Rockcastle County Cave is rarely open to visitors

LIVINGSTON, Ky. (FOX 56) – Neena Jud holds the keys to hidden treasure. She is one of the few people with access to the Great Saltpeter Cave in Rockcastle County, which used to have daily visitors.

“The cave opened as a tourist attraction in 1938,” Jud said.

And before the arrival of tourists, it was a construction site for miners, many of whom were slaves.

“There were up to 70 people here, seven days a week, 24 hours a day, from 1805 to 1815,” Jud said.

The cave was a source of saltpeter, a mineral used in the manufacture of gunpowder, in great demand during the War of 1812.

After the war the cave was largely ignored, although graffiti shows that explorers continued to find their way.

Jud is part of a group of volunteer conservators who manage the cave and the surrounding woods. It is owned by the Greater Cincinnati Grotto, which works to protect the grotto along with the Blue Grass Grotto, Dayton Underground Grotto, and Central Ohio Grotto.

She considers it an honor to be able to take care of such a private place.

“It’s an exploration,” she said. “It’s wonderful to be able to see things that very few people actually see.”

Things like the only living part of the cave, where water is constantly dripping, creating formations.

This mysterious place also has a history that the guardians know well.

Jud will tell you that the last time the cave really rocked was in the mid-1900s, after John Lair, the founder of the nearby Renfro Valley Barn Dance, bought it and opened it for tours. He also staged many concerts and dances in the largest hall, called Echo Auditorium.

“You can imagine how wonderful it would be in the 40s and 50s to be able to come to this nice, cool environment to be able to hear a performer on stage,” Jud said.

But the music stopped and the cave was closed in 1970 when I-75 took travelers several miles from the cave entrance.


Now it’s rare to get in here. Speleologists still get permission to explore narrow passages, archaeologists still search for pieces of its past. In 1997, the cave was used as a coal mine in Steven Segal’s film, “Fire Down Below”. Some of the rocks in the Great Hall today are actually leftover props, made of wood and Styrofoam.

“This cave has been an integral part of the community for centuries,” Jud said.

The curators are even restoring the historic ticket office, not because they expect this cave to be the attraction it once was, but because they want to honor the past. In the land of caves, there will always be those who deeply love what lies beneath the surface.

“The planet’s surface changes regularly, month to month, season to season,” Jud said. “But in a cave, it’s much slower to change. It’s just fascinating.

The Great Saltpeter Cave holds a free open day one weekend in May, but the last one was in 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There will be an open house on May 14 and 15, 2022. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day.

Directions to the Grotto of the Great Saltpeter:

  • I-75 to exit 59 (Mt Vernon/Livingston).
  • Go east on Route 25 for about 100 yards.
  • Turn left onto Route 1004, and
  • continue on Route 1004 for approximately 4 miles until it comes to a “T” (just past the RR tracks and cement bridge).
  • Turn right and continue approximately 5 miles further to the Great Saltpetre Reserve.

About Keith Johnson

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