the Cheatham County Exchange – Walk steadily across world’s largest underground suspension bridge at Kentucky’s Hidden River Cave

Walk steadily across world’s largest underground suspension bridge at Kentucky site

Ready to take on a cool 58-degree cave tour with some mesmerizing formations and a fascinating history?

Hidden River Cave is a hole in the ground that adjoins the American Cave Museum in Horse Cave, Kentucky, a town built directly over this captivating cavern about 10 miles west of Mammoth Cave.

The funny thing about Hidden River Cave, originally known as Horse Cave, is that it’s hidden in plain sight. Just stroll along the south sidewalk on the first block of East Main Street in this village of 2,250, take a gander over the chain-link fence, and 85 feet below street level you will spy a massive sinkhole, the mouth of Hidden River Cave.  

Visitors can sample this subterranean world via a one-mile, round-trip hike that will leave you breathless in more ways than one. You’ll have to walk down and up a total of 650 steps before winding back at the entrance an hour to 75 minutes later.

American Cave Museum collections curator and tour staff supervisor Jay Pruitt, also known around here as “the cave guy,” said, “The hour-long guided tour takes you to this wonderful cave entrance in the middle of our town. You’ll walk through a subterranean river, looking for wildlife and see three domed rooms, the last one being the colossal Sunset Dome, the staple piece of the cave tour. We also have the world’s largest underground suspension bridge, constructed out of steel, which is 95 feet in length, 45 feet over the river system, and it holds 100,000 pounds.” 

For those who wish to tackle a more challenging experience, a three-to-four-hour off-trail cave adventure tour for ages 10 and older is available. It requires a 48-hour advance reservation, and you are advised to bring sturdy boots, well-fitting, warm clothing and knee pads. Helmets and headlamps are provided free. Be prepared to get wet and dirty.

Meet “the cave guy”

Pruitt’s role is keeping up with the day-to-day operations, making sure everything is running smoothly, and maintaining the archive room which holds artifacts, newspapers, books and other items regarding Hidden River Cave and other Kentucky caves.

“As far as guiding, I’m making sure everyone’s having a great time on the cave tours and am sharing the history of the town, the cave, and doing off-trail cave tours,” added Pruitt, who has lived in Hart County all his life. “My passion for caving is what brought me here. I come to work happy and love caving.”

Holding a double major in history and biology from Campbellsville University, he heads a staff of 14 that attended to 29,000 tourists in 2023. Pruitt began exploring caves at the age of 12 or 13 and estimates over the past two years or so he has given more than 1,000 cave tours.

He says that those who visit the museum and tour the cave “will find a wonderful blend of local history, geologic history and basically the telling of one of the greatest comeback stories ever told due to the conservation, restoration and cleanup of our cave system.”

Besides the swinging suspension bridge and Sunset Dome, Pruitt noted other cave highlights, saying, “The biodiversity of wildlife you can potentially see is awesome. We have over 121 documented species that live inside the cave. You never know how many you will see inside. We have a bunch of crayfish species, blind fish, aquatic/terrestrial troglobites and seven species of salamanders.”

On an early April morning, he escorts a group of 30 tourists a half mile back in the cave. As you walk along the boardwalk, which alternates from wood planks to metal grates, you hear the rushing waters of Hidden River beneath your feet.  

The route is sparsely lighted and you will spot boulders, large and small, in the cave. At some places the limestone walls look as if they were covered in peanut butter. As you cross the suspension bridge, it jiggles up and down. One of the domes lies just beneath a four-way stop sign on Horse Cave’s Main Street.

“We feel like we’re living over Swiss cheese because there are so many sinkholes in Kentucky,” Pruitt said.

This morning, Graceann Lawson and her family from Kernersville, North Carolina, who came last year to see Mammoth Cave, decided to stalk a new cave. About Hidden River Cave, she shared, “It’s interesting, educational and exciting. Sunset Dome is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s beautiful.”

Some Horse Cave history

After the tour is finished, Pruitt offers more history about the town and its cave.

