Like most slaves in early America, Stephen Bishop dreamed of freedom. But when his master brought him to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky in 1838, he found a new obsession- exploring the vast reaches of what would one day be the world's longest cave. Grand, Gloomy, and Peculiar: Stephen Bishop at Mammoth Cave is based on the true story of America's first great cave explorer, whose magnificent discoveries helped pave the way for Mammoth Cave to become a national park a century later. As a guide, Stephen was extraordinarily popular with tourists, and his reputation spread throughout the United States and Europe. Written from the perspective of his wife, Charlotte, this carefully researched novel combines adventure, history, humor, and romance. Indeed, it is a fascinating tale of two unforgettable slaves whose passion for each other, and for the cave below, made it possible for them to endure an otherwise intolerable existence.
A century before Mammoth Cave in Kentucky became a national park, it was already a popular tourist attraction. In those early years, the full extent of the cave's reach was unknown. Its passages had only been explored a few miles, and the owners were too busy making money from visitors to spend time pushing farther into the darkness. All of that changed with the arrival of Stephen Bishop, a 17-year-old slave who became Mammoth Cave's most popular guide and America's first great cave explorer. His inspiring story is told in the new historical novel Grand, Gloomy, and Peculiar: Stephen Bishop at Mammoth Cave by Roger W. Brucker, to be published October 1, 2009.
Obsessed with the cave's beauty and mystery, Bishop would often venture into passages far beyond where any human had ever been. With a lantern and to light the way, and an unquenchable curiosity, he made many important discoveries and produced the first complete map of Mammoth Cave. His work paved the way for subsequent discoveries that led to Mammoth Cave becoming a national park a century later and being recognized as the world's longest cave.
“Stephen was noted for being the first systematic cave explorer,” Brucker said. “He was the prototype for guiding, educating and entertaining cave visitors. He was the economic engine that put Mammoth Cave on the map of American natural wonders.”
Little is known about Stephen Bishop, as there are few historical documents that mention him in detail. However, much is known about the owners of Mammoth Cave during the period when he was there. By combining facts with speculative details that only an experienced caver could imagine, Roger Brucker wrote Grand, Gloomy, and Peculiar as a historical novel, from the perspective of Bishop's wife, Charlotte. Although some elements of the story are fictional, the historical aspects were carefully researched. Brucker even personally re-traced many of the underground routes that Stephen explored, in order to describe them accurately in his book.
"It's well-known that Stephen was the first person to cross the Bottomless Pit, which tourists can still see today," Brucker said. "He found a scary way around the pit. It’s a tight crawlway over several drops. I went through it, to understand what Stephen experienced.”
While most books about slaves focus primarily on those who lived on, or escaped from, Southern plantations, Grand, Gloomy, and Peculiar is one of the few about the non-plantation slave experience. What distinguished Stephen Bishop from most other slaves even more was the way he was treated. Although his owner clearly did not consider him as an equal, Bishop was nevertheless treated better than most slaves. This was undoubtedly due to the fact that he was popular among visitors to Mammoth Cave, many of whom came from non-slave states or foreign countries.
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