The Lost Miner – or How the Haunted Chambers Got Their Name

In 1838 Robert Montgomery Bird (Peter Pilgrim: or A rambler’s recollections, Volume 2.  Including:  The Mammoth Cave. Pp.  47- 162.  Publisher: Philadelphia, Lea & Blanchard.  260 pp. )  posted an account of a miner who became lost in one of the passages in the historic section of Mammoth Cave.  According to the teller of the tale, this is how the Haunted Chambers got their name.  The story is repeated in Bullitt’s 1844 account, but he credits the story as having been published in the earlier article by Bird, rather than having been told the tale himself.  The story is retold by the Rev. Horace Martin (Martin, Horace.  1851.  Pictorial guide to the Mammoth cave, Kentucky.  Publisher: New York, Stringer & Townsend.  148 pp. By the time of martin’s account was written the passage had been renamed “The Gothic Chambers” rather than the Haunted Chambers.  These are the only versions of the story I have found.

“The Haunted Chambers are said to owe their name to an adventure that befell one of the miners in former days, which is thus related. In the Lower Branch is a room called the Salts Room, which produces considerable quantities of the Sulphate of Magnesia, or of Soda, we forget which a mineral that the proprietor of the cave did not fail to turn to account. The miner in question was a new and raw hand of course neither very well acquainted with the cave itself, nor with the approved modes of averting or repairing accidents, to which, from the nature of their occupation, the miners were greatly exposed.  Having been sent, one day, in charge of an older workman, to the Salts Room to dig a few sacks of the salt, and finding that the path to this sequestered nook was perfectly plain, and that, from the Haunted Chambers being a single, continuous passage, without branches, it was impossible to wander from it, our hero disdained, on his second visit, to seek or accept assistance, and trudged off to his work alone.  The circumstance being common enough, he was speedily forgotten by his brother miners; and it was not until several hours after, when they all left off their toil for the more agree able duty of eating their dinner, that his absence was remarked, and his heroical resolution to make his way alone to the Salts Room remembered. As it was apparent, from the time he had been gone, that some accident must have happened him, half a dozen men, the most of them negroes, stripped half naked, their usual working costume, were sent to hunt him up, a task supposed to be of no great difficulty, unless he had fallen into a pit. In the meanwhile, the poor miner, it seems, had succeeded in reaching the Salts Room, filling his sack, and retracing his steps half way back to the Grand Gallery; when, finding the distance greater than he thought it ought to be, the conceit entered his unlucky brain that he might perhaps be going wrong. No sooner had the suspicion struck him, than he fell into a violent terror, dropped his sack, ran backwards, then returned, then ran back again, each time more frightened and bewildered than before; until at last he ended his adventures by tumbling over a stone and extinguishing his lamp. Thus left in the dark, not knowing where to turn, frightened out of his wits besides, he fell to remembering his sins always remembered by those who are lost in the Mammoth Cave and praying with all his might for succour. But hours passed away, and assistance came not: the poor fellow’s frenzy increased; he felt himself a doomed man, he thought his terrible situation was a judgment imposed on him for his wickedness; nay, he even believed, at last, that he was no longer an inhabitant of the earth that he had been translated, even in the body, to the place of torment in other words, that he was in hell itself, the prey of the devils, who would presently be let loose upon him. It was at this moment the miners in search of him made their appearance: they lighted upon his sack, lying where he had thrown it, and set up a great shout, which was the first intimation he had of their approach. He started up, and seeing them in the distance, the half-naked negroes in advance, all swinging their torches aloft, he, not doubting they were those identical devils whose appearance he had been expecting, took to his heels, yelling lustily for mercy; nor did he stop, notwithstanding the calls of his amazed friends, until he had fall en a second time among the rocks, where he lay on his face, roaring for pity, until, by dint of much pulling and shaking, he was convinced that he was still in the world and the Mammoth Cave. Such is the story they tell of the Haunted Chambers, the name having been given to commemorate the incident.”  pp. 117-119.

