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Carlsbad Caverns


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Into the Darkness
Discovery of Carlsbad Caverns
The First Explorers
Indian midden circles
Indian midden circles

Pottery shard found in caverns

Pottery shard
Imagine the feelings of an early day Indian wanderer as he first viewed the black hole that later became known as Carlsbad Cavern. Whether it happened several thousand years ago, or only a few hundred, it must have been an awesome experience, especially if he was standing nearby as millions of bats spiraled their way skyward for an evening feeding.

It is very doubtful than any Indians ever went very far into the cave due to lack of light and the hazardous drop-off near the cave entrance. Indians did know of the cave; there are pictographs on the entrance walls and mescal cooking pits nearby and bits of sandals have been found below the first big drop-off into the cave.

Although Indians apparently did not venture far into the cavern, the Apaches were masters of the rugged limestone mountains and used other caves in the Guadalupes for shelter. Despite many years of early Spanish exploration in the Southwest, no evidence has been found to indicate the Spanish explorers ever penetrated the Guadalupes, much less knew or cared about the many caverns that exist here.

The first people, other than the Indians, to cross the region were possibly gold seekers headed west, or military men, or mapmakers. The old Butterfield stage line ran just below the Guadalupe Ridge for a year. Still, exploration of Carlsbad Cavern had to wait until the West was tamed, political lines were drawn, Indian wars were settled, and ranching had finally begun.

The Discovery & Exploitation
We do not even know the name of the first cowboy who came upon the "mysterious" opening, or why he came, but it was in the late 1800s. Early reports state that in 1883 a twelve-year-old boy named Rolth Sublett was lowered into the cave by his father. His exploration was apparently limited to that part immediately below the entrance where natural light was available.

Two years later, a young man named Ned Shattuck and his father was searching for a stray cow and witnessed an evening bat flight from the cavern. They reported that the flight looked and sounded like a whirlwind.

Through such encounters, knowledge of the existence of a large cave containing countless numbers of bats slowly spread. Then economic minds began to churn, Where there were millions of bats there would be great deposits of guano, a nitrate rich fertilizer and a valuable commodity In 1903 Abijah Long filed a claim for guano and other minerals on 40 acres (16 hectares) surrounding the mouth of what he called "Big Cave." Mining operations started soon thereafter. Mine cars were used to transport guano to the entrance. Then shafts were dug nearer to the vast deposits. Evidence of this activity is still visible today one of the mine cars is on display in the visitor center.

Most of the guano was shipped to southern California to help a developing citrus industry. In about 20 years of operation, over 100,000 tons of guano was taken from Carlsbad Cavern, amounting to about 90% of that in place when operations started. Six companies tried their hand at making it a financial success, but all failed due largely to high transportation costs.

The Early Visitors
Early visitors
Early visitors

The 'golden stairs' - made of guano
The "golden stairs"

Ladder leading to lower cave
Ladder leading to lower cave

The 'bucket elevator'
The "bucket elevator"

Jim White, an early explorer
Jim White, an early explorer
As mining began, large numbers of people entered the cave; yet few of the miners explored more than the area near the entrance. The notable exception was James Larkin White, At one time or another Jim White worked for all but one of the guano mining companies. In his spare time he took his miner's lantern and probed deeper into the darkness, coming back with "wild" stories of what he had seen. Soon he convinced friends to go with him and see the wonders so long hidden from the world. Stories of the splendors slowly spread.

In 1922 the stories attracted the attention of Commissioner William Spry of the General Land Office. He initiated an investigation to determine if the cave was worthy of being set aside as a national monument. The man assigned to the investigation was Mineral Examiner Robert A. Holley and his report was glowing. He wrote the following as an opening to his report:

"I enter upon this task with a feeling of temerity as I am wholly conscious of the feebleness of my efforts to convey in words the deep conflicting emotions, the feeling of fear and awe, and the desire for an inspired understanding of the Divine Creator's work that presents to the human eye such a complex aggregate of natural wonders in such a limited space."

Major Richard Burgess of El Paso was instrumental in having a geologist, Dr. Willis T. Lee, visit the cave. Dr. Lee's immediate recommendation, like Holley's, was in favor of a national monument. On October 25, 1923 President Calvin Coolidge signed a proclamation creating Carlsbad Cave National Monument.

The earliest visitors entered the cavern by standing in a large bucket that was lowered by cable down one of the mineshafts. Only two people could ride the bucket elevator on each 170 foot (51 meter) trip. Trails were constructed in the mid- 1920s and made the entry less "thrilling."

Worldwide interest created then has continued to the present, National Park status was obtained on May 14, 1930, when President Herbert Hoover signed into law a bill establishing Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

Today the visitor center stands near the cavern entrance. Paved trails lead the way down over the precipices and through the maze of rocks, and electric lights eliminate the need for torches. Still, every visitor who comes to Carlsbad Cavern surely feels a touch of the same sense of mystery and excitement that must have gone through the mind of each of those, who in his own time "discovered" Carlsbad Cavern - and that is as it should be.

Site Gallery - Other Views
 Early miners  Visitors in the 30s  Visitors in the 40s
 Lunchroom in the 40s  Visitors in the 60s Visitors in the 70s
 Trash left behind
The early days were not so kind to all the visitors.
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