June, 1850. In the deep quiet of Mammoth Cave, a group of men and women look at the weird formations around them revealed by lantern light. They have walked nine miles into the cave, and they will walk the same distance out only to be greeted in the night by a heavy spring rain falling on the Kentucky countryside. Among them is a tall thin man of fifty with a quiet, scholarly bearing. He is Ralph Waldo Emerson, the noted essayist, poet, and Transcendentalist philosopher, far from his home in the peaceful village of Concord, Massachusetts. Emerson had journeyed into the upper south with some literary friends from Cincinnati after concluding a lecture series there. His trip to Mammoth Cave seems to have been the highlight of his 1850 lecture trip to the Midwest, and his experience of Mammoth Cave would be discussed in the opening paragraphs of his essay “Illusions.”
Lecture tours were an important part of Emerson’s career. Many nineteenth century authors went on the lecture stage to read and speak. It was a way to bring in additional income and to connect with the reading public. These public performances were part of the lyceum movement, an important aspect of nineteenth century culture and antebellum adult education. People would regularly attend events at local halls to hear debates, lectures, and dramatic performances or recitations. The word “lyceum” can mean both a hall that features lectures and discussions or an organization that provides events such as lectures and debates.
Ralph Waldo Emerson left the peace of Concord for his trip to Cincinnati in early May, just a few weeks short of his fiftieth birthday. Emerson had just finished some lectures in the east and was in no hurry to go back on the road, but he received a letter from Cincinnati entreating him to come there and the letter was accompanied by a hundred signatures. Emerson was curious to see the “west” and decided to make the trip. He traveled by train to Buffalo, then boarded a steamer bound for Sandusky, Ohio, but the steamer caught fire on Thursday, May 16 and docked temporarily in Cleveland. Word got around that Emerson was on board and members of the Cleveland Library Association persuaded him to give a lecture. Emerson did so for free, performing his lecture entitled “England.”
Emerson left Cleveland on Friday, May 17, traveling on the steamer Saratoga and enjoying a “rough pleasant ride over the lake to Sandusky.” At five o’clock the next morning he boarded a train for Cincinnati. Emerson was fascinated by the countryside through which he traveled en route to the Queen City:
“Beautiful road, grand old forest, beeches, immense black walnuts, oaks, rock maples, buckeyes in bloom, cornels (dogwood) in white flower, & red buds—a forest tree whose bloom is precisely the colour of the peach blossom,—made all the miles rich with beauty; enormous grapevines I saw too! Most of the houses were log-huts, with log-barns. Cities are everywhere much the same thing, but this forest is very unlike ours. The land was all heavy with wood, and, of course, the poor Germans buy it with confidence that it will bear wheat and corn.”
Emerson stayed at a hotel called the Burnet House in Cincinnati. He described it to his wife Lidian as a “magnificent hotel, the best & largest building of that kind I have ever seen.” By 1850, Cincinnati had become known for both commerce and culture. It was also home to many transplanted New Englanders, and an unusually large number of subscriptions to The Dial, the famous Massachusetts Transcendentalist publication, came from the city. Emerson would return to the city many times during the remainder of his career. On this trip, Emerson lectured to large audiences in a Universalist church. His lecture topics included “Natural Aristocracy,” “Eloquence,” “Books,” “England,” and “Spirit of the Times.” He gave some additional lectures, but a local paper—the Cincinnati Gazette—pronounced them “too abstruse.”
On May 25, Emerson turned fifty years of age and decided to celebrate by visiting the fascinating Hopewell Indian earthworks at Fort Ancient. These earthworks, which are now part of Fort Ancient State Memorial, stand above the Little Miami River in Warren County, Ohio. Emerson enjoyed his time there. “In this sylvan Persepolis, I spent my birthday with a very intelligent party of young men,” wrote Emerson. Before leaving Ohio, the Sage of Concord took some time to cross the Ohio River and view Cincinnati from the opposite bank. He was also fascinated by Kentuckians and their tall-tale brand of frontier humor.
