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Mammoth Cave - a subterranean stroll through history

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Spend enough time in this neck of the woods and you're bound to find out what makes Kentucky tick - limestone and history. Practically everything associated with this semi-Southern state - bluegrass, thoroughbred horses, and caves - is built literally on a bedrock of limestone.

And that is history. A lot of the rock is 300 million years old - perfect timing when it comes to carving caves (some of the world's largest) underneath the green fringe of the Appalachians, but a tad too early to catch the really interesting stuff like Jenny Lind singing ''The Last Rose of Summer'' 500 feet underground, the Emperor of Brazil and the Grand Duke of Russia eating supper in the subterranean dining room, or Jesse and Frank James holding up stagecoaches outside Cave City.

Even in the 20th century there have been some wild times here. When Floyd (The Lad) Collins got stuck in Crystal Cave for 18 days, it created the biggest rumpus in these parts that anyone remembers. The National Guard was called in to keep the spectators and press at bay with pointed bayonets. Even so, ''Skeets'' Miller, a Louisville Courier-Journal reporter, won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the spelunking catastrophe and, presumably, his gallant, but ultimately fruitless, attempts to free Floyd with a car jack.

Since then, happenings in cave country have been a bit more tame. Local railroad lines rusted into disuse, as did the steamboats that paddled up and down the Green River ferrying the curious from Bowling Green and Evansville, Ind. Students from Ohio State University wrote O-S-U on the limestone cave walls , not with spray paint, but with historically accurate cane torches. Much later, less indigenous Alpine Slides and Jellystone Campgrounds and souvenir ''Rocks for Less'' shops would spring up. But by the time Franklin D. Roosevelt had hit his third term as President, this purported Seventh Wonder of the World was officially legit - Mammoth Cave National Park. And perhaps that was the best news of all.


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