedicated cavers.) 


The first project area was on Cleveland Avenue starting just beyond the Snowball dining room and working toward the Carmichael Entrance.  On the left side of the passage was a pile of broken limestone that had been stacked there when the elevator entrance was created.  This rock supply was about five feet high, six to eight feet deep and 50 to 100 feet long.  Quite a few tons of rocks to say the least. the project was to load these rocks in wheelbarrows and use them to line the trail from the Snowball Dining room as far down the passage as possible.  This was done to outline the trail to encourage tourists to stay on the trail and away from gypsum formations on the walls.  Each piece of limestone was loaded into wheel barrows, wheeled down the passage, dumped and lovingly placed by hand to create an obvious edge to each side of the trail.

 Project number two was the rigging of Thorpes’ Pit and removal of debris from the bottom.  Following completion of that project two moved to the Cathedral Domes area and removed the remains of old stairs at the bottom of the dome.  This project was done to remove unsightly materials from the tour route and to remove unnatural food sources for the cave life.

 The third project was the removal of wood debris from the far side of Crystal Lake and tourist litter in the Frozen Niagara section of the cave.   This required rigging off of the tour route handrail and hauling debris up the pit to the tourist trail.

 Monday evening we were treated to a slide show on Floyd Collins and the Cave Wars by Ranger Bob DeGross.

 Tuesday started with a bang at about 2:30 AM!  Most of the people in the bunkhouse were awakened when the lights came on in the middle of the night.  It seems that one of the participants had turned over on the top bunk and fell to the floor with a bang.  He survived with minor bruises to his body and major bruises to his ego. 

 Resuming our work on Cleveland Avenue we found that about 1/4 mile of trail was lined  but the NPS was concerned that our methods were improper.  We had stacked rocks two or three high on each side of the trail.  We were told that wouldn’t work!  The NPS was concerned that if a tourist stepped on the rocks they would move and the tourist might fall and be injured.  We were advised that only one layer of rock was to be used.  So we spent part of the day moving the rocks we had moved the day before.

 Project group two completed clean up of Thorpes’ Pit and made good progress on the Cathedral Domes area.  Today part of group two switched places with part of group one since everybody wanted a chance to move heavy limestone! Everyone learned that a “John Rock” was a monster piece of limestone that John Vargo loved to load into a wheelbarrow and everyone else hated to try to move again.

 Project three had made good progress but caused disruption of the tours as the tourists wanted to look over the rail and watch the cavers on rope thus delaying the progress of the tour. With a tour passing group three about every 30 minutes the rangers had their hands full encouraging tourists to move on to avoid conflicts with following tours.

 An evening slideshow and talk was presented by Dave Foster from The American Cave Conservation Association (ACCA) on his organizations purpose and plans for a Museum in Horse Cave, Kentucky.


On Wednesday a review of project one showed another 1/8 mile of progress. Due to the rework of the Monday activity and the increasing distance from the rock pile progress was slowing but still moving forward in this area. Several people from this project joined the Crystal Lake project for a change of pace.

On project two it was decided that with all of the remaining people on project one joining those on project two the Cathedral Domes project could be completed today.  This project was finished by lunch time.  After lunch a few more left for fame and glory at Crystal Lake while the remainder returned to the slave labor at the rock pile. The Limestone Sisters (bored cavers moving rocks) entertained the group with their singing while piling rocks.  After a while their singing began to cause others to wonder how long it would be before the bodies were found if we covered them with the trail rocks.

 Wednesday evening brought a program presented by George Gregory, Park Natural History Specialist, on the geology of the area.

 Thursday finds project three completed at Crystal Lake and project one at about 1/2 mile of trail lined with rocks.  An additional project was started cleaning several small pits near the New Entrance.  As today was a scheduled half work day we returned to Maple Springs at lunch time. After lunch we had a short talk by David Mihalic the Park Superintendent who thanked us for the work we were doing for the park. After the superintendents talk 5 people went to Ganter Cave for a wild cave tour and 34 went to Great Onyx Cave (site of last years project) for a photo and exploration trip. Most were out of Great Onyx by 8:30 but a party of nine remained with four of the group exploring over the dam in the lake at the bottom of the cave in an attempt to find a connection to Mammoth.  While they were unsuccessful in their attempts they did stay in the cave long enough to miss the last ferry across Green River and had to make the 50 mile trip through Brownsville to get back to camp.

