Through The Carlsbad Cavern with Jim White
by Carl B. Livingston
“Everybody please step up and write your names on the register,” announced Jim White, “so we'll know you’re not left when we come out!” Jim is the first explorer and the head guide of the largest cavern in the world—the Carlsbad Cavern of New Mexico. The cavern was made a national monument by the proclamation of President Coolidge about two years ago.
We were waiting a couple of hundred feet down in a great funnel-like pit, the natural opening to the cavern. It was 10 o’clock in the forenoon. Upward was a rim of yellow cliffs and a splotch of turquoise sky; downward was space, eternal darkness and silence.
The gate slid open and the crowd passed within; the gate closed and was locked with an ominous click—we were severed from the world, with our destinies weighing on Jim White and his staff of guides.
An excursion of phantom shadows, fairy realms and ghostly stalagmites: giant hallways, skyscraper ceilings and pits of hell-four hours of which brought us to rest in the huge chambers of the lower chamber.
“We’re 3 miles back and 840 feet below the surface,” remarked the explorer, as he lit a fuse that began to sputter from the end of a magnesium flare. “Course we could go down nearly a thousand and maybe keep a-goin’, but—”
Before he could finish the flare burst into a vivid white light like a prolonged flash of lightning. The inky cloud overhead dissolved and we saw the jeweled ceiling high above and the cliff-like walls standing far apart; the flare burnt out and once more depressing darkness closed in close around the cluster of lanterns.
“How did you ever manage to find your way into the lower chambers,” I asked.
“Me and Pete Smith,” Jim answered, “went off on a rope over the jump off in the big room and landed here in the lower chamber.”
“This lower chamber is just another colossal room under the big room; but we had reached the “basement” by the safe-and-easy route of the “dude”—through steps down a sinkhole in the door of the big room. Then a maze of winding passages and alluring hallways had led us into the great open space where we now stood in the middle of the lower chamber.”
While the flare was burning, a jump-off had been pointed out as the great, ring-like hole a hundred feet overhead and several hundred feet in diameter. And Jim White and his comrade, Pete Smith had gone that perilous route.
“Comin’ back out on the rope,” continued Jim, “I was kinda scared for Pete, because long toward the top he sorry kicked and fought the air. We had two ropes hangin’ side by side; on one we would pull ourselves up a foot or two at a time, and at the same time the fellows helpin’ us on top would jerk up the slack in the one that was tied to us. We made it back out without a scratch.”
“But,” he added, “before either of us topped out, we both was mighty near all in. And if it’d been another yard or two, I guess we’d a been down here yet.”
Jim White is not the explorer with the pith helmet, tight-legged pants, and horn-rimmed glasses—but the genuine article of cowboy tradition. There is a difference between the “high-brow”explorer with money and prestige as speedsters to fame, and the prowess of the pioneer who blazes the way over new horizons with just nothing save a step that is true and a light in his eye that knows no fear. There was no crowd of reporters to hang on Jim’s every word. Had he failed in his purpose, there would have been none of the soothing ointment of consolation that comes to explorers of position in the shape of “victorious defeat” when they do not succeed. Had Jim been killed, he would not have been a national martyr in the cause of science, but just a “durn” fool—he did succeed though and the hats are off to him.
Jim White does not talk much, except to a few, and not very often then. And I have it straight that what he says is not “windys” invented to entertain the “dudes” and that there is much else he does not think worthwhile to mention-incidents that would still be a thrill alongside those of an elephant hunter.
We had heard so much about the cavern we craved some of the simple facts from those who had really done the work, and we drew him out as best we could.
He was a sturdy-lean figure and even drawl. Down in the land of the unreal—of stalagmites and gloom—he sat cross-legged on the ground in the manner of the men of the range country; and while he deftly rolled cigarettes from the “makings,” he glanced back over the vista of his life and recounted with little concern experiences that would lay the basis for a new Arabian Nights.
It was learned that a mining company had once conducted extensive operations in removing from the cavern vast deposits of guano in the half-mile section around the entrance. Said Jim: “Twenty-five years ago I landed the first stick o’lumber upon the hill to build the shacks.”
