By Kirsten Delamarter
In the early 1900s, tourists would travel in droves to Horse Cave, Kentucky to experience one of the finest underground experiences in the country – Hidden River Cave.
With its massive entrance located just about 300 feet from city hall, Hidden River Cave packed in tourists and fueled the local economy. The city was one of the first Kentucky towns to have electric streetlights with generators powered by the cave’s streams. Local homes and businesses also relied on the cave as a source of drinking water.
However, the cave quickly deteriorated around the time of World War II. The reason? Pollution.
Without a sewer system in town, much of the area’s industrial waste and raw sewage was dumped into sinkholes that drained into the cave. Eventually, the cave developed a foul odor, rendering it unfit for tourism, or use as a water source.
“Growing up in the city of Horse Cave, the cave itself was closed because it was so polluted,” said Mayor Randall Curry, a lifelong Horse Cave resident. “When you came through downtown Horse Cave, you had to roll your windows up to try to drown out the stench.”
By the mid-1980s, residents grew tired of the pollution. A core group of individuals, including Bill Austin, the owner of Hidden River Cave, began advocating for construction of a regional sewer system – infrastructure that would ultimately divert waste away from the cave and allow the ecosystem to repair itself.
Austin also invited the American Cave Conservation Association, located in Virginia at the time, to see the cave.
“This cave was just a wonderful natural resource for the community,” said David Foster, president and CEO of the American Cave Conservation Association. “We were just blown away by the fact that a small town in Kentucky had this enormous cave entrance right in the middle of town.”
The association decided to take the project on, Foster said, and moved the association to Horse Cave.
“Part of our goal was not only to restore Hidden River Cave, but it was also to build an organization to make sure the kinds of things that happened to Hidden River Cave don’t happen in other places.”
Construction of the regional sewer system in the late 1980s repaired much of the damaged caused by the cave’s pollution, according to Foster.
Recently, the city purchased the land containing the cave’s entrance using funds from the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund (KHLCF), a program through the Kentucky Office of Nature Preserves that helps agencies acquire natural areas for protection. This designation protects the land against development and other activities that might negatively impact the natural area.
“Hidden River Cave is an area that needs to be protected because it can domino effect many other of our natural areas around the property,” KHLCF Land Manager Maddy Heredia said.
More than 108,000 acres across Kentucky are protected under the KHLCF program, including properties at Pine Mountain State Park, Blue Licks Battlefield and other popular natural areas in the Commonwealth. Money from the sale of “Nature’s Finest” license plates goes into the KHLCF. Learn more about the program here.
Today, Hidden River Cave has been restored and is once again a popular tourist destination.
The American Cave Conservation Association operates the American Cave Museum in Horse Cave, which also gives cave tours. Tens of thousands of people from all over the country come each year to tour the cave, Foster said, and his organization has developed curricula utilized by show caves across the country.
In recent years, the association has raised money to rebuild the trail that leads to Sunset Dome, a room about half a mile inside the cave that is about 100 feet high. The dome was a highlight of tours in the 1930s but was inaccessible for nearly 80 years. In 2020, construction of a suspension bridge within the cave was completed, making it possible to again access the Sunset Dome.
“It’s helped us bring more foot traffic to Horse Cave – people that’ve never been to Horse Cave,” Curry said. “You know, it’s pretty cool when you’ve got a cave in the middle of town. Not very many cities can identify with that.”