George Hunter's 1802 Account of Great Saltpetre Cave

By: George Hunter (1802, p46-49)

George Hunter writes:

Septr. 13th. 1802 Lexington 1802 Set out for the purpose of Viewing the large Salt Petre Cave of Mr Kincaide on Crooked Creek, a branch of Rock Castle Creek in Maddison County in Company with Dr. Brown, & George
[Hunter, Jr]

...On the Morning of the 15th pursued our route thro & chiefly along the tops of steep ridges - to Mr [James]  Kincaid's house 10 miles, which is situated on Cracked Creek a stream at this season only fit for a Mill Stream - The Land here is very much broken & but little arable amongst it. The stones some sandy & some Limestone -- Here we left our Horses & proceeded about 3/4 of a mile to View the large Cave altho a small Cave be only about 400 yards off - Both are in the Mountain Opposite the House[.] The Mouth of the Large one is about 100 or 150 feet above the level of the Creek on the north side of the Hill; The entrance is first due South then turns S.W. The first impression on entering the Cavern is awful & grand. We descended gradually about 20 feet, through an opening formed by nature, at first small, but gradually & irregularly encreasing. Above & on each side, we see immense shaggy rocks, forming an uneven arch over our heads; The air immediately becomes cool, but not damp, as the moisture is constantly attracted from it by the cold rock which forms the arch [and] here & there hangs like sparkling diamonds. Shortly the ground becomes more level & continues more or less so all the way. This Cave branches to the right & to the left for perhaps the distance of one or two hundred yards -- The top is now & then studded with a white flinty petrifaction formed by the waters of Various shapes & sizes, chiefly like Icicles formed by dropping of water percolating the Mountain for ages. Mr Kinkaid, our guide having provided himself with several splits of pitch pine, kindled them at the mouth & we followed him thro that dark abyss by the light of his pine Torch which answered the purpose very well. We soon came to the Salt Petre earth which covers the bottom of the Cavern of an irregular thickness; in some places one & others ten feet in thickness of various strength to the taste sometimes very sharp strong & bitter & other times & places scarce perceptible to the tast -- The earth resembles yellow clay intermixed with sand & yellow sand gravel. The whole stone Arch & sides appear to be limestone: The very water appending in drops form the arch above taste manifestly nitrous, bitter of nitrate of Lime -- The best earth seems to be that containing the greatest proportion of clay & least sand -- The whole has the appearance of yellow Loamy clay. with Strata of deeper & lighter yellow mixed thro the whole -

The Cave in some places is about 7 feet high, in others about 40 feet & irregularly between these -- & the trenches go until the top & bottom meet. There you find it 100 feet wide & here perhaps not above thirty -- There is a tolerable waggon road thro & thro the mountain perhaps half a mile or rather less in length from the north to the south opening or Mouth of the Cavern -- Here & there are fallen down from above the arched ceiling immense Stones which have been in part moved to make the road. Upon the whole I was much pleased with the Majestic grandeur of Nature which cannot, be equelled by the works of Art. I saw no traces of Any Animals except Rats [;] in some of the lateral branc[h]es was a great quantity of their dung, & in many parts the earth was gnawed evidently by their teeth. -

Altho I could not help calling to mind the Cave of Gil Bias & the stories of the Cavern or burying Caves of Sinbad the Sailor; yet I did not feel any sensation of terror or dread -- Having come throw we decended to crooked Creek on the other side of the Mountain about the same height or perhaps 30 ft. less than the other.

Here we found them at work making salt petre -- The process is (lone in a rude manner as follows viz -- The earth is dragged out of the cave from where it appears strongest impregnated with nitrate of lime in small carts with 2 low wheels. drawn by two oxen which carry out about 150 bushels pr day, down the hill to the creek side where it is put into a sort of hopper which contain about 70 bushels each [.] cold water is put on this & repeated until the ley is extracted; This ley cont[ainin]ig. nitrate of Lime is poured upon wood ashes boiling hot, & the liquor when it appears to precipitate the lime & clear itself, is put into 4, or 5 Iron Kettles, & boiled until it appears fit to christallize when it is poured into hollow wooden troughs for that purpose. -- In this form it is sold, at 12 1/2 to 15 cents pr lb -- It requires to be cristallized once more in order [to] make it fit for gun powder, on one side of the hill they use 18 hoppers for the Nitrous earth & 8 for Ashes [.] on the other side, the works are rather upon a larger scale -- They have each about 16 Kettles rudely fired in stone -- from 4 to 6 in a row & over one fire [,] each pot about 15 Galls. -

They all complain of the difficulty of obtaining ashes as it requires 12 bushels Ashes to one lb Nitre. -- They burn their ashes at a distance & carry them on packhorses to the works. -- We found about 20 hoppers in the cave in two or three places, [illegible] the earth, as we learnt that they found water in some parts of the cave in the winter -when they worked them upon the spot, without the trouble of moving the earth -

Their Hoppers are formed of splits of wood like staves fixed in a square frame terminating in a point, under which is a wooden trough to receive the Ley of Nitrat of Lime -- The Nitrous earth is said to yield from lbs 1 to lbs 3 pr bushel of earth, altho generally averaging lbs 1 1/2 or lbs 2.