 Friday the Cleveland Avenue project ended at about 3/4 of a mile of passage lined and stopped at a point where the natural breakdown tends to keep tourists on the trail.  The Frozen Niagara and New Entrance projects were wrapped up at about the same time as the trail project and tools and materials were removed from the cave completing this years projects around 3 PM.

 Friday evening was spent in an impromptu slide show, lie telling session and packing up for tomorrow’s departure.

 On Saturday reward trips were taken to Floyd Collins Crystal Cave for a couple of hours on the tourist trail for some and a couple more hours in more remote areas of the cave for others.  Some people took the opportunity to take some of the scheduled tours in Mammoth to areas they had not yet seen.


 The third annual Mammoth Cave Restoration Field Camp was held on July 21 - 27, 1991. Camp coordinator was Norm Rogers and Bob Ward was the NPS representative in charge of the camp. Superintendent David Mihalic spoke to the group at the Sunday evening orientation meeting.

 Monday the party was spilt up into three groups for different project areas. A vertical group was formed for areas requiring vertical work. A horizontal group was formed for work in the other cave areas and a special carbide dump clean up group was formed to clean up carbide dumps.

 The horizontal group started by moving aluminum beams and grating from River Hall to the base of the stairs at Mammoth Dome. The NPS had planned for this to take till Wednesday and had to scramble for other projects when the cavers finished it by noon Monday. After lunch the group returned to River Hall to remove the gate to the Echo River Passage and a few went to remove a concrete and stone stand that had previously held a fish tank and blind fish  display.

 The vertical group bopped a few pits recovering trash, change, a demolished Minolta camera and other debris that tourists had dropped accidentally (or on purpose).

As to the carbide dump clean up crew, well, they had a nice one just off of El Ghor.  Now the park service said these were carbide dumps and to be sure some people had probably dumped used carbide in them at times in the past.  However, as cavers are sometimes reasonably intelligent, it didn’t take too long to figure out that a lot of the carbide was actually slaked lime which was used most frequently in pit toilets to keep down the smell.  So the carbide dump crew was also the latrine cleaning crew.  Admittedly most of this stuff was probably 50 or more years old and the smell was gone but the thought lingers on.

 Tuesday the horizontal crew began to remove wet rotten wood from the areas along Echo River Trail and haul it to the staging area where the aluminum was stored the day before. The vertical crew managed to hide well and probably accomplished some work while the carbide crew continued with their conservation effort. On Tuesday evening Norm Rogers presented a slide show of caving slides in the house.  The secondary purpose of this show was to occupy John Vargos attention while part of the crew was preparing a surprise birthday party for him.  John was quite surprised and pleased when he entered the cookhouse to find a large group both singing and signing Happy Birthday to him. 

 Wednesday was a break from normal as the plans were for in cave activities to begin about 4:30 PM.  The day was spent  with a trip to Horse Cave, Ky. to see the progress on the ACCA museum and a short talk by Dave Foster.  A short cleanup trip from the New Entrance and out Frozen Niagara was an excuse for some to see another part of the cave.  In the afternoon some cleanup work was performed in and around the Maple Springs facility where we were staying for the week.

The fun really began  when the entire crew went to the cave after the last tour had departed. Tonight the plan was to rig the firetower at Mammoth Dome and haul out all of the aluminum, wood and other debris that had been staged at the bottom of the stairs. Due to the regular tours through this area the work could only be accomplished after hours without having a detrimental effect on the tours.

 We were joined by a group of kids from the Mammoth Cave Job Core Center who thought they were coming over to pick up paper , cigarette butts etc.  Boy were they surprised! This was probably the hardest they had had worked since they joined (or were sentenced) to the Job Corps.

