150 Years Ago, A Cincinnati Photographer Brought Mammoth Cave Into Focus

Aug 2, 2018

In 1866, Cincinnati photographer Charles Waldack snapped the nation’s first cave photos. Some say they may be the first in the world. Practical photography had been around less than 30 years, and while success was uncertain, these photos helped put Mammoth Cave—now a UNESCO World Heritage Site—on the map.

As the world’s longest cave system, Kentucky's Mammoth Cave has always sparked a sense of mystery. Even now, with over 400 miles of cave discovered and hundreds of miles unexplored, it is a seemingly endless dark, dank, natural maze. And up until 1866, photographing the inside of Mammoth Cave—or any cave for that matter—was a real challenge. That is, until Charles Waldack brought it all into focus.  

"Charles Waldack came to Mammoth Cave in 1866 to photograph," says Mammoth Cave National Park Ranger Jackie Wheet. "He was born in Belgium, then he immigrated to America, and settled in Cincinnati. He was a trained chemist, and he opened a photography business."

The 1857 William’s Cincinnati Directory provides the earliest public record of Waldack’s Cincinnati residence. He advertised himself as a "photographic chemist" operating at 31 ½ West Third Street—downtown between Main and Walnut. Waldack visited Mammoth Cave in the summer of 1866, roughly one year after the Civil War ended. At that time, practical photography had only been around since 1839 after French physicist and painter Louis Daguerre developed the daguerreotype, the first successful form of photography. It was a time of unending possibility, and Waldack was, in more ways than one, carrying a torch for photographers everywhere.

"While he was here at Mammoth Cave, he definitely took the very first cave photos in the United States," says Wheet. "It may have been the actual first photography done in a cave system. Worldwide. I know there was one photographer that took a photo in England, but it was to test out a flash, and they got a blurry photo inside of a cave. But Charles Waldack was actually the very first photographer to go into a cave for the purpose of photographing the cave. It had never been done before."

One of Waldack's photos of Mammoth Cave taken from the 1866 book, 'Magnesium Light Views in Mammoth Cave.'
Credit Charles Waldack / Library of Congress

There's a reason no one had ever done it. It was an extremely difficult accomplishment. To illuminate the cave, Waldack used magnesium tape, which was potentially deadly.

"You end up with this guy named Waldack from Cincinnati, who decides that he wants to go where no man has gone before," says award-winning photojournalist Michael Keating. "He wants to go in a hole in the ground in Kentucky. In a cave. And then he lights magnesium tape. Magnesium has a flash point, and when they applied heat to it: 'poof!' It could have exploded. He's really carrying a sort of bomb around, so it was dangerous."

Yes, it was dangerous, but Waldack's chemistry background certainly helped him—safely—become a pioneer in the field.

"Waldack must have been very, very skilled in his craft," says Keating, who was a longtime photojournalist with the Cincinnati Enquirer and has worked with WVXU. "He had no light meters. He didn't have some way to tell whether the intensity of this flash was going to be adequate to light these. This is not easy work. He was breaking ground."

Waldack's groundbreaking work helped bring widespread attention to Mammoth Cave. Horace C. Hovey—"the father of modern cave exploration"—named Mammoth Cave's Waldack Dome after him. He was hailed by The Photographic Journal, and his work was published in the book Magnesium Light Views in Mammoth Cave, published in 1866. His skill was comparable only to the magnitude of his achievement.

"To understand and unearth this guy who, for all intents and purposes, runs a little photo shop on Third Street in Cincinnati," says Keating. "For him to have achieved what he did. These are the first photographs in a cave anywhere. You know, our history’s rich."

In all, Waldack had 49 photos published in the book 'Magnesium Light Views in Mammoth Cave.'
Credit Charles Waldack / Library of Congress

Charles and his wife, Mary, had no kids—no one to carry his legacy. But they continued to run the photography business in Cincinnati. He took photos for Spring Grove Cemetery, won numerous awards at the Cincinnati Industrial Expositions of 1870 and 1872, and published Cincinnati and Its Suburbs and Norwood Views, before returning to his native Belgium where he died of a spinal disease in December 1882 at age 53.

Today, when we visit Mammoth Cave, snapping cell phone photos inside its dark corridors, it's easy to forget that, at one time, these caverns could only be recalled by memory. They were merely the stuff of folklore—until a Cincinnati photographer named Charles Waldack helped bring the mystery of Mammoth Cave to the world.

Leo DeLuca's writing has been featured by Ohio Magazine, Pitchfork, A.V. Club, Aviation for Women and more. His radio reporting has aired on WYSO, Antioch College's NPR affiliate. The co-author of Dayton's Spirit of Community Service and Leadership (Dayton History, 2016), DeLuca is a three-time All Ohio Excellence in Journalism award winner.