Stephen Bishop wasn't the first to explore Mammoth Cave, and he wasn't the first tour guide. But he discovered and mapped many miles of Mammoth Cave, named its features, and guided tourists through the depth for twenty years. No one knew more about the cave than Bishop, although two guides he trained came close. None of the three had any say in their career choice, because they were slaves.
In 1838, Bishop, then 17, was brought to the cave by his owner, Franklin Gorin, a lawyer who wanted to turn the site into a tourist attraction. Using ropes and a flickering lantern, Bishop traversed the unknown caverns, discovering tunnels, crossing black pits, and sailing on Mammoth’s underground rivers. It was dangerous work. While today much of the cave is lit by electrical lights and cleared of rubble, Bishop faced a complex honeycomb filled with sinkholes, cracks, fissures, boulders, domes and underwater springs. A blown-out lantern meant isolation in profound darkness and silence. With no sensory impute, the threat of becoming permanently lost was very real. Yet it’s hard to overstate Bishop’s influence; some of the branches he explored weren’t found again until modern equipment was invented and the map he made by memory of the cave was used for decades.
As Mammoth Cave was developed for tourism, Bishop led so many people through its wonders that he became a celebrity. Read about Stephen Bishop and his exploits in the world's longest cave at Smithsonian.
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