Explaining how the city of Horse Cave came by its name, he said, “There are a bunch of stories, a lot of them local. The one I associate most with the name of the city is that when the first pioneers came here ‘horse’ was slang for something massive. You come look at our cave, and it is one of the largest openings in the state. There are lots of tall tales, one being a horse fell in the cave.”

He said the first pioneers came in 1794 and that brothers Robert and William Grinstead discovered the cave. It was originally called Horse Cave by Dr. George A. Thomas, a dentist and the first owner of the cave, who purchased it in 1888 for $375. His son, Dr. H.B. Thomas, opened the cave for tourists in 1912.

“Dr. Thomas had a raffle here to pick a good name and awarded a prize, and someone came up with Hidden River Cave, and so it was rebranded,” said Pruitt.

At one point the cave provided hydroelectricity and drinking water for Horse Cave, and it became the first city in Kentucky to have incandescent lights. The cave was open for commercial tours from 1912 through 1943. Due to groundwater pollution from domestic and industrial sewage and other factors, the town quit using Hidden River for its water supply in 1939, and the cave was shuttered in 1943. Meanwhile, over the next 50 years in summer months, the sinkhole spewed noxious fumes from its yawning mouth.

In 1987, the American Cave Conservation Association (ACCA) moved its national headquarters from Richmond, Virginia, to Horse Cave at the invitation of William T. (Bill) Austin. About that time, Caveland Sanitation Authority developed a new regional sewage treatment system.

“In1989, we were able to get online with the sewage system, and it started from there in getting all the waste systems stopped from the city as we did little clean-up projects here and there,” said Pruitt, about the process that allowed the waters of Hidden River, 100 feet below the surface, to heal.

The American Cave Museum opened in 1992. Since then, the ACCA has raised approximately $7.5 million for land, construction, additional exhibits, development of the Hidden River Cave tour and funded ongoing educational and conservation programs. Today, the museum is housed inside the three-story Austin Building, which dates back to 1910, when it First Central Bank.  

In 2013, Julian J. Lewis made a biological inventory of Hidden River Cave and reported the cave’s passageways were thriving with 121 species. Thus, in 14 years the cave went from being one of the dirtiest to one of the more biologically diverse cave ecosystems in the world.

The suspension bridge opened in November 2018, and, after being closed for 76 years, Sunset Dome opened for the public in February 2020.

According to Pruitt, the Hidden River Cave system extends 11 miles but has not been fully explored. Currently, there are no known connections to Mammoth Cave. 

About the museum, he noted, “There is a lot of history about local cave systems in Kentucky, how cave systems are formed and created, groundwater supply and human effects on cave systems. We have a great biology exhibit and an aquarium with a tank full of blind cavefish.”

There also are historical displays on Kentucky show caves, early cave history, prehistoric cave explorers, fossils and caving artifacts, aquatic/terrestrial troglobites, cave bats and an excellent exhibit about Floyd Collins, the owner of Crystal Cave, who is considered by many as the “greatest cave explorer ever known.”

HIDDEN RIVER CAVE & AMERICAN CAVE MUSEUM

Location: 119 East Main St., Horse Cave, Ky., about a 90-minute drive from Nashville.

Phone: (270) 786-1455.

Website: hiddenrivercave.com.

Hours: 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily (Central time)

Museum: Admission is free.

Guided cave tours: ages 15 and older, $25; ages 6-14, $12; ages 5 and younger, free; active military ticket is free with valid ID. Duration is about 60 to 75 minutes.

Off-trail cave tour rates (must be 10 or older): $53 per person for groups of two to 19 and $43 per person for groups of 20 or more; 48-hour advance reservation required. Duration is 3–4 hours.

Note: Both the American Cave Museum and the Hidden River Cave sinkhole are handicap accessible.

Historical details from this article were sourced from hiddenrivercave.com.

Story: Ken Beck
Issue: May 16 2024

This is an article from the Cheatham County Exchange, May 16 issue. Thanks to the Cheatham County Exchange for allowing us to post this article on our website.