While perusing the records of Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery for a recent reference inquiry, I was suddenly struck by the cemetery’s name – Cave Hill, and wondered, “Is there actually a cave at Cave Hill?”
Caves have always been a source of minor fascination for me - not an allure that led me into geology or serious study of them, but enough of an interest for me to want to do the touristy visit time after time. As a child, I remember requesting that we see the caves near my aunt’s home in central West Virginia every year – and so we regularly visited Seneca Caverns in Riverton and Smoke Hole Caverns in Seneca Rocks, West Virginia. By the time I was in late grade school, I was practically able to give the tour, and was annoyed when the teenaged tour guide working at the Caverns for a summer job missed a segment. My favorite part was always near the end of the tour, when the guide would announce “TD” and switch off all of the lights – total darkness!! We visited other caves on other family vacations, but ironically, I have never been to the major cave in my home state, Mammoth Cave [I blame my parents for this oversight].
Given my penchant for caves, I am surprised that I was not intrigued by the Cave Hill name sooner, but I immediately made good use of the resources at The Filson. A quick glance at a 1940s report which included a map indicated that yes, there is a cave on the Cave Hill property.
The Cave Hill Cemetery Records did not provide any more substantial information, and so I turned to published sources. The pamphlet Eternal Vistas: Beautiful Cave Hill, Louisville is a sort of “advertising” brochure for Cave Hill Cemetery dating to the 1940s. A section on the origins of the cemetery indicated that the land was previously called “Cave Hill Farm.” A description of the cave from the brochure reads: “The mouth of the cave opens out of a vine-covered limestone ledge bordering the east shore of the lake near the Administration Building. A tiny stream of clear sparkling water ripples over the rock floor and empties into the lake. The cave is not penetrable except for a very short distance.”
I determined that an actual history of the cemetery might be more informative, and found such in Sam Thomas’s Cave Hill Cemetery: A Pictorial Guide and History of Louisville’s ‘City of the Dead’ (Louisville, Cave Hill Cemetery Co., 2001). Sam’s beautiful history indicated that the name “Cave Hill” was given to the area by William Johnston, who owned and farmed the property and benefited from the strong spring emanating from the cave. The city of Louisville bought the Cave Hill farm in 1835, planning to use the stone quarries on the property and provide land for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. With the transition of plans to the creation of a garden cemetery in the 1840s, the spring came in handy – it fed the section of Beargrass Creek running through the cemetery which was converted into a lake; the spring also lent to the picturesque beauty of the landscape. Sam’s history provide some technical details on the cave – it could be entered on foot for about 30 feet and a crawl space extends for another 45 feet. Was it possible that I could explore Cave Hill’s cave?! But Sam’s description continued – “footing is treacherous, and the cave is off limits.” Oh no! I needed to check this out for myself.
When the February and March rain drenching Louisville finally stopped (or rather, paused?) and I was able to crawl out of my own gloom-induced “cave,” I ventured onto the property on my own quest to find the cave. Unfortunately, as my picture shows, the area outside of the mouth of the cave had flooded, and I was unable to get anywhere near it. I can vouch for it being a particularly lovely spot in the midst of the beautiful and peaceful cemetery; I plan to go back during drier times to get a closer look at Cave Hill’s own cave.