following article was provided to me back in the 1970’s and was
taken from an old book on Mammoth Cave supposedly published in the
1870’s. Story presented in John Gorin Volume 1, 1763-1837 by Sandra
Genealogical Publishing, (c) 1998.
“The next map of Mammoth Cave was made by a slave belonging to
Franklin Gorin. Gorin lives in Glasgow Junction, eighteen miles from
the entrance of Mammoth Cave. [Note: Franklin Gorin died in 1877 in
Glasgow KY.] It is said he was the first white child born in that
region. He read law and practiced as an attorney. Given the Kentucky
penchant for suing, he became as wealthy as any merchant, and looked
about for an opportunity to pyramid his money through investment.
“In the spring of 1838 Gorin purchased the Mammoth Cave tract from
the Gratz brothers for $5,000. As tourist manager he retained
Archibald Miller, Jr. The Mammoth Cave Inn was enlarged to
accommodate forty persons, and fences and stables were built. One of
the smartest things he did was to bring in a new cave guide, his own
slave from Glasgow, a black man named Stephen Bishop. Stephen Bishop
became one of the greatest cave explorers in Mammoth Cave history.
His work opened a new era, during which the idea of connection
“Of the dozens of individuals who may have been responsible for
discovering one or more fragments of the caves that would one day be
connected in the Mammoth Cave Plateau, the first about whom we know
is Stephen Bishop. He was a slave sent to Mammoth Cave to make money
for his master, Franklin Gorin. Before Stephen Bishop left Mammoth
Cave, he had acquired an international reputation as a cave
“Slavery in Kentucky reached a high-water mark between 1820 and
1830. Its ebb was the result of large landholders being split as
fathers left farm to sons until farming with slaves on a grand scale
was impossible. Slaves were expensive. A promising young black man
might fetch $2000 at auction; a black woman, $800. And from 1833, a
law forbade the import of slaves into Kentucky. Thus Franklin
Gorin’s investment of a slave in the enterprise at Mammoth Cave was
somewhat unusual for the times.
“Stephen Bishop was a young man of enormous curiosity. He was about
five feet four, lean and hard, with the build of an athlete. In
Mammoth Cave he moved effortlessly across the tumbled rocks. He was
quite intelligent, and was said always to have an assured and
tranquil air. He was a slave who had a quiet pride that did not
offend his master.
“In 1838, Stephen was put to work learning the routes in Mammoth
Cave from Archibald Miller, Jr., and Joseph Shakelford, white guides
who wee sons of former guides. Stephen learned the spiel with no
difficulty, and was soon conducting visitors with ease over two or
three miles of passages.
“The guide uniform of the day was whatever Stephen and the others
could get. Stephen wore a chocolate-covered slouch hat, a jacket for
warmth, and striped trousers. Over his shoulder on a strap swung a
canister of lamp oil. In one hand he carried a basket of provision
for the longer trips – fried chicken, apples, biscuits, and often a
bottle of white lightning for refreshment. In the other hand he
carried an oil lantern – a tin dish holding oil and a wick, with a
small heat shield held above the flame by wires. Above the protector
was a slit through which he slipped his
“Cave guiding was fine work. It was fascinating to talk with the
people who came great distances to see Mammoth Cave. Stephen never
conveyed any boredom with the old trails, but he wondered about the
holes leading off from the commercial routes. He yearned to explore
those beckoning passages.
“As the summer of 1838 wore on, Stephen began to probe the obscure
byways. In a part of Mammoth Cave called the Main Cave, behind an
enormous rock, the Giant’s Coffin, he squeezed into a small room and
down through a crack into a maze of passages beneath. Here he found
the fragments of a burned cane torch and bits of grapevine tie left
by ancient aborigines who had explored Mammoth Cave before him.
Stephen explored the maze until he came to an awesome well-like hole
over 100 feet down. Here he turned back.
“Gorin was pleased with the news. All hands went back to
investigate. Gorin named the new pit Gorin’s Dome, and sent a letter
describing it to the newspapers. The account brought adventures to
Mammoth Cave. Most of them were content to go on the guided tour,
but others would pay to be taken deep into the wild cave.
“Late in October 1838, the air was crisp and cool. The color of the
leaves ignited the forest with blazes of yellow and red. One visitor
to Mammoth Cave, H. C. Stevenson, of Georgetown, Kentucky, spent
several of those brilliant days touring the cave. Stephen told him
the story of the discovery of Gorin’s Dome and of the difficult
descent he had made with two others to the bottom. Stevenson asked
whether Stephen knew of other passages where no men had gone before.
Stevenson wanted to see some real cave. Yes, Stephens aid, he knew
where there was more virgin cave. Did the visitor have guts? Yes,
“Stephen carried a lantern and a basket of provisions. Stevenson
brought another lantern. They entered the cave, walked to the
Giant’s Coffin, crawled behind it into the low room, then they
squeezed through the cave between the wall and the floor, into a
passage where they could walk easily. They continued down the
passage, pausing to toss rocks into the depth of Sidesaddle Pit. The
oil lamp was miserable for seeing any distance, but they did not
need to see the bottom. They could hear how far down it was as rocks
bashed against the walls and exploded into little pieces.
