Kentucky. In the center of that Common Wealth. At the crossroads. The Green River running west, and Interstate 65 north and south. You have driven passed Munfordville many times. Why didn’t you stop?
Confederate General Braxton Bragg and Union General Don Carlos Buell stopped there. Fought there. For there is where the Louisville and Nashville Railroad crosses the Green River. And if you were moving a great army against lands either north or south in that great Civil War, you stopped at Munfordville. I do too, often. To swim in the Green River there.
This is a Vernian world. And by that, I mean one full in opportunities and imagination. An ancient land, an underlain, drained land. A surface with hills and holes, cracks and crannies. And black speckled orange salamanders beckoning you to enter the deep, down below. This is cave country. A frontier of dark passages only partially discovered. Unexplored.
Like that ridge you just crossed, riding south with the Union troops to dislodge the Confederates at Bowling Green. But the Confederates had left, for Union General Ulysses S. Grant had already taken the waterway west into Nashville. And an even more southerly river would now hold sway of the lives passing this way. Shiloh.
Did you notice that there were no streams draining, and no creeks crossing that long valley just south of Munfordville? Water there drips down through the pores of land in a rocky colander to collect in the Kingdom of the Hidden River. Its giant cave maw commands your presence at its massive lips, where you can cool your mounts and want for its underworld secrets. Be brave, sip of its waters, enter those hidden places reached through its mouth in Horse Cave, Kentucky!
That cave is what drew David Foster and his American Cave Conservation Association here in 1987. To save the cave, for it had become a drain for human waste; whether grain, animal, or industrial debris. “Out of sight, out of mind.”
I suppose that is understandable of those who don’t know, didn’t know, what was below. The wonder and the wilderness there. The “blood” flow of the land within. Land that supports such a thin paste of humans spread out on top like jelly and jam. Not alone of the life that’s lived here. Just a smattering of those layered on top.
But here is a great story of what we can do when we find something’s wrong. It is the Caveland Sanitation Authority, a municipal-sized wastewater treatment plant collecting waste from Mammoth Cave, Horse Cave, Cave City, Park City, and the industries surrounding them. Treating and piping cleaned water to the Green River downstream from Munfordville, not far from where the mysterious Hidden River releases its water burden.
Go ahead. You can now enter the Hidden River Cave through the town of Horse Cave. The fumes are gone. The American Cave Conservation Association has built a wonderful museum there through which you can enter down. Put on your helmet, and they will take you in. Leave the suspension bridge and seek a wild, guided, “lead.” There is unexplored cave down there. Wiggle in.
This is Green River country. The “Upper Green” flows along within the hilly, curvy limestone of the Mississippian Plateau. Early pioneers named the area the “Pennyroyal” for a medicinal mint that looked similar to one back home in Europe.
Freshwater mussels live here in the river. It is one of the worldwide centers of mussel evolution. There were perhaps 103 species in Kentucky at one time. There may be 54 or so still living in the Upper Green. But we have been rough on our environment, especially when we are ignorant of the diversity of life cradled within.
Go ahead and get in that river. There is a canoe livery at the Thelma Stovall Park on the Green River in Munfordville. They will rent you a canoe and take you up past an area called “300 Springs,” and put you in the water. You will be pleased by that piece of Middle Earth as you float by. And start learning to identify those mussels. They will speak to you of lives lived in these waters, and invite you back as friends. I can recognize more than twenty of them!
Munfordville lies near the edge of a great rise to sandstone ridges. You have seen them to the west as you have ridden along the Interstate. Get off the freeway and head up west. Into the Dripping Spring Escarpment. Up into the sandstone!
Mammoth Cave lies hidden under that sandstone “cap.” But today, head to Cub Run, Kentucky, a crossroads just west of Munfordville, through the many Amish farms there. Fertile, productive farms growing vegetables that you can buy at the Hart County Produce Auction. Odds are good that, in Louisville, much of your dinner was grown on their land!
Well, how to get to this magical Munfordville? How would Jules Verne land here? Perhaps some distances and directions will help.
Munfordville is 1,470 miles from the Zuni Pueblo west in New Mexico. The home of Kentucky author, Janice Holt Giles, lies 51 miles to the southwest in Knifley, Kentucky. Thomas Jefferson’s Big Bone Lick lies just off the Ohio River, 154 miles to the north. The Beech Narrows of the Rockcastle River can be found 108 miles to the east in Kentucky. And the “Old Fort Earthworks” lies 229 miles to the northeast in Kentucky, opposite the mouth of the Scioto River in Ohio. And one hundred and twenty miles to the northwest, you will find the old water diversion tunnel, dug through a “Devil’s Backbone” of a sandstone ridge along the Little Blue River in Indiana.
So pull off the freeway at the Munfordville exit. You will feel the history surround you as you sit on the courthouse wall. The town has been patient, awaiting your return. Go down to the river and meet the mussels.
Had he known of these wonders, Jules Verne would be sitting there with you too!