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    Bit to Do

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    This story originally appeared in October, 2014.


    It’s a cool autumn afternoon, and we’re walking through the woods of E.P. Tom Sawyer Park, behind the archery range. One of us keeps muttering “We’re going to die. This is how we die. I can’t believe this is how we’re going to die.” We know this is an exact quote because we’re taping the whole experience. We’ve heard there are ghosts in Sauerkraut Cave, and if we see one, we want evidence.

    We’ve heard about a series of underground spaces, caves and tunnels in the Louisville area, some built before the days of prohibition in order to move shipments from the docks into downtown buildings without braving the streets; some used by bootleggers to smuggle contraband between the city and the river; some simply used for storage. We first heard about Sauerkraut Cave on a Reddit thread and decided it would be the first stop on our tour of the Louisville Underground. 

    As we round a corner, the cave comes into view: a yawning black opening in the side of the hill, decorated with graffiti and impressively large. Nick Price, the Park Naturalist, has informed us the cave turns into a tunnel that goes “all the way out to Hurstbourne.” He has further advised us not to try and go too far back into the cave, because in certain places you have to go into the water, or crawl through mud, or go “where the snakes might be.” The cave itself is reinforced with brick walls and pillars. There’s a drain to one side of the cave and stacks of old tile on the other side. Toward the back of the cave, the ceiling lowers and the tunnel tapers back into absolute blackness.

    E.P. Tom Sawyer Park was originally part of a parcel of land given to Isaac Hite, a Virginia militia officer who fought in the French and Indian War. Hite lived on the land and ran a mill and was most likely the one who began altering and using Sauerkraut. After Issac Hite was killed by Native Americans, the land ended up in the hands of Lakeland Asylum for the Insane, sometimes called Central Kentucky Lunatic Asylum, Lakeland Hospital or Central Kentucky Asylum for the Insane. In the days of the hospital (from around 1900 to 1986), the cave was used as a storage place for tiles, pipes and perishable goods, such as giant cans of sauerkraut — thus the name.

    Lakeland Asylum has stories connected to it that are typical for other “lunatic asylums” of the early twentieth century: reports of ice baths, electric shock therapy, lobotomies, ill treatment, wrongful death and escapes run through the history of the hospital.

    By the 1940s, the facility was hundreds of patients over capacity and there was an unknown number of people buried on the grounds. According to Samuel W. Thompson’s The Village of Anchorage, “In these institutions are housed 4,571 unfortunate people, occupying quarters designed to accommodate no more than 3,500; people of both sexes and of all races and colors; people of high and low degree, educated and ignorant, talented and feeble-minded, farmers, merchants, musicians, artisans, engineers, lawyers, clerks, cooks, teachers, doctors and wives of all classes of men.”

    The general legends surrounding Sauerkraut Cave claim it was a point of escape for inmates. The tunnel in the back of the cave could have perhaps led them to freedom beyond the grounds of the asylum, but it was dark and flooded. Without today’s gear and flashlights, fleeing patients may have been more likely to drown or freeze in the flooded tunnel than to make it to the other side.

    Patients who successfully escaped were likely to be sent back, as the facility was isolated, and anyone who stumbled across them would know where they had come from. “Patients were escaping all the time," Price explains. “Anyone who lived around here would call all the time, wanting to get a glass of water, use the phone, get a ride to Louisville or Anchorage.” Newspaper clippings from the era of the Asylum support his statement.

    Some stories say the cave was where pregnant patients (who had not been pregnant when they entered the facility) were taken to give birth. Some even go so far as to say that the babies were disposed of in the cave.

    Today, the cave is covered in graffiti and surrounded by tales of paranormal activity. Price told us he’s tagged along for several paranormal investigations: “(Paranormal investigators) say it’s kind of a sad place. There’s people trapped there, spirits trapped there. There’s a man who’s angry and they say he’s not letting any of the other spirits go.” The most recent paranormal investigation was done a few days before our visit, by Serious Paranormal.

    The entire investigation can be accessed online here, along with some recordings that allegedly have paranormal voices or sounds on them. Photographs have been taken in the cave that show a “big man with a burly beard, an angry man” leaning against the tiles, says Price. “But there’s a lot of water vapor in the cave, which can cause distortions in pictures, like orbs.”

    The weak sunshine filters through the trees, but it doesn’t make us feel warm or comforted. We venture into the blackness, armed with our cell phone flashlights, and notice little more than interesting graffiti, broken beer bottles and a tattered seat that appears to have been ripped directly from a car. There is a strange feeling to the exploration: like entering a room full of people who’ve had a terrible argument right before you arrived.

    It feels malicious somehow; but whether our perception is altered by our previous knowledge is up to you to decide. After a few minutes of exploration, picture-snapping and jumping every time a bird chirps or a twig snaps, we are thoroughly terrified and 100 percent ready to leave. We see no ghosts. That doesn’t make us feel any better.

    In 1986, the Lakeland Asylum, then known as Central State Hospital, was moved to a new facility adjacent to LaGrange Road. It is still operational there today. Sauerkraut Cave is currently open to exploration, but we highly recommend you take a guided tour.

    Written by Elizabeth Myers and Michelle Eigenheer. Photos provided by Michelle Eigenheer and Elizabeth Myers. Historical Photos and press clippings provided by Nick Price.

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    About Elizabeth Myers

    Big fan of bacon and bourbon, deep fried anything, sweet tea and sweet nothings.

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