Bio- Stephen Bishop

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The 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 K. Gorin, Gorin 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 emerged.


                “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 explorer.


                “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 index finger.


                “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, indeed.


                “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 looked at.


                “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 buyer.”


Followup:  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.

See Also: Emancipation Orders for the slaves of Jno Croghan


Franklin Gorin 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.