Emerson’s Cincinnati friends invited him on another excursion—to Mammoth Cave. They left Cincinnati on June 4 aboard a steamboat called the Ben Franklin and spent the night in Louisville, where they procured Roman candles for their visit to the cave—these were to be fired into the high reaches of the cave, illuminating formations. Next day they took the steamboat Mammoth Cave down the Ohio to Evansville, Indiana, then went 150 miles up the Green and Barren Rivers to Bowling Green, Kentucky.
This trip lasted from Wednesday afternoon to Saturday morning. Early on Sunday morning they took a thirty-five mile coach ride to the cave, arriving there by 7:30 A.M. Emerson described the party he traveled with as “seventeen gentlemen and ladies, including three Englishmen.” Emerson writes that each was provided a lamp, and that their guide was “Stephen”—this was undoubtedly Stephen Bishop, an enslaved man who had garnered renown for his explorations of Mammoth cave and was generally the regular guide at the time Emerson visited.
The party entered the cave, traveling nine miles in, and then nine miles back out. In Emerson’s words: “From the mouth of the cave to Serena’s Arbour, which was our farthest point, is nine miles, and we returned all the way on our own steps, an 18 miles’ walk performed in 14 hours.” Emerson saw the graffiti left by earlier visitors. The travelers fired their Roman candles, and Bishop illuminated some formations using a kind of pyrotechnic called a Bengal light. Emerson and his friends saw notable features of the cave still accessible to tourists today, such as The Star Chamber and Gorin’s Dome. They emerged from the cave to find a heavy late-spring rain falling. Emerson, quoting Transcendentalist poet Ellery Channing, mused that they had lost a day “of our bright lives” in the deep reaches of the caverns.
Emerson was so intrigued with the cave that he went back in the next day for another four hours. After his explorations ended, he walked seven miles to Bell’s Tavern. Next morning he and some companions walked another fourteen miles before they found a buggy to take them to Bowling Green. Emerson then went by stage to Eddyville, took a steamboat from there on the Cumberland River to Paducah, Kentucky, then transferred to another steamboat that took him on to Cairo, Illinois, where the Ohio enters the Mississippi.
Emerson was struck by the vastness of the river and the absence of human life along its banks. He wrote that for long periods he saw “no towns, no houses, no dents in the forest, no boats almost,–we met, I believe but one steamboat in the first hundred miles.” Emerson was getting a firsthand glimpse of raw frontier America. Most of the steamboats he traveled on were rickety and poorly constructed affairs—it’s amazing that many of them served as well as they did, but steamboat accidents and explosions were a common hazard with 19th century American river travel.
A number of planters and gamblers were traveling on his vessel. One planter had his family and six slaves along with him and carried a pistol, the butt of which could be seen extending out of his breast pocket. Gamblers worked the old con of pretending not to know one another with the goal of persuading gullible passengers to sit down with them. Many of the passengers carried weapons.
Emerson reached St. Louis, but soon learned that most of the people in his hotel were dying of cholera. He took another steamboat to Galena, Illinois, a stage to Elgin, and then a train that crossed the prairie to Chicago. Emerson was exhausted at this point, and the extent of his Chicago explorations was a short buggy ride along the beach of Lake Michigan. He eventually took the Central Michigan Railroad to Detroit, enjoying the ride with John M. Forbes, president of the railroad. Then Emerson once again boarded a steamboat to Buffalo and then took the railroad back to Boston.
By the morning of June 28, a Friday, Emerson had arrived back in Concord. It had been a grueling but rewarding trip. But within two years he would be back out on the road, heading deeper into the west. In an interesting side chapter of literary history, on this next trip he would meet a fellow Massachusetts Yankee in St. Louis, a Unitarian minister and civic leader named Willliam Greenleaf Eliot. This man would have a grandson named Thomas Stearns Eliot—the man we know as T.S. Eliot, one of the great poets of the twentieth century.
Waldo Emerson by Gay Wilson Allen. Penguin, 1981.
Emerson: The Mind On Fire by Robert D. Richardson Jr. University of California Press, 1995.
“Ralph Waldo Emerson At Mammoth Cave: Essayist Describes 1850 Visit to ‘Great Hole in the Ground.’ ” The Regional Review, Vol. 3, No. 3, September, 1939. National Park Service (archival document online).