To a 16-year-old cowhand mending fences for a ranch in the Guadalupe Mountains of Texas and Southeastern New Mexico, the plume of black smoke rising from a mountainside looked like a volcano eruption. However, young Jim White admitted he had never seen a volcano. He had seen plenty of prairie whirlwinds, but this black funnel-shaped cloud looked different. After watching for half an hour, the young cowboy crept through rocks and thorny brush and discovered a whirling mass of dark furry bats spinning upward from a large hole in the mountainside. He and other cowhands knew of the mountain’s opening, but he had felt no urge to see what was hiding in the blackness of the gaping crevice—not until the day he saw what he estimated to be millions of bats flying out in the dusk to feed on insects in the nighttime. As he gazed over the edge into the yawning chasm, there appeared no bottom in sight. His curiosity piqued, White returned in a couple of days to the cave’s mouth with a kerosene lantern, rope, wire, string, and a hand ax to begin what would be his life’s work—the exploration and promotion of New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns.
White built a ladder from rope; using sticks he cut from desert scrub to form the steps. He lowered himself into the darkness that seemed solid. His lantern made a sickly glow against the inky blackness of the mountain’s interior. Although he had never before seen stalactites and stalagmites, he says in his book, Jim White’s Own Story of the Discovery and History of Carlsbad Caverns, “Instinctively, I knew that there was no other scene in the world which could be justly compared with the surrounding wilderness of the mighty stalagmites I saw in my dim light.”
He crept cat-like across dangerous ledges and rolled boulders into echoing black holes that he believed reached the center of the earth. The farther he went into the cave’s depths, the more stalagmites—larger and more beautifully formed—he saw in the shadowy light of his lantern. Clusters of stalactites hung like crystal chandeliers suspended from ceilings of rock. Walls looked like frozen cascades of glittering flowstone. He encountered pools filled with water as clear as glass. White says the beauty, the grandeur, and even the strangeness of such an underground world washed thoughts of his life as a desert cowboy out of his head. He lost all consciousness of time, place and distance. And then his lantern sputtered and the flame died. He relates in his book that the darkness smothered him like a million tons of black wool enveloping his body. He heard noises like church chimes, sleigh bells and notes from a piano.
Fortunately, he had a small canteen of oil for an emergency. Despite spilling most of it as his shaky hands refilled his lantern, White lit a second flame and looked up to see a bat flying in a large knot of stalactites, striking the icicle shapes that gave off various tones. Still shaken by the overpowering darkness when his lantern oil ran out, he realized he needed to leave landmarks in order to find his way back out of the cave. At the time of White’s discovery in 1901—and the decades following—no one considered preserving the fragile formations in the cave. At first, he broke off stalactites and laid them on rocks on the floor of rooms to point the way out. Later, he took string and tied it around formations to mark a pathway.
After his first excursion into the black hole, White climbed his makeshift ladder back to the warmth of the desert above. He looked back into the darkness, feeling the cavern had beaten him, much like a stubborn bronco that took time to break. However, he resolved that someday he would conquer that expanse of rooms and tunnels, domes and pits.
Back at camp, his fellow ranch hands refused to take his description of swarming bats and a glittering underground palace seriously. Lacking even a grammar school education, White had no words to portray what he had discovered, saying things like “…“hangey downs” for stalactites, and “stickey ups” for stalagmites. Indeed, many rolled with laughter at first, and later, thought he had gone crazy. No one would return with him to the cave. Yet, White continued to explore and to tell everyone he met about the underground wonder. His words fell on deaf ears until a fertilizer expert took an interest in the cave, not as a subterranean spectacle, but as a moneymaking mining operation to collect bat guano.
By 1902, the mining company offered White a job as foreman of its operation. He accepted because the job afforded him the opportunity to spend all his time at the cave. For the next 20 years, he supervised crews that mined the bat guano. However, he never gave up his passion for showing the world the marvels of the cavern. He finally determined that trails and guardrails were necessary if he ever hoped to get visitors into the cave. He started moving rocks and leveling passageways through the first chamber. At dangerous ledges and steep assents, he drove discarded Ford automobile axles into the cracks of rocks and strung galvanized wire from one to the other for hand holds.
Endlessly and tirelessly he worked alone, keeping foremost in his mind his vision that one day hundreds of thousands of people would walk over his trails into the breathtaking underground rooms decorated with crystals, flowstone, stalactites and stalagmites. Eventually, photographer Ray V. Davis ventured into the cavern with White and two other men. The photographer took a couple dozen photos and when they were developed and printed, people in the town of Carlsbad began buttonholing Jim White and asking him to take them into the cave.
In those days, it was an all-day trip from Carlsbad across miles of prairie and mountains to the cave’s entrance. The crowds traveling to see Carlsbad Caverns increased. White lowered hundreds of visitors, two by two, into the depths in an iron bucket used for hauling out bags of bat guano. He and his wife provided lodging and food for the visitors with no thought of charging an admission. When one of the first groups insisted on paying White a dollar each for his time, trouble and grub, he spent the money on materials to further the trail he blazed in the cave.
To no avail, he tried to interest millionaires in buying the land and developing a tour cave. Finally, the General Land Office in Washington came calling. The skeptical government man unrolled his measuring line, expressing that he believed his trip was a waste of time. Grinning, Jim White took him into the cave. In his report, the man described feelings of fear and awe concerning the natural phenomenon under brown desert rocks and dusty cactus.
In 1924, a government geologist visited and compiled his experiences in a story for National Geographic Magazine. In the meantime, generous citizens of Carlsbad built a stairway into the cave. Thousands of people descended and ascended the steps. In 1929, President Calvin Coolidge declared Carlsbad Caverns a National Monument. The National Park Service blasted out a trail to the natural entrance that slopes gently down the side of the wall. Modernization came in the form of electric lighting, smooth trails, and a lunchroom and restrooms at the bottom of the cave. An elevator carried visitors into the cave’s depths or back out when they grew tired. Jim White had applied for and landed the job as chief ranger, a position he held for several years.
In his book, he writes: “I doubt you can understand how happy this modernizing made me. It’s like the pleasant end to a dream.”
However, in the spring of 1929, White determined the job of chief ranger was a bit too complicated for someone with his limited education. He resigned, saying, “Even a sixty-million-year old cave can go too modern, too efficient, and can outgrow a common old cowboy.”
Arline Chandler and her photographer husband, Lee Smith, are RVers who live in Heber Springs Arkansas. Follow Arline’s travels on her blog, “RV Travel Tales” at rvlife.com.
IF YOU GO:
Carlsbad Caverns National Park has a modern visitor center with a restaurant, restrooms, bookstore, gift shop, kennel services and exhibits on the park’s history and geology. Tickets for tours into the cave are available in the lobby.
All tours require a national park pass or an entrance fee of $10 for those 16 and older. Children 15 and younger are admitted free. Guided tours require an additional fee.
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