“We always knocked off on Sundays and when the weather was bad—then was the time we explored! We had a happy-go-lucky bunch, too. Some of the boys used to love to set around all day and play cards, smoke and spit, and cuss until the air was blue. Others didn’t seem to get so much of a kick out of it, and a few of them used to go exploring with me.”
Sometimes his “pal” Pete went long; other times it was Lige Hill and Henry Samples, who are now guides and “know the cave like a pocket in a shirt and have been on the job ever since they have been yearlings.”
“We’d never bite off mor’n we could chaw,” was their maxim. Only a little at a time did they explore, and when known landmarks became firmly fixed in mind, they would push on farther.
In the early part of our visit we had followed a safe, zigzag trail through a gruesome pit, 150 feet deep, aptly called the “Devil’s Den.” The walls were so precipitous and irregular that the first attempts with no trail and without knowing what lay ahead, must have been a horror.
“That was the hardest part o’ the whole thing,” Jim declared. “Finally I made it across the Devil’s Den, and before I went on I made five or six trips across trying to find a better way.”
We had next followed for several blocks through a colossal hall whose ceiling often rose so high as to be out of range of even the pocket searchlights. The official survey found the height to be about 300 feet—a ceiling high enough under which to stand a fair-sized skyscraper.
“Long there,” Jim related, “we just kinda felt our way as we went. An’ I didn’t think much about danger until a mile back we run across the skeleton of a man layin’ like he’d fell off a big rock. That nearly queered the whole business with me—for a while at least. I thought I’d cut it all out and say I’d seen enough, but all of a sudden I just went on and I found the King’s Palace.”
What is known as the “King’s Palace” was recalled as a series of four great, mystic chambers whose decorations must have been patterned by nature after the myth of fairyland.
“And for a long time I thought the King’s Palace was as far as the cave went, but one day while back there we climbed up a steep hill into that big crack and follered it till it quit, and there was the big room.”
“We spent a night and a part of two days wanderin’ around over the big room, like bein’ turned aloose out in a canyon pasture on one long dark night with only oil torches for lights. Durin’ then we come up on the edge of a bluff, the jump-off, and that was all I'd started in to tell.
“But how did you keep from gettin lost?” I asked. “With this,” Jim replied, picking up from the floor a piece of rotten strong, which had strung through portions of the cavern years ago as he made his exploration. We remained in appreciative silence, and resumed, “The guano had been a hundred feet deep around the natural opening, but finally we begin to reach the rocks in the bottom. The works shut down, and everybody blowed up and left, but I kept hangin’ on.”
“Then I hit on the idea of takin' people through the cave to show ’em the sights, but I never expected to see such a crowd as all o’ this!” waving a hand at the throng.
We were informed that miles more of the cavern was then explored; but people who lived right at the entrance did not believe that the cavern was so stupendous a thing. Only a few came to visit what may with propriety be called “the eighth wonder of the world,” and not much impression was made on very many of these.
The fuse that set off the rocket of publicity by which the cavern became known is a young man by the name of Ray V. Davis, who came out and took many pictures of the cavern. Some of these photographs came into the hands of a Mr. Robert A. Holley of the United States Land Office, and he made a preliminary survey for the government. Soon thereafter the cavern came speedily to the attention of others of influence, which resulted in the creation of a national monument.
We had entered by cavern by a tediously long, but safe, stairway through the new natural entrance, which route is “the way de luxe” as compared with the perils of the old entrance. During the mining days the guano had been hoisted out of the cavern through a shaft punched through the roof.
Later for some time the shaft was used as the entrance for tourists. The descent was 180 feet through sheer space, in a mining bucket on the end of a steel cable.
“But we never did have any accidents around the cave,” explained Jim, “except once in the mining days when a drunk man come stumblin’ along and fell heels over head into the shaft. I was froze with fear, but the bucket, loaded with filled sacks, happened to be comin’ up and was just enterin’ the hole in the roof. Then up came the bucket and clingin’ on was our friend—when he put his foot on solid ground he shore was sober!”
Having seen a rat scamper across the floor of the big room, I inquired, “Have you ever seen life of any kind as far back as the lower chamber?”
“Yes, and farther, too—we chased a cave cat through this very room less’n a year ago; bones of other little animals have been picked up about as far back as anybody has ever been. It looks like there may be another entrance we don’t know anything about.”
“What do you consider the strangest thing during your explorations?” another queried.