A Mr Maxwell of the Forks of the Cumberland -between the south fork & the main River -- whom we met here by accident informs me that there is a very extensive bank of Iron lying on the south fork of Cumberland River in the county of Paleskie about 3 miles above the mouth of the south fork, upon the east side of the River [,] which might have a mill dam built only about 1 1/2 miles above the said Bank -- The River is in all times except dry times, that is when the Ohio is boatable that is so also, The land belongs to the State of Kentucky & Mr Maxwell thinks it might, be taken up for about 40 -- or 50 Doll pr hundred Acres -- & near to the said Land is an immense Cave of Nitrous earth said to be innexhaustable distance from the Ore bank about 2 miles towards the mouth of the south fork, that is the Cave is so much nearer the mouth of the river than the bank of the ore --The Cave belongs to David Maxwell, son of the David Maxwell our informant -- This Cave, the earth of which is so abundant in Nitre as to yield lbs 8 to the bushel -- the Distance is computed by Land by the course of the river is more say 5 or G miles to the bank of ore from the mouth [.1 the ore is about 1/2 miles back in the mountains -

Mr Kinkaid is to bring his papers to Lexington to be inspected by Mr James Brown & Mr Hughes Attorney at Law as to the Validity of the title when Dr Brown & myself propose to deal with him [.] he ask 1000 Doll for the Cave & 1000 Acres of Land & for 1000 [4000?] Acres more at the rate of one quarter of a Dollar pr Acre & as there are several interfering claims he thinks that less than 400 Dollars would pay them, which he expects in addition to the sum above mentioned which claims do not apply to any of the Land but that on which the cave lays -- The Cave may contain perhaps earth capable of yielding one thousand Tons Salt Petre, & if said earth is put back again may give as much more in a few years & thus become an unexhaustable fund -

...I proceeded onto Lexington where I found Dr Brown & George had arrived about 3 hours before me. It appears to me that it would be an object of consequence to purchase the proper title to that large salt petre Cave & a quantity of land adjoining & also Maxwell's Cave on the waters of Cumberland which ought to be examined first -

I think that great improvements might be made in the mode of working -- particularly that some other manufactory that would consume much fuel & thus produce the Ashes necessary to form the salt petre, should be connected with it, also that the nitrat of lime might be extracted & kept until potash could be procured from the ashes produced at Salt works &c -- perhaps many other things might present themselves by reflections. -- As it is said that perfect Nitrat of potash is afforded in considerable quantities by some sandy Rocks --'This stone ought to be examined & analyzed. -

Septr. 19th Upon examination I find that Nitrat of Lime contains for every 100 grains of dry Acid 96 grains of Lime -- & that the same quantity of dry acid is contained in 324 gr dry Nitratt of Potash, equal to 336 grains Chrystalized Nitrat of Potash --It follows that about lbs 100 dry nitrat of Lime is capable of making with sufficient quantity of Potash (say lbs 107 Potash) lbs 168 of Nitrat of Potash in chrystals; consequently to export Salt Petre to Philada. for example must pay 68 pr Ct. more freight than to export Nitrat of Lime & to but the potash there & there finish the process -- & that it is as cheap to carry the nitrat of lime to the potash as to carry the Potash to the Nitrat of lime. And as it is no great trouble or expense to make nitrate of lime at the Cavern in large quantities therefor It might be advisable to purchase two or three of the Salt Petre Caves of the first Magnitude & by proper contrivances to Lixiviate the earth in the Caverns & pass the Lye thro the fire & excite the mass at the foot of the hill in proper boilers & store the Nitrat of Lime in cakes until proper occasion should arrive to finish it, into Nitrate of Potash --The ashes produced by the combustion of the necessary fuel might be used to make as much Nitre as would perhaps hell) to pay wages etc.


Source: The Saltpeter Empires of Great Saltpetre Cave and Mammoth Cave, Angelo I. George, 2001 HMI Press

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