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Haunted Kentucky: Sauerkraut Cave and the History of Lakeland Asylum

Brianna is a full-time writer, blogger, and editor. Her specialty is all things scary. Travel with her to some truly haunting destinations!

Sauerkraut Cave, Kentucky

Sauerkraut Cave, Kentucky

Welcome to Sauerkraut Cave

If you were to take a stroll around E.P. Tom Sawyer Park, you would see a familiar and comforting scene of family BBQs and picnics, dog walkers, joggers, dozens of baseball fields, and countless excited children running around the grounds in a terrain rich with playgrounds. You scan faces and see the smiles of loved ones gathered together. A place built around fun, peace, and relaxation. Not a single soul would ever show that they are standing on the very grounds of a former torture asylum. An asylum filled with disturbing secrets, distressed souls, and murder.

You keep strolling and find yourself at a popular archery range. You gaze a bit further behind the range, and you spot a faint, thin dirt trail. You almost miss it, covered by ancient burly trees obscuring the path into the dark and foggy woods. But you descend on into the unknown, down a path heavy with numerous unsightly spiderwebs that threaten the way, perhaps a warning of what lies ahead. The soothing trickle of a creek bed is heard nearby. Just a little further, you round a corner, and as if it‘s almost calling out to you, it appears. A ginormous opening on the side of the hill with nothing but pitch blackness is encouraging to take a step inside. Graffiti covers almost every inch of the old brick and pillars. Echos of the past whisper out as you feel hidden eyes following your every move. Welcome to the hidden Sauerkraut Cave; one of Louisville's most disturbing true horror stories lies ahead.

Photo of the opening of Sauerkraut Cave in Louisville, Kentucky

Photo of the opening of Sauerkraut Cave in Louisville, Kentucky

Location Information

  • Inside E.P. Tom Sawyer Park.
  • 3000 Freys Hill Rd, Louisville, KY 40241
  • 550-acre park on the outskirts of Louisville on the former land of Central State Hospital, most commonly known as Lakeland Asylum.
  • Opened year-round, closes at 10 p.m.
  • Used for cold storage during the operation of the former Central State Hospital Insane Asylum, including large cans of Sauerkraut hence the name.

The History of Sauerkraut Cave

E.P. Tom Sawyer Park wasn't always the gorgeous state park that it is today. The park was originally a parcel of land given to a Virginia militia officer who fought in the French and Indian War by the name of Issac Hite in 1773. While living on the land, Hite also ran a mill simply known as Hite's Mill, but he was unfortunately killed by Native Americans in 1794 after an attack.

In 1869, 200 acres of land were bought by the Kentucky State Legislature to build the State House Reform for Juvenile Delinquents. It wasn't until 1873 that the reform school was transformed into The Kentucky State Mental Hospital, later named Lakeland Asylum. That is when history met evil, and the land became hell on earth.

This asylum was also known as Central State Hospital, Kentucky State Mental Hospital, and Central Kentucky Asylum for the Insane.

The Many Names of Lakeland Asylum

Most insane asylums of the early 20th century are well known for cruelty, torture, and neglect. Lakeland Asylum was no different, if not worse. A magnificent and beautiful three-story brick structure, when pulling up to the front, one would almost believe they were about to enter inside a gothic castle. Made up of solid red brick with stone trim and columned porches, the hospital had two identical towers on either side of the main building.

Established in 1873, what started out to be just a single brick building progressed quickly into fifteen. Horror stories of lobotomies, electric shock therapy, and even murder were common practices inside the asylum and reported in the local newspaper often. Sauerkraut Cave was built by the hospital and was connected to the underground tunnels that were strewn throughout Louisville. The cave became used as a storage place for tiles and a cold storage for perishable goods, most commonly, large cans of Sauerkraut which is how the cave acquired its unique name.

