In the early 1990s, archaeologists from the University of Kentucky investigated the remains of an early nineteenth-century saltpeter mining operation at Carter Caves State Resort Park. Saltpeter – potassium nitrate – is a major component in gunpowder. The other two major ingredients are charcoal and sulphur.
During the War of 1812, America had to produce its own gunpowder. Fortunately, the soil in many of Kentucky's caves and rockshelters, such as Saltpeter Cave and the entrance to Mammoth Cave, were excellent sources of saltpeter. As a result, miners removed over 300,000 pounds of this mineral from more than 150 Kentucky caves and rockshelters during this period.
Examination of the intact mining equipment in Saltpeter Cave revealed that an extensive War of 1812 mining operation took place within it. This operation appeared to be unique in that it exhibited characteristics of both large-scale production mines and much smaller, cottage-industry mines. Large-scale mining operations used large, box-shaped vats and pipes or troughs to pump water into the cave. Smaller operations exclusively used small, V-shaped vats and buckets to bring in water by hand.
Saltpeter Cave is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors to Carter Caves State Resort Park can take daily tours through Saltpeter Cave between Memorial Day and Labor Day.