“After returning to the main passage, they soon
reached the brink of Bottomless Pit, a gulf that started as a
vertical shaft on the left side of the passage. The pit extended
across the floor, cutting off further progress. Stevenson tossed a
rock into the void counting to himself. It took 2.5 seconds from the
moment of release, by his best estimate, before the rock splattered
to rest on the bottom. Stevenson held both oil lamps, lighting the
edge of the drop and the six-foot gap that blocked the way to the
continuation of the passage on the other side.
“The two explorers went into a side passage to return with two
cedar-pole ladders. Stephen cleaned off the edge of the hold,
scraping the rocks into Bottomless Pit. They thrust the first of the
ladders across the pit, jamming it on the other side between two
rocks. They rocked the ladder back and forth until the pole ends
were seated. This was the result of the talks about what might be
found if one could cross Bottomless Pit. The more Stephen had
talked, the more Stevenson had wanted to see for himself.
“When all had been prepared, Stephen sat down, straddling the
ladder. He tested it with his weight, rocking forward. It held. Now
he was ready to go. He leaned forward on his hands, scooted forward,
moved his hands forward, and pushed head again. He moved cautiously,
a few inches at a time. Then he was over the void. Stephen moved on
across quickly. There was nothing below to see except darkness. The
pit was in shadow. It might have been more frightening if he could
have seen the bottom, but he was interested in the other side. Now
he rested his feet against the far edge, quickly scooted forward,
and went over on his hands and knees on the other side of Bottomless
Pit. Stephen let out his breath, cleared some rock from the edge,
and then told Stevenson to come across. Stevenson bridged the second
ladder over the drop. It was longer and seemed safer. For an instant
his light showed the depth of the pit, and then he also was across.
“While Stevenson rested a moment, Stephen checked around the corner.
Here he found another chasm, this one quite narrow. It could be
jumped. Stevenson joined him to pause at the brink, then each in
turn stepped smoothly across. So far so good. They had certainly
moved far beyond the tourist realm. The actual distance back to the
tourist trail was not far, but the formidable barriers they had
crossed had taken them deep into an unknown underground wilderness.
“Stephen was now eager to explore. The last time he had gone off the
beaten track he had found an exciting new cave, much to the pleasure
of his master and himself. There had not been the risk that time.
Now he had crossed a deep pit, taking a paying customer with him.
The element of risk and the lure of the cave excited them both.
“The two explorers set off through an oval passage in which an old
stream had left banks of gravel. The passage was tilted downward,
taking them deeper into the earth. They went on into a high, dry
crouchway. The passage narrowed to only a few feet wide, and the
ceiling pushed them down into a stoop. The smoke from the oil lamps
was acrid, so they held the lamps at arm’s length as the crack
narrowed to a very tight squeeze. They forced their way to the top
of a narrow canyon, watching to keep their legs from getting stuck.
Beyond the narrow place the passage opened up again into a fine,
sand-floor walking passage.
“After several hundred feet they entered a mud-floored room that was
the junction of several passages. It was an ideal situation for
satisfying Stevenson’s deepest desires. Stephen stood back as
Stevenson walked across first, putting a row of human footprints
into the mud of the damp floor. This is what he had come for, to be
the first man to enter those Stygian realms.
“Then they stood together on the brink of a valley in a passage
thirty feet wide and forty feet high. They could see a stream of
water below. Stephen stooped over and made a mudball. He hurled it
to splash in the deep expanse. They had found the first real river
known in the Mammoth Cave. They named it River Styx. Stephen looked
carefully, examining a possible route downward along one wall to the
water. But that would be for later. Stevenson had had his day. It
was time to leave the cave. Stephen would come back later.
“The two retraced their steps to the junction. Here the right hand
led up a sandy slope. Stephen scampered up, pausing to see that the
passage at the top led onward to the left and also branched to the
right again. The passages were wide open for exploration and were
very tempting. Nevertheless, they had the crossing back over
Bottomless Pit to make. Until that traverse became more familiar,
explorers would feel very remote to this part of Mammoth Cave. One
last look, and they then crossed their rough bridge again.
“Back at the inn, they told of their adventures. Stephen stood back
while Stevenson talked. Gorin was ecstatic, partly over the
contagious excitement of Stephen and Stevenson, and party because
Stephen had – in a few months – discovered more new cave passages in
Mammoth Cave than all the other guides together. From the merry,
confident look in Stephen’s eyes, Gorin knew there was more to come.
“Stephen had established himself as a great cave explorer. But if he
were promoted as the first great caver in America, he himself knew
better. He had found evidence that prehistoric people had explored
far back into Mammoth Cave. And he knew that more than eight miles
of Mammoth Cave had been explored before he was born, by men whose
names he probably knew, but which are now lost to us. Most of the
former discoveries, however, were made in easy walking passages. The
dimension Stephen added was that of the publicity given to them were
the starting point of a kind of tenacious modern exploration. He
pushed, relentlessly through every passage that was in any way
passable, in hopes of finding big discoveries beyond.
