In the last 200 years, Lost River Cave has been used as a site for mills, a camp for Civil War soldiers and a nightclub.
But its history begins thousands of years ago, long before the founding of Bowling Green.
Arrowheads and other artifacts discovered by archaeologists indicate prehistoric nomadic Indian tribes used the cave as a source for shelter and water while they hunted in the nearby forest, according to Lost River Cave’s online history.
The first modern use of the cave was as a spot for mills. Though it’s unclear exactly when the first mill was built at the cave, there are records of several mills operating there throughout the 19th century, producing different products including flour and wool, according to the online history. The first mills sat inside the cave, while later structures were built on top of the arched cave entrance.
A sawmill at the cave was how the community discovered that Lost River empties out at Jennings Creek, because people started seeing sawdust at the creek, said Raymond Cravens, professor emeritus at Western Kentucky University and one of the original members of Friends of Lost River, which formed in 1990 to preserve the cave and valley.
“That’s when they realized the river extended under the city,” Cravens said.
Today, the cave has been mapped to almost its full extent, which is about seven miles, said Annie Holt, a naturalist at Lost River Cave. The river extends through most of it, though there are some dry passages.
“One reason we’ve formed the way we have is because of the Lost River chert,” Holt said. Chert is a type of rock that does not easily disintegrate over time, making it difficult for water to penetrate chert. As a result, the river got wider instead of deeper, creating a large valley.
During the Civil War, both Confederate and Union troops camped out at the cave and valley, using the river as a source of water, Cravens said. It was one of the few water sources south of the Barren River.
During the five-month Confederate occupation of Bowling Green, rebel soldiers used Lost River Cave as a camp and training ground, according to the online history. Later, nearly 40,000 Union soldiers camped around the cave and valley from 1862 to 1865. The men crawled through the cave, writing their names, ranks and companies on the ceilings and walls.
The next major use of the cave was as a nightclub, which opened in the 1930s and brought national attention to Bowling Green, said Rho Lansden, executive director of Lost River Cave. Since the cave stays naturally cool, Billboard magazine wrote a story about the club, naming it as one of the only air-conditioned nightclubs in the country at the time.
The club could hold several hundred people and included a stage, bar and dance floor in the mouth of the cave, Lansden said.
“Nationally recognized bands were playing here in the nightclub times,” Lansden said.
The Dixie Highway, a major route linking the North and South, also brought visitors to the cave during the years it was a nightclub, she said. Motor courts, or small motels with cabins, popped up along the highway near the cave.
The cave also gained attention because of a local legend that outlaw Jesse James hid in the cave after robbing the Southern Deposit Bank in Russellville in the 1860s. However, Lansden said it’s unlikely that legend is true. It’s more likely James knew someone in the area and stayed at that person’s house to avoid being caught.
The nightclub in the cave closed in the late 1950s due to several factors, according to the online history. The construction of Interstate 65 took traffic away from the Dixie Highway, air conditioning was no longer rare and rock music was taking the place of swing music, which was played at the club.
For more than 30 years after the nightclub closed, Lost River Cave was neglected, and by the 1980s, it had become a dumping ground, according to the online history. In 1990, the Friends of Lost River was created to clean up the cave, and it opened for public tours in 1995.
The Friends of Lost River built a dam in 1998 as an experiment to see if the water could be made deep enough for boats to enter the cave, Holt said. Before the dam, the water was ankle to knee deep. In 2010, the dam was rebuilt to be a more engineered structure.
The boat tours offered at the cave are just one way the cave remains special today, Cravens said.
“That’s one of the secrets to its popularity,” he said.
In addition to cave tours, Lost River Cave hosts events and has a nature center with trails and a butterfly habitat.
“It’s a natural phenomenon that’s very significant,” Cravens said. “It’s a very important community asset.”