“A runnin’ stream down herein the lower chamber when Pete and me went over the jump-off in 1906. It run till 1907. When we have a few more wet years maybe the stream will start flowing again.”
“And once I was walking along through a place in the cave we call Pipe Springs and I bumped into a stalactite; it broke off, and a stream of water gushed out like a hydrant open.”
“What was the closest call you ever had?”
“Once, when we used to use torches I was carryin’ some kerosine oil in a gunny sack slung over shoulder. The oil sprung a leak. Walkin’ just behind me was a feller carryin’ one of them blazin’ torches. The first thing I knew the man let that torch touch the rack and my pack started going’ up in flames and me tied to it! I had a time breakin’ loose from the pack, but I didn’t get burnt too much.”
“Speakin’ of bein’ excited, a priest that weighed 300 pounds went as far as the Devil’s Den, took a look, didn't like the look o’ things, and gave up the trip. That was the days when we pulled ’em up in the bucket. When the priest was about half way up, somethin’ happened to the engine, and we had to stop and leave him where he was for a minute or two; then we started to let him back down under perfect control of the brakes, and I could hear him mumblin’ something like a prayer.”
“It’s funny how much alike most people are. In the first part of the cave where there is nothing pretty every crowd hollers, ‘Oh, isn’t it marvelous!’”
“Also nearly everybody asks if I don’t think that this cave is connected with every other cave in this part of the country.”
“People are imitators—one starts to peckin’ on somethin’, and then they all will start poundin’ on whatever is handy. That’s the reason we don’t allow any walkin’ sticks brought into the cavern, because they get to usein ’em for clubs.”
“People love to write their names. This is strictly agin the rules—to write on the scenery. They don’t seem to realize that it took thousands of years for these formations to make.
“In the old days, when we used to let ’em take out a few souvenirs people was great hands to lug out a lot o’ junk to the surface where they would get a look at it and throw it away.”
“When a crowd starts into the cavern, we always give ’em the once over to see if anybody looks like he might not make the trip. It always makes ’em mad to turn ’em down and we hate to do it. Some even try to slip through. Once a man with wood feet got by us when we used to use the bucket and shaft. He didn’t go far—I found him layin’ by the trail near the Devil’s Den and I packed him back out.
“A couple of schoolma’ams showed up at the cavern with a dog. To see what he would do, we let him foller ’em through—and he kept right up with the crowd.”“Among the queerest that have ever been around here was the scientists. I didn’t pay much attention to them at first, but I found that every once in a while they would tell me somethin' that would keep me laughin’ for a week.”
“When we first built the stairway, a few people slipped into the cave before we could get the gate up. Up in the big room we run across a feller showin’ his girl the cave-he was carryin’ a lantern with one mantle broke off and with the other side barely danglin’ on. And when we asked him, he didn’t think anything about fallin’ through a sinkhole or perambulatin’ off over the jump-off.”
“And down here in the lower chamber another man was found wanderin’ around by his self. He didn’t seem to know that he could have strayed off and got lost in some of the lanes where we do not go for several days and maybe months at a time. That’s why we have visitors to register and why we keep the gate locked—we never take a chance on losin’ anybody.”
It was time to start back out and the crowd began to move. “Hay-a-a,” Jim called to a group that had started on. “You’re goin’ the wrong direction-back the other way!”
“You see,” he added, “how easy it is to get turned around. Who can tell which way is north?”
As many guessed one way as another, and we fully realized the satisfying feeling of safety in having such men as these guides, who know the cavern “like a pocket in a shirt.”
While we paused on a hill for a renewal of breath, Jim confided that he had just finished paying out a home by “herding dudes” through the cavern, he had a wife that could cook and a boy in school.
“But little Jim (now age 88--Bob Hoff, 4/27/07) is not to be a cave explorer when he grows up, because the job’s too dangerous for what you get out of it, and besides there won't likely be anything left to explore by then.”
At last upon the surface, the sinking sun was spreading a panorama in cerise and purple across the heavens. Following Jim, the waiting cars slipped away, one at a time, through the shadows into the desert back to town—Carlsbad—the starting and ending point, where we left our pilot of the underground to be picked up by the next party with the same curious ideas and funny questions.
© Bob Hoff, 2007