The words to the song, “The Death of Floyd Collins,” speak of a Kentucky mining tragedy that claimed the life of a young cave explorer on January 30, 1925. Andrew B. Jenkins, a blind Atlanta evangelist, composed the original song and Fiddlin' John Carson (Okeh Records) and Vernon Dalhart (Perfect Records) each recorded the song about the tragic mishap.
Floyd Collins (public domain)
Floyd Collins' family owned Crystal Cave in Central Kentucky. Although it was described as a very nice cave, it was too far off the trail to attract tourists and generate needed income. Instead, nearby Mammoth Cave was the major draw for sightseers. Floyd was determined to find an entrance from his property to Mammoth Cave. Nearby Sand Cave had always been described as a collection of smaller “nothing” caves that were bypassed by almost everyone.
Collins enlarged a hole in the corner of Sand Cave hoping to find a shorter route to Mammoth Cave. He became fluent in using his voice to sound out nearby regions. Many people believe that Floyd had located a new passageway in Sand Cove just prior to the accident.
Floyd Collins' Birth Place
Over time, Floyd Collins had gained the reputation of being a gifted caver (as cave explorers became known) in the country surrounding the longest cave system in the world. Decades later, explorers found items in the caves indicating that Floyd was indeed gifted. But further exploration that fateful day in early 1925 came to an abrupt halt.
The caver was leaving a dangerously unstable passage when a 27-pound rock came crashing down on his foot, trapping him. Although the rock was not that heavy, it became wedged in other rocks, which prevented it from being moved to free Collins.
Just 120 feet from the entrance and 60 feet underground, Floyd lay unable to move in a cold, dark tunnel. The night passed with no relief for him.
Okeh Record of the Tragedy, Sung by Fiddlin' John Carson
For more than two weeks, Floyd suffered in his tight passage, while above him a carnival atmosphere of restless people congregated, hoping for a miracle. Each day, frequent news accounts were being reported in the Louisville, KY newspaper first-hand by a brave reporter who navigated the unstable cave passage, dropping food to Floyd, talking with him and even attempting to free him. But his noble efforts were to no avail.
Even today, Floyd Collins' sad drama can be found in old newspapers and library microfilms. The story was first reported as a minor mishap with full expectations that Collins would be freed within hours. That did not happen; the story worsened until it dominated front page news across the country and even abroad for two weeks, which included the Johnson City Press-Chronicle. Everybody become aware of Floyd Collins' quandary.
Family members and his fellow cavers tried to free him. When it became clear that his rescue would not be easy, his brother Homer spent nights in the cave with him to offer him moral support.
Despite efforts by numerous miners, the National Guard and the Red Cross, all attempts at rescue failed, and the crowd grew outside the cave as a media circus ensued. Even after all the attention, Floyd still lay hopelessly trapped and time was quickly running out.
Sign at the Site Where Floyd Collins Died
Seventeen days after Floyd had entered the cave, a shaft finally reached him, but it was too late. Doctors believed he had died three days prior. The inevitable occurred sometime around the 15th day when, sadly, Floyd's voice was stilled forever.
Authorities decided that it was too dangerous to remove the body and left it where it lay. Some 80 days later, Floyd's brother, Homer, raised enough money to exhume him and give him a decent burial. Later, Crystal Cave was sold and Floyd's body was initially put in a glass topped coffin at the entrance to it. Later after several bizarre events occurred, he received a proper burial.
Today, a marker still stands at the cave entrance as a memorial to a brave man who was trapped alive for over two weeks and where he breathed his final tortured breath.
(Thanks to Alan Bridwell for assisting with this article.)