 I have heard that some of the female cavers spent a time sitting on the aluminum grating while resting and waiting for rigging to be completed . It was reported a NPS representative told them  that they would have grate butts when they got up.  To which one replied “I had a great butt before I sat down!”

 The debris was hauled up the tower and out of the cave to a waiting flatbed truck. Work was finished around 10:30 or so and a group of tired dirty cavers headed back to Maple Springs for showers,  cherry cobbler and bed. Three days of work by the cavers had accomplished  a task that would have taken the parks limited maintenance staff five or six weeks.

 Thursday - a day off ! Many went to Great Onyx again to explore, photograph or just hide out.  A trip to the Labyrinth was led by Bob Ward for some while others went shopping in nearby tourist traps. A few slept or sat around recovering.

 Friday the last day was spent in cleaning up the various areas where we had been working as well as doing some trail patching in Audubon Avenue.  Tools were collected and returned to the storage areas and work for this year was completed by early afternoon.

 Saturday was the day reserved for reward trips to thank us for the work done.  There was usually an easy trip for those who wanted something easy after a week of hard work and a hard trip for the gung-ho cavers who just couldn’t get enough!  For easy trips there was a walking tour of the upper levels of Floyd Collins Crystal Cave where the hard tour was to be a trip to Floyd’s Lost Passage. The other easy trip in the Violet City area of Mammoth (easy walking passage with a crawl or two) led by Kevin Downey turned out to be a  seven hour rinkydink and not at all what had been anticipated.

 All in all another good year with old and new friends together having fun and accomplishing a lot.


 The fourth annual Mammoth Cave Restoration  Field Camp was held from July 19 - 25, 1992. This year Norm Rogers was again the camp coordinator (no one else would take the job) and Bob Ward was the NPS person in charge of the field camp.

 As usual camp officially began with the Sunday evening meal. After the meal Bob Ward outlined the projects for this year.  They didn’t sound too bad but remember, it was still early and we were fresh and eager.

 Monday started with a leisurely stroll out the passage of El Ghor and Silliman Avenue to Cascade Hall and Echo River.  Now the fun begins!  OK folks see these aluminum boats?  See that NPS maintenance man with the electric saw?  Well, he’s gonna cut these boats into one foot cross section pieces and you are gonna carry them out to the elevator. OK?

 The main project was to remove some of  the aluminum boats that had formerly been used on the Echo River tour.  These boats had been retired some years before and were just waiting for someone to figure out how to remove them from the cave. You know, a one foot wide piece of an aluminum tour boat is DAMN heavy!  You know, the elevator is a DAMN long way from Cascade Hall!

 A secondary project for a couple of  people was the removal of a carbide dump from Welcome Way passage  near Cascade hall.  Remember carbide dumps from last year?  More of the same.  The Speleo-Feces team  (Their motto: We hate Feces to Pieces) attacked this project with gusto.  Besides, it was a lot easier than carrying out pieces of aluminum boats.

 Tuesday  work continued on the removal of the boats from Cascade Hall and also on the carbide dump clean up in Welcome Way.   Another crew was scheduled to remove a stone wall in a side passage  between Giants Coffin and Bottomless Pit. A vertical crew managed rig and rappel Sidesaddle Pit (which had already been cleaned) for a reporter and photographer from The Daily News in Bowling Green.  What some people will do to get their pictures in the paper.  By the way, we learned that if you wanted to be photographed wear a red helmet - it shows up better in the newspaper.

 Wednesday brought a change as we began to remove wood from the water along the Echo River Trail as we had done in the past.

 Thursday a short project was to remove some surplus light fixtures, ballasts and wiring that had been stashed in a side passage between Giants’ Coffin and the Bottomless Pit.  As usual this was a half work day with a trip to the Labyrinth scheduled for the afternoon.

 Friday and another years work ended with a haul out of the Echo river debris up the firetower and out of the cave.  The vertical crews finished up a few small tasks, tools were stored and another years Field Camp was done.

