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Mammoth Cave 75th Anniversary

Everything old is new again as Mammoth Cave National Park celebrates its 75th anniversary. Underway now is a $5.5 million cave trails project, the largest project undertaken at Mammoth since it became a national park. This is the National Parks Service’s largest construction project this year.

Rick Toomey, director of the Mammoth Cave International Center for Science and Learning, said the trails project is on the same scale as the Civilian Conservation Corps projects of the 1930s.

Tori Grider, a Mammoth Cave guide, recalled the history of the work done during the Great Depression. Four camps of about 250 men each worked on the cave trails in the government work program. “For a young man to work, he would make a dollar a day,” she said.

George M. Cruthers of the Office of State Archaeology said that up until the 1930s, the only trails used in the caves were the ones built in the 1800s.

Camp 510 was a predominantly African-American camp, Grider said. “They were the ones who would be coming in and creating the trails. … They would take a lot of these massive boulders, bust those rocks up to the size of a baseball, spread those throughout the cave, several miles of that. And then they would get very fine dirt and place it on top of that,” she said. “And that’s basically the trails we’re walking on today.”

Grider said the arduous work was done with pickaxes and shovels in the cold, dark environment of the cave.

Today, trail work is still labor intensive. The park service is moving trail material into the caves by hand– between 2.5 and 3 million pounds, Toomey said. “No heavy equipment can be used out at the cave,” he explained, in order to protect the environment.

In some sections, workers are installing pavers. “These new trails will help protect the cave. The previous trails were dirt,” said Toomey. “As people walk on it, it turns to dust, flies all over, and settles on artifacts. So these new pavers and where we’ve got concrete trails will help reduce that dust to help us protect cave resources. We are building for 50 years’ durability on these trails.”

Mammoth Cave is a world-renowned resource for archaeologists, paleontologists, biologists and geologists. “Five-thousand-year-old artifacts can be three inches below the trail surface,” said Toomey. ‘We actually have an archaeologist monitoring the digging to collect any prehistoric or historic artifacts that are uncovered in just simple digging.”

Cruthers said the cave holds the last evidence scientists have of what happened prehistorically.

The trails project is scheduled to be finished in spring 2017.

This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2112, which originally aired on April 2, 2016. Watch the full episode.