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History of the Great Saltpetre Preserve

Much has been written about the Great Saltpetre Cave and its long history. Certainly volumes more could be as new information is discovered and the known information compared in a new light.

Early History

Great Saltpetre Cave was discovered by Robert Baker in 1798 about a half mile off the Wilderness Road (north of present day Livingston, Kentucky). He is the first recorded discoverer of the Cave, although Native Americans could have known and used the Cave long before this. Within a year of this discovery Baker sold the Cave and some surrounding land to George Montgomery who settled with his family and began to mine the Cave. Meanwhile James Kincaid also claimed ownership of the Cave, but was probably only mining during the winter months. Samuel Brown, a physician living in Lexington, Kentucky heard about the saltpetre being produced and visited James Kincaid in 1802. By the end of 1804, Brown and partners Hart & Pindell purchased the Cave and began making improvements in the saltpetre mining and processing operations.

During the peak of operations, there were over 70 men (many were slaves) working 24/7 to extract the petre dirt and process it into saltpetre. It was reported that this Cave out produced Mammoth Cave, (which it probably did after the New Madrid earthquake in December 1811 when the Mammoth miners were too scared to go underground). The Saltpeter Cave at Carter Caves was also a large producer. During this time, trees in the area were cut down to use for constructing parts of the operation, for firewood, and to use the ashes in the chemical process. As the years went on, it looked bleaker and bleaker in the Crooked Creek Valley. Men had to travel further to obtain trees and hunt for game. The constant fires produced thick, pervasive smog in the valley. This was a military, industrial complex, although no soldiers were stationed here.

The saltpetre was shipped to powder mills where it was blended with sulfur and charcoal to produce gunpowder. After the War of 1812 was over, the British blockade on shipping was removed, and saltpetre from India was readily available again. By 1815 the Eastern Powdermills put a lid on the price they would pay for American saltpetre and it became uneconomical to commercially mine the Cave. When the miners found they would no longer be paid for their labor, they dropped what they were doing and left. The Cave settled back into relative obscurity and for many years was only mined for personal use.

To read more, please follow the link below to a collection of articles and essays concerning the cave's part in the War of 1812, its ownership history, the time it spent as a commercial cave, and more. The cave has even been home to ballroom dances, a museum, and weddings.
Click here to be redirected to the RKC Online Library web page for Great Saltpetre Cave Articles.

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