Tarkiln Cave

Tarkiln Cave, Elliott County, Kentucky                                                Easter Cave Entrance
The idea for  my novel, THE CAVE came to me as a direct result of my experiences in Tarkiln Cave, a large 2-mile long cave near the northeastern Kentucky town of Olive Hill. I became acquainted with Tarkiln by accident. It was the spring of 1988 and I had just finished writing my history of the C-130 tactical airlfft mission. My (now ex-)wife and  the children had become interested in caves the previous summer when they met caver Don Kemper at a church camp. I was too busy - and not too interested - to become involved myself at the time, but after I finished the book and with some time on my hands I decided to take the plunge and find out what was so fascinating about caves. My experiences started out with a trip through Bat Cave in Carter Caves State Park at the annual "Crawlathon" in late January.

We learned about Tarkiln completely by accident. No one in the ESSO Grotto, which we had recently joined, had ever mentioned it. But one day we stopped at Charlie Burchett's store on the way home from the park. There we met a young man named Robbie and when we mentioned that we had been caving, he told us that there was a really big cave on his grandfather's farm. This caught our interest. Robbie gave us his phone number and we called him and made arrangements to go see the cave. We also called some ESSO members and Larry Matiz and Brian Bain accepted the invitation. Robbie had given us directions to the farm and we met up with him there. The cave turned out to be everything he had described, though there were - and still are - some stories about secret rooms, etc. that didn't check out with our later explorations. Brian was a student at Marshall University in Huntingon, WV at the time and was heavily involved with the NSS. He decided that since the cave had never been completely mapped, it would make a good project for him. He and my wife made the majority of the survey trips, while I was along when I could go and Steve Duncan became involved in the final mapping. The survey showed that the cave was a little more than 2 miles long, with parallel passages that had been cut into the side of the hill under which the cave runs. One passage is dry but the second and third are usually wet - and there is evidence that the whole cave will flood during periods of heavy rain.

Tarkiln has a history - in ESSO grotto in the late 1980s it was looked on as sort of "a mystery cave." There were a lot of rumors about it. The cave is somewhat isolated in that it is in a valley some distance from pavement, although there are gravel roads within a mile or less. The cave has been known locally for decades, and probably since the eighteenth century. A few hundred feet from the resurgence is an elevated level with a pit entrance above it that has been used in the past to store potatoes, and a family lived there during the depression. At least one local boy hid out in the cave to avoid the draft, probably during World War II. There are rumors of hidden treasure. The cave itself has a somewhat gloomy atmosphere that caused my oldest son, who was an officer on a nuclear submarine, to decide he didn't like caving anymore. He was about 12 at the time. The cave has been the scene of two dramatic incidents in recent years. In the mid-90s an escapee from the local jail made his way to the cave and hid in it until he was discovered by a deputy. There was a shoot-out in the cave but no one was injured and the convict was apprehended.

In July, 1998 Tarkiln was the scene of a tragic triple-murder. Three local young men went out for a joy ride in the woods on their three-wheelers and apparently decided to go into the cave. They evidently ran into a local man who was on probation for a minor offense in Ohio where he lived, but had fled the state and returned to Kentucky. He is believed to have somehow overpowered the three men, tied them up then took them outside the cave and shot them each in the back of the head and left them in the creek at the entrance. State Police and other authorities came to the cave after the men were missed and the bodies were found. The alleged murderer took his own life with a shotgun blast on the hillside above the cave a few days later.

Tarkiln served as the inspiration for the cave that formed in my head as I was writing The Cave, the novel about the Vietnam War. I had some old survival maps like the ones I had carried in my survival vest when I was flying the Blind Bat mission over North Vietnam and Laos in 1966. Whole areas of Laos are marked on the map as simply "karst." I put the two together - caving and my Vietnam experiences - and came up with the book.

Sam McGowan's Books Page