 Saturday and the reward trips this year were trip in Violet City  to Wright’s Rotunda and back viewing the historic remains of reed torches the Indian explorers of this area had left along the way.  The hard trip was a return to Floyds’ Lost Passage in Floyd Collins Crystal Cave.


 Camp Started on Sunday  August 15 and ended Saturday August 21, 1993.  Sunday afternoon those who had arrived and were interested went to the Elevator Entrance for some preliminary  work for this weeks activities.  Materials stored at the elevator were taken down into the cave and moved to the Snowball Dining Room.  Then we moved all of the picnic tables down Cleveland Avenue and away from the dining room area. Sunday evening brought the usual introductions and information presented by Norm Rogers, camp coordinator and Bob Ward, Park Cultural Resource Specialist who was also the NPS person in charge of the  Field Camp.

  After the meeting many of us went to the Historic Entrance for we were fortunate to start camp on the same day as the annual Church Revisited program was held.  A non-denominational church group that presents church services in National Parks was conducting a service this evening in the Methodist Church area of Mammoth Cave.  This free event was a recreation of the type of services that had been held in the cave in its earlier years. 

Walking into the cave with lanterns, assembling in the Methodist Church area with a preacher high above and a choir below holding candles was an inspiring sight.  A couple of songs were sung, a short sermon was heard and we went out the way we had entered.  This historic recreation of past events in the cave left us with a warm feeling of appreciation and satisfaction in having participated.

 Monday we all went to the Elevator Entrance and down to the Snowball Dining Room for instructions on the main project for this year. This project was the cleaning of the ceiling of the Snowball Dining Room frequently referred to as the Sootball Dining Room because of the darkened condition of the ceiling.  A study conducted by Ozark Underground Laboratories had determined the cause  was mainly a fungus growing on the material accumulated over the years on the gypsum snowballs.  Testing showed the least harmful and most successful method of removal was spraying the ceiling with normal household bleach  followed a few hours later with a clean water rinse.  The first task was to spread black plastic under the area to be cleaned, mark off grids on the plastic with masking tape and cover this with a layer of clear plastic to contain any runoff, drips and spills. A demonstration of the use of garden sprayers to apply the bleach and water was given.  Workers had to wear protective tyvek suits, rubber gloves and full face respirators as protection from the bleach.  Ten people were chosen to work this project while the rest returned to the surface for other projects.

 After an early lunch, those not chosen for the Snowball project went in the Historic Entrance and proceeded to Great Relief Hall where a reported dump behind the restrooms was investigated and six people remained to remove the materials found.  The rest headed for Echo River checking for wood along the way.  After a look at the river they returned and began bagging up more wet rotten wood in the water and along Echo River Trail.  When everyone had a bag full of wood they all headed out to the Mammoth Dome staging area, dropped off the wood and exited the cave finishing work for today.

 Evening brought a slide show, talk and demonstration on the development of caves by Field Camp member John Marquart.  It also revealed several people with bleach burns as the seams on the tyvek suits were leaking and removal of the face masks (without rinsing) caused some minor transfer of bleach from the masks to various parts of the anatomy.

 Tuesday brought a rush order to the supplier of the tyvek suits for suits with sealed seams to eliminate the leakage problems while the Snowball crew did the best they could with duct tape patching of the current suits.  The river rats returned to the Echo River Trail and continued to remove the remains of former handrails and bridges from the water, bag the wood up and haul it to a staging area in River Hall. The vertical people rigged a rope in an area high above the water just beyond River Hall and removed wood from the water below.  Matt Reece dropped Steve Gentrys bolt hammer in the water, lost it (it’s still there somewhere) and of course was severely chastised  (by anyone and everyone). 

 In the afternoon we formed a chain gang up the stairs at River Hall into Sparks Avenue. From there we hauled the bags of wood to the staging area at Mammoth Dome before calling it a day.

 The evening brought video tapes from TV stations of prior years Field Camps and other cave related videos that participants had brought to camp with them.

