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Horse Cave, Kentucky

Many American towns and cities typically sprouted up along a railroad, a river, river crossings, a stop along a trading path, or a stagecoach trail.  Horse Cave, Kentucky is different.  Horse Cave is built above a cave and surrounds a three-story-deep sinkhole that leads into Hidden River Cave.

The town was settled and laid out by Major Albert Anderson.  Anderson asked that it be named 'Horse Cave' - it is suggested that in the mid-19th century, the word 'Horse' and 'Hoss' was used to name large-sized things.  Other explanations include that Native Americans used the cave to corral horses or after a nearby horse trough.

The name Horse Cave was not always popular - attempts to rename the town to 'Caverna' in the 1860s were unsuccessful.  The cave's owners - the family of Dr. George A. Thomas - did not like the name 'Horse Cave' and renamed the geological formation Hidden River Cave.

The home of Dr. George A. Thomas - former owner of Hidden River Cave.

Hidden River Cave was a natural and economic resource for Horse Cave.  The water from the underground streams served as drinking water.  Later, a turbine was installed, providing electricity to the community.  Hidden River Cave would become a tourist attraction, with the first public cave tours starting in 1912.

Unfortunately, the cave was also where residents would dump garbage and sewage.  Townspeople and outside residents would dump the waste into sinkholes and other passages within the cave system.  The water system would be undrinkable by the mid-1930s, and the public tours of Hidden River Cave halted in 1943.

A well-intended sewage treatment plant opened in the 1960s led to more pollution within the cave system.  Wastewater pumped into dry wells funneled into the cave, expanding the problem.  The stench from the polluted cave drove away patrons to many of the downtown businesses.

A new sewage treatment plant opened in 1989. A few years later, species native to the cave began returning.  By 2015, the groundwater was near drinking water standards.

With the cave system recovering, efforts began to return Hidden River Cave to public tours.  The American Cave Conservation Association moved its headquarters to Horse Cave and continued the preservation and restoration efforts.  The cave reopened in 1993, and as a result of successful restoration efforts - tours were extended to the ultimate goal of reaching Sunset Dome.

Downtown Horse Cave is home to over 50 structures currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition to Hidden River Cave and the American Cave Museum, there is an above-ground walking tour of Downtown telling the story of the Horse Cave, Hidden River Cave, and the people and events of the community's colorful history.

Horse Cave is a community of roughly 2300 people and is the largest town in Hart County.  Along with the caverns, Horse Cave sits on the old Dixie Highway, which attracts many roadtrippers all year.

All photos taken by post author - June 23, 2024.

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