Jim White's Adventure

By Richard Duree (Col. Richard Dodge, SASS 1750 Life)


Ruth Levin Duree and Richard Duree

Barely fifty years after Columbus' New World voyages, Spanish explorers were already probing far into the mainland of North America's huge Southwest. Coronado's 1541 expedition was one of the first and he ran into one of the most featureless areas to be found anywhere – the notorious "llano estacado." Reaching 250 miles north to south and 150 miles east to west in western Texas and eastern New Mexico, even today crossing the region by car can be a bit unnerving, its vast emptiness appearing like a brown ocean to a flat horizon.

Historians now question the translation of "estacado" as "staked plain;" presumably it was due to those explorers placing stakes as landmarks to retrace their path. It is believed that the word would have been "estecando," meaning "stagnant," for the many small, stagnant water holes that dotted the plain in those days, though Coronado makes no mention of them.

But on to our story:

When one travels through the dry, desolate, seemingly inhospitable land of the Southwest one wonders how anyone could possibly raise cattle on it. But raise cattle they did, even if it took forty acres to feed a cow. In the early years of Texas' settlement the land was grassland from the Gulf of Mexico all the way up beyond the Canadian border. Decades of overgrazing changed much of the land to a scene of cactus and mesquite, now unfit for cattle or anything else.

One the western edge of the "llano estacado" near the Pecos River, the Guadalupe Mountains interrupt the flat land in a picturesque sandstone uplift gouged with deep, winding canyons and rugged vertical cliffs. From its heights one can truly appreciate the vast expanse of the "llano estacado" stretching unbroken to the horizon.

Jim White, like many young boys of the late 19th century, preferred broncs to books, saddles to school desks, and the open outdoors to a schoolroom. But he was endowed with a natural keen curiosity and powers of observation.

"I just want to be a cowboy," he insisted to his parents. There were cattle ranches on the "llano estacado" in the 1880s and 1890s. Either in frustration or possibly to teach the youngster a lesson, his father took him to the XXX Ranch on the south side of the Guadalupes, owned by John and Dan Lucas. Jim never looked back and settled into the cowboy life he so much wanted.

It's likely that Jim was not the first to observe the swarm of bats rising from the Guadalupes, certainly no one had been curious enough to look into the swirling mass against the evening sky. Some, including Jim, had approached the huge opening in the cliff face and peered into its depths, but were not willing to venture into the darkness.

"I thought it was a volcano," Jim noted years later. He had approached the cave near evening and peered into the opening to watch countless millions of the tiny flying creatures swarm upward in an endless cloud for over an hour. He realized that there must be a larger cave than anyone thought to contain that many bats and his curiosity drove him to investigate.

Jim tied together a clump of dead cactus, ignited it and tossed it into the hole. Down, down it went, burning out before it reached the bottom. When the burning embers finally landed, Jim estimated it was down over 200 feet.

A couple of days later, Jim returned when the sun was best positioned to cast light into the opening. He fashioned a ladder of rope and wire, tied it off to a sturdy bush and carefully lowered himself down into the pit, carrying a kerosene lantern. His ladder was barely long enough, but he finally managed to stand on the level bottom of the pit. Before him was an opening so black it appeared to be solid.

His lantern cast a meek glow into that dark void as he carefully moved into the very bowels of the Guadalupe Mountains. To his amazement, the tunnel quickly opened up and divided into two tunnels, the one on the left more level, while the right fork seemed to slope sharply downward. He took the left fork first but quickly retreated; it was the bats' nesting cave and was filled with piles of bat guano.

The right fork descended sharply at first, then opened into an immense room. His light reflected off spectacular towering rock sculptures, glittering with water, which filled the young man with wonder. Curtains of stalactites hung from the ceiling far above; huge mounds of limestone rose to meet them. Dark pits surrounded him and stones cast into them took a long time to send their echoes back to him. Wondrous forms glowed at the range of his feeble light. Jim knew he was in the presence of one of the Great Architect's finest works.

Suddenly his lantern went out. Never was there such darkness. In all Creation, light had never entered the cavern and it was suddenly as it had been undisturbed for millions of years. Jim would have died there, unable to find his way out but for his foresight in bringing extra fuel for his lantern, which he managed with great difficulty in the blackness.

As he struggled to recover his light the sounds of the cave stopped him. The beauty of the concert enchanted him. Dripping water everywhere, leaving a gentle note as it departed from above and creating another as it met the surface below and splashed a melody older than time.

Realizing that he could end his life inside the cave, unknown to anyone, he finally managed to restart his lantern and started to retrace his path. He had left small piles of stones as he moved into the cave and began to fear he could not find them. Panic seized him and he started to run, only to ram his head into an overhead group of stalactites that broke off in a shower of needle-sharp points, some of them even piercing his hat and drawing blood. The impact at first stunned him, then brought him to his senses. He carefully traced his way back to the cavern's entrance. It was with great relief that he finally saw the glow of sunlight; fortunately, it was still daylight outside. He scrambled up his rope ladder to the world he knew. Standing once more at the cave's opening, he stared back into it, marveling at what he’d seen and determined to return.

Not one person he knew would believe his story, much less return with him to the underground wonderland. Finally, five days later a young Mexican lad agreed to go with him. The boy spoke almost no English, but he was plucky young man and Jim agreed to take him. Prepared with torches, canteens and food, the pair entered the cave and spent three days exploring its magnificent formations. Though the young Mexican was frightened stiff, he stayed with it, even when they discovered a couple of skeletons. Someone had been there before them and must have died a frightening, lonesome death.

Again, there were no takers or believers when he tried to convince others of the cave's existence. Sadly, the Mexican boy could not tell his tale; no one could understand his Spanish. The first person who took him seriously did so for strictly commercial reasons – the huge deposits of bat guano, which was superb fertilizer. So the first serious exploration of the caverns was not a exploration at all, but a commercial exploitation for fertilizer for farms in California. A shaft was driven down to the cavern and a huge bucket, powered by a gasoline engine, raised the guano to the surface.

Jim White would spend the next twenty years of his life promoting the caverns as a tourist attraction. He named many of the cavern's rooms and formations and even used the guano bucket to lower and raise visitors down that same shaft. Eventually, he attracted the attention of the U. S. Park Service. Jim White became a Park Ranger for Carlsbad Caverns and the rest is history.

Today, Carlsbad Caverns is visited by thousands of tourists each year, descending into the caverns either by a 700-foot elevator shaft or braving the natural entrance from the original opening. A carefully constructed walkway leads visitors through a wonderland of fantastic limestone formations, much of it accessible even by wheelchair. There is even a small café at the bottom of the elevator shaft! Carefully placed lights illuminate the rock formations throughout the caverns to illustrate their natural colors. Interestingly, discoveries are still being made as exploration of the caverns continues; many have been made only recently.

Plans are underway to replace the lights with LED lights to reduce the effects of the current lights, which negatively effect the cavern's features, which were after all, formed in total darkness. The caverns are experiencing changes from the presence of the thousands of visitors changing the composition of the air and leaving hair and lint everywhere. The drought of the past years is causing the cave to dry up and much of the "living cave" is stilled until the rains bring water once more.

Carlsbad Caverns is one of the natural wonders of the world. It is certain that someone would have eventually discovered and explored it and they would have been honored. It just happened that that person was a courageous, uneducated cowboy with a keen sense of curiosity and wonder and a tireless dedication to preserving that wonderful place.

Nicholson, Frank E.; Jim White's Own Story; Carlsbad Caverns Guadalupe Mountain Association; Carlsbad, NM; 1998