 Wednesday the entire crew formed a chain gang up the stairs at Mammoth Dome and then up the firetower and moved the pile of bags and other stuff into Little Bat Avenue. The Snowball crew then left for the Elevator Entrance to resume their project. Penny Hibbard was dubbed the Porcelain Princess for having carried a urinal from Great Relief Hall to the Fire Tower.  It was reported she told the tourists we encountered that we had to bring our own toilets to work with us.  Next we moved the stuff from Little Bat Avenue to the entrance stairs. When all of the material was at the base of the entrance stairs we chain ganged it up and out.   Next a lunch break and then back into the cave for more of the same.  After lunch a couple more hours of bagging wood and hauling it to River Hall pretty well wore us out so most called it a day early and headed back to camp.

  At the Snowball project Ken Janice bleached a bat hiding in a crevice where he couldn’t see it.  It complained and flew away (we hope it was OK). While Larry Matiz was spraying the ceiling a large crust of gypsum came loose and fell to the floor.  As far as we know these were the only detrimental effects of the Snowball project and  were not significant in view of the final results of the project although they did cause some unhappiness to those involved.

 Following supper there was a showing of a National Geographic video on Caves,  some tall tales, lie swapping  and a nice bed after a hard day for most.

 Thursday was a scheduled half work day with the Snowball crew finishing up on the prior days activities and the rest moving the accumulated debris in River Hall up to Little Bat Avenue for final removal on Friday.  This afternoon Bob Ward led an easy reward trip to Gothic and Gratz Avenues off of Main Cave.  For the harder trip 14 people went once again to see Floyd’s Lost Passage entering the cave around 1:30 PM.  At about 4 PM disaster struck!  While negotiating Straddle Canyon, a foothold broke away and John Marquart  fell a short distance dislocating his shoulder.

 The group moved John a short distance to a small flat area, assessed the situation and determined a rescue was needed. They were far into the cave and a difficult crawlway lay between the accident site and the exit. It was decided four people would stay with John and the remainder left all of their spare supplies and exited the cave at top speed.  The park authorities were notified at around 6 PM and the rescue process was started. 

 It was necessary to get a medical doctor to John to administer a sedative, relocate and immobilize the shoulder and then administer a stimulant to cancel the effects of the sedative.   It was probably sometime early Friday morning before this had been accomplished. A significant number of people were involved in one way or another before the ordeal was over.  This included park personnel from rangers to ferry drivers to even the lawn mowing crew who were used in the commercial trail part of the cave.  Of course the field camp cavers as well as other area cavers were also involved.

 After the shoulder had been relocated and with the cavers and park people assisting, John slowly made his way toward the entrance. After many hours in the cave John and the rescue party eventually reached Scotchmans Trap and the tourist trail.  There he was placed in a stokes litter and carried to the entrance (this of course would have been  the easiest part of the cave for John to navigate with his injury.)  He refused to let them carry him out of the cave and walked up the entrance stairs into the bright sunlight  at 11:24 AM on Friday August 20, 1993.  A seven hour fun trip had turned into a 22 hour ordeal.

 The accident was just that, an accident.  It could have happened to anyone at any time. There is no blame to be placed, no person who is responsible, no evidence of unsafe practices, just a plain old accident.

 Friday - well this had started off as Thursday - a very long day after all.   After John had been loaded into an ambulance and taken to a hospital we were all transported to the incident command center for a brief exit interview and from there headed back to Maple Springs for showers , unwinding and sleep.  John arrived back from the hospital around 5 PM.  He had  been x-rayed, examined, medicated, bandaged and told he would likely live and he should see his family physician as soon as possible upon returning home.

 Saturday and no reward trips this year although its unlikely anyone was in the mood anyway.  Bob Ward came to Maple Springs and conducted interviews with everyone individually.  Details of each interview were recorded for inclusion in the final incident report that The Park Service would prepare.  After the interviews we headed home having still accomplished most of what had been planned.  We did leave a pile of materials in Little Bat Avenue (planned for Fridays removal) which was taken care of on the fall weekend clean up trip.

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