E.P. Tom Sawyer Park is a 550-acre park in the outskirts of Louisville, Kentucky. At first glance, you'll see what anyone would expect from the usual suburban park - family picnics, BBQs, walking paths, and hiking trails. However, this isn't just any park - it's home to a mystifying place that has captured the imagination of Louisvillians for generations. If you venture past the archery range, a large sign warns that the area is monitored by electronic surveillance, deterring trespassers from entering the legendary 'Sauerkraut Cave'.
Before becoming a public park, the land was under the control of Isaac Hite, a Virginia militia officer who served in the French and Indian War. Hite lived on the land, running a mill. After Issac Hite was allegedly killed by Native Americans in 1794, the land ended up in the hands of 'Lakeland Asylum for the Insane'. The facility was also referred to as Central Kentucky Lunatic Asylum, Lakeland Hospital, Central Kentucky Asylum for the Insane, or 'Lakeland Asylum for the Insane'.
By the 1940s, the facility was hundreds of patients over capacity with an unknown number of people being buried on the grounds in unmarked graves. 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.”
In this period of history, treatment for mental illness was inhumane at best. Like many other 20th century asylums - cruelty, torture, and neglect was abundant. It was common knowledge that the patients were beaten and horribly abused by hospital workers. Stories of orderlies accused of murdering patients by holding their heads underwater in bathtubs were told amongst locals.
However, it wasn’t just the orderlies that were out of line. The doctors also used "experimental" treatments that would be considered dangerous and inhumane today. Outdated and ineffective treatments such as electric shock therapy and lobotomies were common when treating patients at Lakeland Asylum. If those same patients were born today, they would likely be diagnosed with depression or anxiety.
According to folklore, the cave below was where female inmates were taken when they became pregnant in the asylum. It's not known what happened to the infants, but the patients were always sent back to their rooms without their baby.
The cave was the go-to method of attempted escape for the desperate inmates. Unfortunately, they were often ill-equipped to handle the deep water, sharp rocks or freezing cold of the brutal Kentucky winter and perished within. Many of them died en-route to what they thought was freedom. Thousands of dead inmates are said to be buried on the property that is now E.P. Tom Sawyer Park.
'Sauerkraut Cave' was a cave and system of tunnels beneath the asylum that were used as a storage facility. When the facility was shut down, locals found thousands of canned goods, including barrels of Sauerkraut that had been left in the cave. It's been known in the area as 'Sauerkraut Cave' ever since.
In 1986, a new and more modern facility was built just down the road and the remaining patients were moved there where it is still in operation today. Sauerkraut Cave, along with two cemeteries, is all that is left remaining of the old Lakeland Asylum. Although the number of the dead is unknown in records, it is estimated to be around 5,000 patients and are all in unmarked graves. The suffering and torturous deaths of these innocent victims went unreported and uninvestigated. The so-called records were "lost". Lost was humanity and justice for patients who should have had the best treatment by doctors and nurses who built their lives around caring for others.
Although the cave used to be open for exploration and guided tours, it was recently closed off to visitors for safety reasons. There is still access to the old cemeteries, which is marked by a wooden fencing.
Whatever happened in Sauerkraut Cave has left a sad and dark impression on the property. People who have been there have claimed to hear voices talking as well as strange noises. Some have claimed to see the apparition of a man as well as feeling like they are being watched.
Please do not trespass or try to visit Sauerkraut Cave. The cave has been closed for everyone's safety.
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