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Tom Chaney: Trapped, Collins and Fancher

Of Writers And Their Books: Trapped: Collins and Fancher. Tom tells of the failed Collins rescue that assisted the formation of Mammoth Cave National Park, and the successful Fancher rescue which opened valuable channels of communication and respect. This column first appeared 8 May 2005.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Summer's Bounty

By Tom Chaney

Trapped: Collins and Fancher

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the entrapment of Floyd Collins in Sand Cave. The players in that drama, which seized the attention of the entire world, have mostly followed Floyd into their own dank graves.

I have been re-reading the most detailed book on the events of late January and February of 1925. The book is by Robert K. Murray and Roger Brucker and is called quite simply, Trapped. Although it has serious weaknesses, it remains the best account of one of the premier cave explorers of all time -- Floyd Collins.

For those few who do not know the tale, Mr. Collins operated a show cave on his family farm on what is now known as Flint Ridge Road near the current eastern boundary of Mammoth Cave National Park. 'Twas a long and rugged drive from Cave City out the Mammoth Cave Road, past the big cave and on to Floyd Collins' Great Crystal Cave.

To get a better, earlier shot at the tourist business, Mr. Collins entered into an agreement with Bee Doyle to explore a promising cave on Mr. Doyle's farm located on the Mammoth Cave Road just inside of what is now the national park.

He was exploring Sand Cave in the closing days of January, when he became trapped in a narrow crawlway on his way out of the cave. News of his entrapment got out on the telegraph. Would-be rescuers, onlookers and the media swarmed to Cave City and Sand Cave. Efforts to save Mr. Collins failed. When rescuers reached him on February 16 he was pronounced dead after two weeks of hell in a lonesome, cold, wet cave.

Often a bit of long-lasting good comes of tragedy. As a result of the publicity surrounding the Collins entrapment came a national effort to establish Mammoth Cave National Park. Focus on the cave area as a tourist destination was enhanced by the entrapment and death of Floyd Collins.

I had occasion some years ago to search the files of The Hart County Herald from the late 1920's. While looking for information about the banking rivalry in Horse Cave, I was amazed at the amount of newspaper space given to the idea of a national park. Not only were there stories about the campaign, but also local banks and other businesses rivaled one another in their advertising to proclaim their support for a park.

The other entrapment took place in the spring of 1955 -- thirty years after the death of Floyd Collins and some twenty miles away. Michael Angelo Fancher, a Metcalfe County schoolteacher and principal took a student to visit a cave in Metcalfe County. The cave is located near Sulphur Well off Kentucky 70.

Two rocks weighing approximately 800 and 1000 pounds, which fell on him breaking his back, trapped Mr. Fancher.

The student ran to a neighbor for help. A rescue operation was mounted headed by William T. Austin of the Cave Research Foundation and manager of Floyd Collins Crystal Cave and A. F. Houston, chief ranger at Mammoth Cave.

Mr. Austin directed the rescue inside the cave while Mr. Houston coordinated efforts on the surface. Leo Hunt and Leo Furlong, tour leaders at Mammoth Cave, and Henry Porter, assisted them. The fact that Mr. Fancher was rescued and that no member of the rescue team was injured is a tribute to the rescue techniques developed by Mr. Austin and the CRF and to the skill of the assembled team.

By this time the Cave Research Foundation had been organized to support cave exploration and research, and to develop cave safety and rescue techniques designed to avoid a repeat of the Floyd Collins tragedy.

The park service had pretty much forbidden exploration within Mammoth Cave, so the CRF operated out of the Thomas family's Crystal Cave property on Flint Ridge -- surrounded by, but not yet a part of, the national park.

The operation, which succeeded in the rescue of Mr. Fancher, was a joint operation. The rescue techniques developed by CRF and used on that occasion by both parties had a lot to do with establishing the validity of the work of CRF.

After 1955 the park service and CRF were able to work in an atmosphere of growing mutual respect. As the final properties were taken into the park, the CRF work in the exploration of the Flint Ridge system was expanded so that the discovery of the connection between Flint Ridge and Mammoth Cave in 1972 would be possible.

As the Collins rescue assisted the formation of the national park, so the Fancher rescue opened valuable channels of communication and respect resulting in a major advance in cave exploration, cave science, and cave safety.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney -

This story was posted on 2015-06-28 04:24:35
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