“I want to be a cowboy.”
That’s how 10-year-old James White (credited with being the first man to explore Carlsbad Caverns) answered his father in 1892 when challenged about why he was playing hooky from school. Most fathers would have told their sons they could be whatever they wanted to be when they grew up.
Instead, Jim White’s father took him from their Mason County, Texas, home nearly 400 miles to Lucas Ranch, just west of Eddy, New Mexico — known today as Carlsbad. There, he left him to learn to be a cowboy, and young Jim began living his dream.
A Column of Smoke
About the time he was 16, White was riding fence and looking for stray cattle west of town. What he saw would have stopped anyone dead in their tracks. It did him, too. A column of smoke appeared to be rising from a ridge line to the west. He knew that could only mean wildfire, and he needed to determine how big it was and in which direction it was burning. The ranch and livestock depended on it.
But what he had seen wasn’t smoke. It was a plume of thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats rising from a hole. He thought any hole in the ground that could house that many bats had to be huge, and he found himself gazing into the biggest and blackest hole he’d ever seen, out of which bats seemed to boil.
White later said that while he and others had seen the hole before, none had been inspired to explore it. But when he pondered what he figured were millions of bats flying out, he decided there must be huge caves to be able to support so many.
Exploring the Caverns
White returned to the mouth of the cave a few days later. He had some rope, fence wire, and a hatchet. He cut some nearby mesquite and made a ladder. He also
lit his handmade kerosene lantern. Then he descended 60 feet to the cavern floor, one hand on the ladder and one on his lantern, which barely penetrated the cloying darkness. He wisely decided that exploring on his own wasn’t the best idea.
He was, according to most records, the first person of European descent to explore the caverns. Zuni and Mescalero Apache had known of them for generations. However, there’s no evidence they ever explored them, although there are mescal cooking pits and petroglyphs around the area. White said, “I knew instinctively there was no other scene in the world which could justly compare with my surroundings.”
A week later, White and a fellow teenager some called Kid began exploring the cavern. At first, they were uncomfortable in the dark. The names White
assigned to the formations reflect their anxiety. He named the first drip pool Devil’s Spring. That was soon followed by the Devil’s Armchair, Devil’s Den, and finally the Witch’s Finger. As White explored and became comfortable being underground, he named other formations — now-familiar names like The Big Room, Queen’s Chamber, King’s Palace, and Green Lake Room.
Touring the Caverns Begins
As odd as it seems now, White had trouble convincing people about his amazing find. Some mined the bat guano to use for fertilizer, but few were interested in exploring the depths of the cave. Eventually, other people wanted to see the formations White described on his excursions. At first, he used a guano bucket to lower and raise hundreds of tourists into the cave, where — for a fee — they could see the spectacular formations. In 1925, a wooden staircase was built. If the climb down was disconcerting, the climb back up had to be exhausting.
Jim White eventually gave up his dream of being a cowboy for more heady enterprises. He continued exploring the caverns for many years and is credited with devoting his life to promoting them.
Carlsbad Caverns was named a national monument by President Calvin Coolidge in 1923. Seven years later, Congress passed a bill upgrading the caverns to a national park. The bill was signed into law by President Herbert Hoover.
In 1931, an elevator shaft was cut through the rock. It took eight months and 12 tons of dynamite to reach the Great Room, 750 feet below. Instead of a ponderous walk, visitors could reach the heart of the caverns in about a minute.
Carlsbad Caverns Today
Today, Carlsbad Caverns is a major attraction in the Southwest. People come from around the world to see them. And, no, you don’t carry a torch. Modern electricity provides all the illumination you need.
Once you reach the Great Room — either by elevator ride or hiking the paved trail from the natural entrance — you can take the mile-long self-guided tour around the Big Room.You can see even more on a ranger-guided tour of the King’s Palace, the Queen’s Chamber, and the Papoose Room. On this tour, the ranger will sit you down on a low wall and douse the lights.
Perhaps for the first time in your life, you’ll know the meaning of absolute darkness. There’s not a single photon of light to excite the cells of your retina. You will put your hand in front of your face, but you won’t distinguish fingers from the background, even when your palm touches your nose. If you weren’t already sitting, you’d probably keel over!
Cavern Bats Put on a Show
The bats that led White to the caverns are still part of the allure. From spring through fall each year, thousands of visitors attend the evening bat program to watch the migrating bats leave the cave to feed. At their peak — depending on how much rain has fallen and the fecundity of insects — the cauldron of bats could number 300,000 to 400,000.
Carlsbad Caverns’ status as a national park is due in part to the bats who call this place home and a young cowboy, who just had to know more about the dark hole that piqued his curiosity.
Besides providing access to the caverns, the visitors’ center on the surface tells White’s story in some detail. There’s a movie theater that visualizes a trip into the caverns, an exhibit center, a gift shop, and a snack bar. There’s also a snack bar in the caverns where the elevator lets you out (with limited options and only Friday through Sunday).
Timed entrance into Carlsbad Caverns is now required. Reservations are made online at recreation.gov. On that website, type Carlsbad Caverns National Park Tour in the search box. Fees are $15 for those 16 and older — free for younger children — and are paid when you arrive at the visitor center. The caverns are open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Note that the caverns will be closed January 22 – 29, 2023, to make electrical updates.
More to Explore in Carlsbad
Once you’ve seen the caverns, an adventure you can enjoy from dawn to dusk, there’s more to explore. There’s the Carlsbad Museum & Art Center in downtown Carlsbad on Fox Street. Established in 1931, the Carlsbad Museum is the oldest municipal museum in New Mexico. It has exceptional permanent
exhibits focusing on local and regional history as well as modern, contemporary, and Western art.
There are Native American ceramics, from early Mogollon and Mesa Verde vessels to historic pueblo pottery, along with Native American projectile points, textiles, and other artifacts. Open Tuesdays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Admission is free. Website: carlsbadmuseum.org.
If you’re looking for art to take home as a memento of your visit, stop by The Artist Gallery at 120 S. Canyon St., operated by the nonprofit Carlsbad Area Art Association. It showcases the work of local artists who are juried into the gallery. Find it online at theartistgallery.net. As you stroll through Downtown Carlsbad, you can find restaurants and plenty of other interesting businesses to explore.
At Carlsbad’s Living Desert Zoo & Gardens State Park, just northwest of town at 1504 Skyline Road, you can see more than 40 species of native wildlife and hundreds of species of plants native to the Chihuahuan Desert. A leisurely walk through the zoo and gardens takes about an hour and a half along the 1.3 mile-roundtrip trail. It is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $5 for those 13 and older and $3 for children 7 to 12. Website: livingdesertnm.org.
The story of James White’s discovery of Carlsbad Caverns is one of 36 true-life tales in Bud Russo’s nonfiction book, Heroes and Villains of New Mexico. It’s
available online where you usually shop for books.
Story and photography by Bud Russo
Originally published in Neighbors magazine | 2023
Posted by LasCruces.com