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Conserving Kentucky's Lost River Cave

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Conserving A Piece Of History: Lost River Cave

A 7-Mile Cave System With An Underground River That Also Features 70 Acres Of Trails, Wetlands, And Prairies

Boat Tour Through The Lost River Cave [Courtesy/Lost River Cave]

American ecologist and environmentalist Aldo Leopold said, “Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.” This important quote, emblazoned on the website of the Lost River Cave in Bowling Green, Kentucky, reminds visitors about the purpose of the tours available at Lost River Cave. The 7-mile cave system features one of the largest cave openings east of the Mississippi River as well as an underground river. In collaboration with Western Kentucky University, the non-profit organization the Friends of the Lost River has worked diligently to preserve the cave as a natural landmark, share the rich history of the cave, and protect the surrounding land.

Lost River Cave is home to Kentucky’s only underground boat tour which is offered to visitors year round. This 45-minute tour begins with a walk inside the cave where visitors can see a blue hole, a 10-foot deep sinkhole that connects the Lost River to another river farther underground. After this, visitors board a boat which takes them along a 1,000-foot stretch of underground river. In addition to the primary attraction of the cave and underground river, Lost River Cave also includes 70 acres of trails, wetlands, and prairies. Visitors are welcome to explore and enjoy these areas in addition to the boat tour.

Today, as the staff guides visitors on an exploration of the cavern, they springboard off the cave’s history to pique their guests’ interest and share about the ongoing conservation efforts. “It’s important to have the right people conveying the message,” Chad Singer, Lost River Cave’s Park Guide Supervisor, says of his fellow tour guides. The power of each guide to inspire budding conservationists, geologists, historians, and naturalists is all in the delivery. ”I like to get them laughing,” Chad continues, “to make it fun and educational.”

In many ways, the Friends of the Lost River, the staff at Lost River Cave, and the army of volunteers who help year round are still cleaning up after the soldiers who camped near the cave during the Civil War. Army camps, where tents were pitched and soldiers tramped in their boots through all weather, damaged a 15-acre prairie on the park’s land. Since 2012, volunteers have been working to restore the land back to its native state, which includes removing non-native, invasive species that have cropped up such as winter creeper and Japanese honeysuckle. The goal is to make the land hospitable to the native, non-invasive species of plants that thrive there.

Having Drinks At The Popular 1940's Night Club[Courtesy/Lost River Cave]
Guests Dancing And Having Fun At The Night Club In Lost River Cave During The Late 1940's [Courtesy/Lost River Cave]

To recount the area’s history, during the Civil War, the cave and surrounding areas were occupied by both Confederate and Union troops at various times. Legends about the cave that originated during this period still persist today. One involved a wagoner, who was traveling toward the cave with a cart and 4 mules, that toppled into one of the blue holes that feeds into the cave’s river. Hearing the commotion of the wagoner and his entire load crashing into the pool, nearby Confederate soldiers went to investigate. The wagoner never resurfaced, leading the soldiers to perpetuate the tale that the blue hole was a bottomless pit that sucked men to their deaths. Months later, 4 Union soldiers using the blue hole to cool off decided to prove the myth wrong by retrieving a rock from the bottom. One soldier took a brave dive, and when he didn’t return with a rock, a second soldier went in after him. When neither of them resurfaced, a third soldier dove downward, trying to save his friends. The fourth soldier, returning to camp without his friends, was the only one to survive to tell the tale. Tour guides on the Lost River Cave boat tour go on to offer a few explanations for what actually happened to the soldiers--and let the visitors come to their own conclusions.

After the Civil War, during which Bowling Green was bombed, the limestone in the cave was also quarried to aid in the rebuilding process. Add to this that Union and Confederate soldiers removed stalactites and stalagmites--which take hundreds of years to form--for souvenirs. This began a cycle of disturbance which affected the natural beauty of the cave. To ensure that the cave’s natural development is not further disturbed by the boat tours and year-round visitors, the tours cover only a small portion of the 5-mile long river that runs through the cave.

As time progressed into the 1940s, the cave was used as a popular night club. As big bands and swing music were all the rage, the cave became a unique and naturally cool place to socialize and beat the heat. But as Rock ‘n’ Roll took over the music scene, swing dancing was left to a bygone era and the night club fell out of vogue.

After that, “the cave bounced around between owners and basically became a local dump,” Nicole Coomer, the Marketing and Communications Coordinator at Lost River Cave recounts. The following years would be some of the most tragic in the cave’s history. Locals drove up to the cave and tossed their unwanted items into it, including washing machines and porcelain tubs.

However, the cave wasn’t to be lost to history. As Chad continues the story, “We started to clean up in 1990.” Dr. Nick Crawford of Western Kentucky University, along with a crew of volunteers, worked for 5 years to remove 55 tons of trash from the cave. This was just the beginning of the conservation efforts.  Once the cave was cleared out, a dam was built to help raise the water level from its natural 1- to 2-foot depth to 3 to 4 feet deep. This allowed for boats and kayaks to travel through the cave so that tours of the cave and underground river could be offered to the public.

The Infamous Blue Hole Outside The Lost River Cave [Courtesy/Lost River Cave]

Today, as the staff guides visitors on an exploration of the cavern, they springboards off the cave’s history to pique their guest’s interest and share about the ongoing conservation efforts. “It’s important to have the right people conveying the message,” Chad says of his fellow tour guides. The power of each guide to inspire budding conservationists, geologists, historians, and naturalists is all in the delivery. ”I like to get them laughing,” Chad continues, “to make it fun and educational.”

Another “amazing little project,” as Chad calls it, which is part of ongoing conservation efforts, is a project involving the groundwater. “Just a little drop of oil from your car,” Chad explains, “can reach the cave system through the Karst landscape in an hour and a half.” The Karst is a landscape dotted with caves, springs, and sinkholes--or blue holes--that were created by water eroding the soft limestone. Chad continues that they have an obligation to keep the ground water clean, so through this storm water drainage project, runoff water is caught and goes through a cleaning process before it hits the water system in the cave.

Chad admits that it was years after he started working for Lost River Cave that he really came to appreciate the magnitude of the cave and river systems, but now he wants visitors to be just as awestruck as he is. “Awareness and appreciation are the best tools for conservation,” he remarks. The stories of the cave’s history, coupled with the astounding statistics about how the cave and surrounding land were poorly used, are the details which Chad hopes draw visitors to understanding and empathy for their conservation cause.

The goal is to make visitors lifelong advocates for the cave and include them in the ongoing conservation efforts. “We want to leave and be better children for our earth,” Chad says, and education is the key. The tour provides a transformative experience to families, encourages children’s natural wonder, and plants the seed of conservationist thinking into every visitor. True conservation requires an entire community of support to ensure that unique locations like Lost River Cave are not lost to time and history. Through the incredible efforts made by the Friends and their army of volunteers, Lost River Cave will continue to be a family friendly destination for generations.


Kailyn Clay

A graduate of Trinity Christian College in English & Political Science, Kailyn  has written for                       Brilliance Publishing & GEMS' Girls Clubs among others. She enjoys hiking and cooking.

Bowling Green KOA

Make Sure To Stay At:

Bowling Green KOA, where Lost River Cave, Shaker Museum and Riverview at Hobson Grove are available for tours year 'round.  Enjoy a beautiful 18-hole mini golf course and a pirate ship in the playground.


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