“During the slack tourist days that followed the crossing, a bridge
of cedar poles was constructed across Bottomless Pit. Now many long
trips were made into the near area of Mammoth Cave, to discover,
explore, and name Pensacola Avenue, Bunyan’s Way, Winding Way, the
Great Relief Hall, and deep into the depths, the mud-encased River
Styx. Mammoth Cave had exploded. Stephen explored continuously
through the winter.
‘Where others feared, Stephen cautiously kicked his heels into the
mud slope leading down to River Styx. He could see the bottom
through the water after his eyes grew accustomed to the reflections
of the ceiling. One remarkable discovery was that the new river
contained blind white fish a few inches long. Stephen caught some
for exhibit. He waded across the river, climbed the mud bank on the
other side, and found an opening leading to a crouchway. It would be
another place to explore when the bigger river passes had all been
“Gorin was most pleased. In one winter, Stephen had doubled the
known length of the Mammoth Cave. If newspapers editors had gone
wild over accounts of the discovery of Gorin’s Dome, what would they
make of these sensational new discoveries?
“Gorin wasted no time. From Thomas Bransford of Nashville, he hired
two slaves for $100 a year each. These slaves, Matterson Bransford
and Nicholas Bransford, were trained by Stephen to guide on the
tourist trails of Mammoth Cave. Stephen was a good teacher, and the
new guides wee soon operating completely.
“Tourists began to arrive in the spring of 1839. Gorin’s inn was
overwhelmed and the guide force was kept busy with the steady stream
of visitors. They came on horseback and by wagon from Bell’s Tavern
on the main highway. These were good times in Kentucky. Gorin saw
the business increasing, and concluded that he had better invest
more capital in Mammoth Cave, or perhaps sell it to a favored
Franklin Gorin did sell the cave to Dr. John Croghan, a distant
relative, from Louisville. He offered Stephen his freedom many
times, but Stephen liked it the way it was. He chose to stay at the
cave and work with Dr. Croghan who was to set up an experimental
tuberculosis hospital in the cave, trusting that the constant
temperatures and humidity would be a cure. It was doomed to failure
with nearly everyone dying. Stephen was set free in 1856 but he
never made it to Liberia where he had been saving to go with his
wife and family, he died in 1857 and is buried at the cave. His
widow remained near the cave and later married another cave guide by
the name of William Garvin. Stephen’s name is carved or smoked
throughout the cave, normally right next to Franklin’s name. One
graffiti found fairly recently showed his signature as Stephen
Gorin. Before his death, Stephen drew a map of Mammoth Cave that was
extremely accurate; copies are still available. He was often called
‘The Columbus of Mammoth Cave.” Stephen claimed a French/black
heritage, from pictures it appears that he was likely mulatto. His
parentage is unknown.
Emancipation Orders for the slaves of Jno Croghan
wrote of Stephen before his death: “I placed a guide in the cave –
the celebrated Stephen, and he aided in making the discoveries. He
was the first person who ever crossed the Bottomless Pit, and he,
myself, and another person whose name I have forgotten, were the
only persons ever at the bottom of Gorin’s Dome to my knowledge. “
In other statements, Franklin stated that Stephen was extremely well
educated, spoke several languages, understood Latin and was the
lady’s choice as guide when they came to the cave.
In 1991, Mammoth
Cave celebrated its 50th anniversary as a national park.
My daughters and I visited Mammoth Cave National Park and stopped to
listen to a program put on by the older tour guides. After their
presentation, I spoke to the park historian, introduced my daughters
as closely related to Franklin Gorin and told him that back in 1960
I had taken a long tour of the cave and remembered a place called
Gorin’s Dome – this being many years before I had married a Gorin.
This gentleman introduced us to several others as they recognized
the name and a quiet discussion was held, including the author of
“The Longest Cave” and other fine books on Mammoth Cave, Richard
Brucker. We were approached and asked if we could stay around until
the next tour and explained that Gorin’s Dome and the Bottomless Pit
had not been on a regular tour for many years. We said yes, and were
told to get in line for the next Historical Tour at no charge. We
were told to go back to the end of the line. The tour started and we
walked down with about 40 others, the old steps to the entrance of
the cave. The tour started when the “trailer” came up to us and
asked if we were the Gorin family. A trailer is the guide who
follows a large group into the cave to be sure nothing happens to
anyone. When we identified ourselves, he motioned for us to follow
him. We went over to the Giant’s Coffin mentioned in the article
above, not too deep into the tour. We walked through a narrow
passage behind the coffin where sitting on the floor of the cave
were three hard hats with lanterns, knee pads and other equipment.
And yes, he was taking us to Gorin’s Dome. We walked, crawled,
shinnied and squeezed for what seemed like a long time before our
guide came to a halt. He then picked up about a dozen torches which
he threw up into the air as high as he could and there, illuminated
in the fire of the torch, was Gorin’s Dome. He repeated this several
times so I could take some photographs. We turned around and there
was the Bottomless Pit. It was such an awesome experience – one
could, in the darkness, sense the very presence of Stephen as he
gazed upon this wondrous site, first discovered by dear Stephen
Bishop. We shall never forget the experience.