Journey to the Bottomless Pit: The Story of Stephen Bishop and Mammoth Cave by Betsy Mitchell


1580750By the light of a solitary lantern and his burning ambition, Kentucky slave Stephen Bishop spends hours wandering his master’s cave; scaling huge rocks, squeezing into tight tunnels, and carefully crossing over black pits that seem to have no end. It’s hard (and sometimes dangerous) work, but Stephen loves every minute of it!

In the late 1830s Mammoth Cave is, more or less, an ordinary roadside attraction, merely a good place to visit on a hot day. The cave’s owner, Franklin Gorin, chooses seventeen-year-old Stephen to learn about the cave, and the stories behind it. Stephen would then become the head tour guide. The young slave quickly develops into a knowledgeable and entertaining guide, and people come from miles around to see such places as “the Rotunda,” “the Haunted Chambers,” and “Steamboat Rock,” and to hear about the folklore and legends that surrounds the cave.

Although Stephen enjoys his job as tour guide, the unexplored parts of the cave begin to gnaw at his curiosity. He decides to go exploring in his free time, and after some climbing, comes across a room unlike anything he has ever seen:

“Most of the walls in Mammoth Cave were of gray stone. But this shaftway was beautifully colored. It looked as though an enormous yellow-and-white candle had melted down the curved walls. Streaks of red and black added even more color…Stephen was thrilled. Was he the first person ever to see this sight? He would not be the last, that was certain.”

After reporting his discovery, his excited master encourages Stephen to continue his exploration. Over the next two decades, Stephen’s discoveries make Mammoth Cave the largest and most famous underground attraction in the world. To this day, millions of people travel to Kentucky to walk the paths and to see the geological wonders first found by a young man with a thirst for adventure and education. Although not given the credit he deserved while he was alive (he was a slave, after all), the name of Stephen Bishop will be forever linked to the world’s most famous cave.

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