There was a tunnel that led the cave straight to the basement of Lakeland Asylum, and many of the patients used it as a way to escape. However, many of them never made it all the way through due to the cave being so dark and flooded and they would either freeze to death or drown. Another legend states that patients who mysteriously wound up pregnant would be taken to the cave and would come out suspiciously no longer pregnant.

The asylum was built to only house around 1500 people, but by the 1940s, there were over 2400 patients, and they were completely understaffed and overworked. This ultimately led to poor care and extremely horrible living conditions for the patients at Lakeland Asylum. When you think of a mental asylum, you think of severely mentally ill people, but not all the people sent to Lakland Asylum were mentally ill.

Some were just the elderly and impoverished local residents with no other place to go and could not afford retirement homes. Others were patients who had suffered brain injuries or a form of mental retardation. But it didn't matter what sent you to Lakeland; the same cruel and often fatal treatments and lobotomies given by doctors and nurses did not discriminate.

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. That did not account for the unknown number of patients who died at Lakeland Asylum. The structure of the old asylum stood empty and rotting for quite some time before being completely demolished in 1996. The land then became a part of E.P. Tom Sawyer Park.

Lakeland Asylum before it was demolished in 1996

Lakeland Asylum before it was demolished in 1996

Sauerkraut Cave Today

Sauerkraut Cave, along with two cemeteries, is all that is left remaining of the old Lakeland Asylum. You can find the remnants of a tunnel that led to the hospital, but according to Park Naturalist Nick Priceowever, the tunnel is rumored to go as far out to Hurstbourne. It is not advised for anyone to try and make it through, as you would be crawling through mud and water most of the way.

A wooden fence has recently been erected around one of the cemeteries in remembrance of the patients that lost lives their lives at Lakeland Asylum. Although the number of the dead is unknown in records, it is estimated to be around 5,000 patients, all of which are in unmarked graves. The suffering and torturous deaths of these innocent victims went unreported and uninvestigated. The so-called records were "lost." What was truly lost, however, 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.

Beginning of the tunnel inside Sauerkraut Cave

Beginning of the tunnel inside Sauerkraut Cave

When I reached the mouth of the cave, I heard something. Something deep within the cave. I got this feeling that I was being watched and this overwhelming sense of dread. I wanted to run. I turned and started walking away from the cave when I got this feeling that someone was behind me, following me. I have no plans of ever going back there again.

— Kevin Gibson - Author of 'Secret Louisville: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure'

Hauntings and Paranormal Activity

Sauerkraut Cave has become a local hot spot for the curious and paranormal investigators. With such a dark and evil history on these grounds, it seems like a breeding spot for spirits of these tortured souls, and many paranormal investigators would agree. Here are some of the incidents reported at Sauerkraut Cave:

  • Park visitors claim to feel weird and uneasy feelings upon entering the cave, while some have heard strange music and mumbling echoing from inside.
  • One visitor reported feeling something tug on her hair and skirt.
  • Numerous visitors have reported hearing a young girl cry "Mommy!" from deep down in the tunnel.
  • A local paranormal group investigated the cave and claimed to have taken a photo that shows a 'big man with a burly beard' leaning against the tiles stacked on one side of the cave.
  • Another visitor described that when walking into the cave, "There is a strange feeling to the exploration like entering a room full of people who have had a terrible argument right before you arrived."

Paranormal investigators say it's kind of a sad place. There are people trapped there, spirits trapped there. There's a man who's angry and they say he is not letting any of the other spirits go.

— Nick Price- Park Naturalist at E.P. Tom Sawyer Park

E.P. Tom Sawyer State Park, Kentucky

E.P. Tom Sawyer State Park, Kentucky

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, and I encourage you to come visit and take a walk around and see the history E.P. Tom Sawyer Park does have to offer!


© 2019 Brianna W


Brianna W (author) from East Coast on April 22, 2019:

Thank you Lindsey! I’m glad you enjoyed the read!

Lindsey Burek from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on April 22, 2019:

Fantastic article! I especially enjoyed the little fun facts you had throughout!