Reverend Martin has a similar ending in his recounting of the tale:

Madness seized him.  He thought he had quitted earth — was disembodied– in fact, that he was in the place of torment said to be reserved for sinners.  He gazed about him.  Merciful powers! What are these moving figures?  He had never seen anything like them.  They were spirits, sent to drag him to his punishment.  He hears their yells.  Were ever mortal voices like the wild outbursts ringing in his ears? Never!  Nearer and nearer they come.  He is conscious of their hot and hissing breath.  Their arms are outstretched to clutch him.  He will soon be in their embrace, fast locked.  Horrible!  They have him–they, not devils, but minors like himself.  He knows them, and that he is a saved man. “Hurra! hurra! hurra!”  Never did the Mammoth Cave, Old Kentucky, reverberate with such shouts as on the memorable occasion of the miner’s rescue.”


Peter West (2010. Trying the Dark: Mammoth Cave and the Racial Imagination, 1839–1869.  February 9, 2010. Webpage:  cites this account in his article on “Trying the Dark.”  To quote from the article: 

“While writers have often depicted Bishop and his fellow guides as heroic figures of slave self-determination and power, West complicates this interpretation by revealing how the symbolic authority of the Mammoth Cave slaves served the white imagination. The theatricality of antebellum cave tourism—which included costumes, optical illusions, sing-alongs, and complex games of racial and sexual role-playing—emerges here as a way of containing the haunting spectacle of black authority and reaffirming conventions of white domination.”

From the version of the account by Rev. Martin, Dr. West selects these particular passages toward his thesis: 

One oft-repeated story from the realm of white nightmare involved a region of the cave called the “Haunted Chamber.” As told by the Rev. Horace Martin, a young miner wanders off alone to dig up some underground salts. When he fails to reappear, six black miners were formed into a company to go in search of the miner (who is presumably white). “They were Negroes,” Martin writes, “and previous to starting on their errand of mercy were stripped half naked. It may, therefore, be imagined how extraordinary was their appearance”. Here Martin switches back to the perspective of the lost miner, describing the terror and madness of his solitude: “He thought that he had quitted earth—was disembodied—in fact, that he was in the place of torments said to be reserved for sinners”. Seeing the black bodies of the six miners in the rescue company, he imagines they are demons: “He had never seen anything like them. They were spirits, sent to drag him to his punishment. He hears their yells. [. . .] Nearer and nearer they come. He is conscious of their hot and hissing breath”

Dr. West supposes the miner in question is white and the imagery in this story and others story represent the fears of white visitors being under the power and authority of black guides.  He writes elsewhere concerning the Trying the Dark experience in the Star Chamber:

“The gothic terrors of the cave are experienced by the white author entangled with racialized power. If the white tourist is at the mercy of a black man he has only met hours earlier, how does white identity remain coextensive with superior authority?”  

By implication the depiction of the black workers as half stripped Negros of extraordinary appearance and as spirits or devils from the afterlife is a way to maintain that feeling of superiority in spite of the need to depend on the guides within the cave.

I agree with Dr. West that much of appearance of equality between the tourists and guides was simply theater and the true nature of the attitudes between the two classes was revealed in many other, more subtle ways.  I do wonder, however, if some of what he attributes to the racialized power in the accounts are simply the style of overblown prose of the day, and how much of it is simply theater that would be present whether the guides were black or white?

About Edward Forrest Frank

My name is Edward Frank. By training I am a geologist with published research on caves found in the United States, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. I am the webmaster, BBS administrator, and run the Facebook Page for the Native Tree Society and am involved with tree research with the group. I am the author, or coauthor, of a number of tree related articles and publications available for download from the NTS website and NTS BBS. I edit the monthly magazine for the group - eNTS Magazine. I write science fiction and fantasy stories reflecting a lifelong love of the genres. Most recently I published a fantasy role playing game Knarf 4, available through Amazon Kindle. I have an extensive science fiction and fantasy library and have long enjoyed table top role-playing games. Not satisfied with commercially available games, I started creating my own game variations in the mid 1980's. Knarf 4 is latest version best version of those games. I also write non-fiction. I currently am working on a book on "The Old-Growth Forests of Cook Forest State Park, PA" targeting older children and teens. I am suave, sophisticated, funny, kind, considerate, thoughtful, brilliant, devilishly handsome, and above all modest.
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