Connections: The storied death of Floyd Collins
Posted: February 26, 2013
When I was a young girl of about 10 in the early 1960s, my heart melted over a tragic song about a man who died after being trapped in a cave.
I pictured the poor man dying in the dark, damp space when I was trying to fall asleep at night.
My father sometimes sang the song, along with other old ballads and spirituals, while we traveled in our Volkswagen bus on summer vacations. It was one way to keep a carload of five children busy on annual trips from Pennsylvania to visit our grandparents in Missouri.
At one point I could sing that song by heart. But, over the years the memory faded until it was jarred loose for some reason last week while I was playing some old tunes on the piano.
I distinctly remembered the pathos in the song, that it had a moral tone, and that it was about a caving accident, but I couldn’t recall the man’s name or the tune.
I asked my father, now 88, over the weekend, and he knew immediately the song I meant, remembered teaching it to us, but couldn’t recall the name, either.
After about a half hour of idle chatter, during which I could tell he was distracted, he blurted out the name: Floyd Collins. Minutes later, he proudly dug out the old 78 rpm record with the Victor record label recorded by Andrew Jenkins and Vernon Dalhart, and we listened to the scratchy, plaintive whine of a country song called “Death of Floyd Collins”:
Oh, come all ye young people and listen while I tell,
The fate of Floyd Collins, the lad we all knew well,
His face was fair and handsome, his heart was true and brave,
His body now lies sleeping in a lonely sandstone cave.
Oh, mother don’t you worry, dear father don’t be sad,
I’ll tell you all my troubles in an awful dream I had,
I dreamed I was a prisoner, my life I could not save,
I cried “Oh must I perish within this silent cave?”
The song went on to describe the heroic, but failed, rescue effort and ended with a lesson:
Young people, all take warning from Floyd Collins’ fate,
And get right with your maker before it is too late.
It may not be a sand cave in which we find our tomb,
But on that day of judgment, we, too, must meet our doom.
My father knew only that the song was written about an incident in 1925 in a Kentucky cave.
In these magical days of the Internet, it was possible to quickly fill in some fascinating gaps.
William Floyd Collins, 38, a local farmer and caver, was trapped Jan. 30, 1925, about 55 feet deep in a narrow crawlway of a sandstone cave in central Kentucky, an area that is pockmarked with caves. His family owned the Crystal Cave, which was in a remote area, and he was looking for a way to feed into the much larger cave system known today as the Mammoth Cave National Park.
Reporters flocked to the region, the ongoing rescue effort became a national newspaper saga, and it was the first major news story touted as urgent breaking bulletins on the newfangled technology called the radio.
Collins was trapped when a rock fell, pinning his leg. At first, rescuers were able to bring him food and water, but a subsequent rockfall blocked the route, and he died 14 days after entering the cave of thirst, exposure and starvation.
Workers remained in voice contact with him to the end, but could not reach him. His body was finally brought out of the cave in April.
His tombstone is inscribed: “The Greatest Cave Explorer Ever Known.”
The story inspired not only the song, but a musical and, even now, a Web page.
This is one of a million reasons why it is wonderful to have a parent who has lived a long life. They can confirm or deny your childhood memories. What’s more, they can relive them with you.