Growing up in America a few years ago, little boys watched The Lone Ranger and Roy Rodgers. The desire to be a cowboy caused them to ride stick horses, gallop about their yards, and play with toy six-shooters. But the real life of a cowboy was not as glamorous or exciting as Hollywood portrayed it to be. However, one cowboy, James Larkin White’s job as a cowboy led him to an accidental discovery that was not only a wonder to him, but has remained a wonder for more than a century.
White was born on July 11, 1882 on a ranch in Mason County, Texas. Like many boys of his day, school was just not on his list of favorite things to do. Young Jim wanted to bust broncos. At the age of 10, Jim convinced his father to let him try his hand at being a cowboy. They traveled to the southeastern corner of the neighboring state of New Mexico where Jim was left to work on the XXX Ranch owned by John and Dan Lucas.
Nearby at a place called Lonetree, Jim’s father purchased a parcel of land. It was slightly west of a town called Eddy. Mr. White waited three years before moving the rest of the family to the new location where they operated a small horse farm. It was close enough to the XXX Ranch that young Jim could visit his parents, even staying with them on occasion.
Jim had only been a cowboy for six years when he was out on assignment looking for stray cattle in the Chihauhuan Desert. He was sixteen and still working for the Lucas brothers. He traveled with a crew sent out to mend fences. Looking into the desert, Jim saw what looked to him like a volcano or possibly a whirlwind. As he stared at the blackness rising from the hills, he noticed that the site did not behave like either of those things. Curiosity got the best of him, and the teenager left his horse tied to a tree and worked his way closer to the dark rising object. As he drew closer, he realized that what he was seeing was a plume of bats ascending from the hills.
He continued to move through the brush until he came to the edge of an enormous opening in the ground. In his own story, Jim White noted “any hole in the ground which could house such a gigantic army of bats must be a whale of a big cave.” He added, “I found myself gazing into the biggest and blackest hole I had ever seen, out of which the bats seemed literally to boil.”
The discovery of the cave had been by chance, but Jim’s return to it was no accident. He waited a few days before returning with a bit of rope, some fence wire, and a hatchet. From nearby shrubs, he cut wood and created a handmade ladder which he lowered into the dark opening. He lighted his way with a homemade lantern fueled by kerosene.
Jim lowered his ladder into the cave and moved downward about 50 feet where he found the first ledge he could stand on. It was the first cave he had ever been in. From there he continued descend even deeper into the cave, about 20 more feet. Jim was finally on what looked and felt like floor. Using his lantern, he began to make his way into the cave until he reached a chamber which had two tunnels leading out from it. The tunnels went in opposite directions. He checked out each tunnel entrance and learned that the tunnel that led to the right took a downward turn. Seeing that the tunnel to the left seemed to provide a level path, Jim decided to explore it first. His adventure led him to the Bat Cave where creatures of the night clung to the walls and ceiling during the daylight hours. After making this discovery, the teenager returned to the original chamber where he made his way down into the other tunnel.
What he spied in the second tunnel, Jim described as a wilderness of mighty stalagmites.” Even though he had never been in a cave before, he sensed the magnitude of the place. He felt that “there was no other scene in the world which could be justly compared…”
His exploration of his surroundings was not an action to be taken lightly. Jim faced dangerous perils as he crawled along ledges. He moved over and past openings that could have swallowed the cowboy. No doubt, he thought of turning back, but the beauty and size of the stalagmites seemed to beckon him to continue.
The wonders seemed to go on endlessly. He saw chandeliers and stalactites. Other formations such as flowstones and soda straws proved equally fascinating. There were pools of water and brimstone dams. In fact, the formations seemed to numerous to mention.
Jim did what many of us would do. He dropped rocks into the dark pits listening for their end to help him determine not only how deed they were but what lay at the bottom. He told of rolling one large rock, a boulder, into one of the pits. As he listened, he heard it hit something and then began to roll. He said it rolled and rolled until its sound became only an echo to him.
The young man was so mesmerized by the sites that he stayed so long that his lamp burned all of its kerosene. Suddenly, he found himself in a darkness unlike any he had ever experienced. Luckily, he had brought a spare canteen filled with extra fuel.
He filled his lamp and wasted no time ascending finding his way back to the opening. But as he left, he knew that he would return.
And return he did. But he did not go back alone. Five days later he brought with him a fifteen-year-old Mexican boy who was called Muchaco, The Kid, and on occasion, Pothead. The two brought supplies of food and water. They carried with them fuel for the homemade torches which they also brought. This time, the young men spent three days exploring the wonders off the caverns. Perhaps the smartest thing they brought was a ball of string which they used to ensure their ability to find their way back out.
Jim White published a book, Jim White’s Own Story, in 1932. It is from this account that we know much of what his early explorations were like. Despite the title, White was not the actual author of the book. A ghost writer, Frank Earnest Nicholson, exchanged his writing services for the payment of a boarding bill. In 1929, Nicholson was able to get the New York Times to sponsor an expedition into what had become known as Carlsbad Caverns. The mission was ill-fated.
As news of the Caverns spread, Americans as always, looked for a way to make a profit from the discovery. The caves were filled with guano, bat excrement. A company designed a guano removal system which involved lowering iron buckets into the cavern in which the excrement was loaded. The dropping were then sold as fertilizer for about $90 a ton in regions where fruit trees needed nourishment such as California.
Jim White, however, found another use for the guano buckets. He capitalized on the curiosity of others and opened the way for tourism in the region. He used them to lower tourists into the caverns.
In 1892, White married an eighteen-year-old girl local girl from Longtree named Fannie Hill. The couple lived in a two-room house which was built practically directly over the Bat Cave. It was provided for them by the guano company. After the birth of their son, James Larkin White, Jr., the couple moved to a four room house also provided by the guano company.
As years passed, Longtree became known as Carlsbad, New Mexico, and more and more tourists came, and the Caverns became a national park. Tourists trails were created in the Caverns highlighting many of the early areas White and Muchacho had explored: the Big Room, the King’s Palace, and the Queen’s Chamber. White was allowed to sell his book to tourists. He used the original guano bucket, placed in what became The Underground Lunchroom, as his stand from which to pitch his sales. After his death, the sale of the books ceased and the bucket was given to Charlie Dugger by White’s son. Dugger stored it in his garage.
Jim White died of Bright’s Disease in 1946 on the 26th day of April. He was 63 years old. He headstone’s epitaph reads, “The Discoverer of Carlsbad Caverns”. He is memorialized with a bronze plaque placed in the lobby at the part visitor center. It reads:
JAMES L. WHITE
Beginning in 1901, Jim White made the first known
extensive explorations of the Carlsbad Caverns.
He was chiefly responsible for bringing the attention
of the public, scientific groups and the federal
government to the importance and significance
of the caverns.
In the 1980, more than thirty-four years after Jim White’s death, an inscription carved into the rocks deep within Carlsbad Caverns was discovered. It simply read, “J White 1989”.
Photo 1: Fossil HD Cover. Photo by Daniel Mayer
Photo 2: By Daniel Mayer
Photo 3: By Wing-Chi Poon
Photo 4: James White