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

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

And before tourists came, it was a job site for miners, many of them slaves.

“There were as many as 70 in 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 making of gunpowder, which was in great demand during the War of 1812.

After the war, the cave was largely ignored, although graffiti shows explorers kept finding their way in.

Jud is part of a group of volunteer preservationists who manage the cave and the surrounding woodlands. She belongs to the Greater Cincinnati Grotto, which works to protect the cave along with the Blue Grass Grotto, the Dayton Underground Grotto, and the Central Ohio Grotto.

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

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

Things such as the only living part of the cave, where water drips constantly, creating formations.

This place of mystery also has a history that the caretakers know well.

Jud will tell you the last time the cave was really rocking 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 room, called Echo Auditorium.

“You can imagine how wonderful it would be in the 1940s and 50s to be able to come to this nice cool environment to be able to hear a performer on the stage,” said Jud.

But the music ended and the cave was closed by 1970 when I-75 took travelers several miles farther from the cave’s entrance.

MORE SPIRIT OF THE BLUEGRASS:

Now, it’s rare to get in here. Cavers still get permission to explore tight passages, archeologists still look for pieces of its past. In 1997, the cave doubled as a coal mine in the Steven Segal movie, “Fire Down Below.” Some of the boulders in the great room today are actually leftover props, made of wood and styrofoam.

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

The preservationists are even restoring the historic ticket booth, not because they expect this cave to ever be the attraction it once was, but because they want to honor the past. In cave country, there will always be those with a deep down love for what’s hidden below the surface.

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

The Great Saltpetre Cave hosts a free open house one weekend each 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 Great Saltpetre Cave :

  • 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 about 4 miles until it comes to a “T” (Just past RR tracks and cement bridge).
  • Turn right and continue about 5 miles farther to the Great Saltpetre Preserve.