Sighting of ‘smoke’ led Jim White to Carlsbad Caverns

Jim White with the guano bucket he used to lower and raise tourists into the caverns. Courtesy Carlsbad Caverns National Park Archives.
Jim White with the guano bucket he used to lower and raise tourists into the caverns. Courtesy Carlsbad Caverns National Park Archives.
You may know the name Jim White. When you turn onto the drive to the visitor center at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, you pass through the tiny village with the inapt name of White’s City. And, if you enter the caverns through the natural cave opening, you may notice the plaque to James White, credited for discovering Carlsbad Caverns in 1898.

What you may not know is when Jim White was ten years old, his father asked him why he persisted in playing hooky from school. Said White, “I want to be a cowboy.” Now, most fathers would have smiled and told the child he could be what he wanted when he grew up. Now was the time for school.

Instead, Jim White’s father took him to the ranch of John and Dan Lucas, just west of Eddy — today’s Carlsbad — and left him there to learn to be a cowboy. Left him, but not abandoned him. White’s father bought a small parcel of land three years later and raised horses nearby the Lucas’ ranch. Young Jim occasionally came home but mostly stayed and worked the ranch. He was living his dream.

About the time he was sixteen, White was riding fence, mending breaks and looking for strays. What he saw would have stopped anyone dead in their tracks. It did him, too. He saw what appeared to be smoke that could have come only from wildfire. He needed to identify how big it was and in which direction it was burning. As he got closer, he got confused. He could see smoke, but he couldn’t smell it. And could neither hear the crackling of burning bush nor feel the heat of fire.

He didn’t like what he saw. Neither did his horse. He tied his pony to a nearby tree and began working through the cacti and sage to the top of a ridge and came upon a large opening in the ground.

What White had seen was a plume of bats rising from the opening. Thousands and thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats, although he would not have known that at the time. In his autobiography, entitled Jim White’s Own Story and ghost-written by Frank Nicholson, he says, “Any hole in the ground which could house a gigantic army of bats had to be a whale of a big cave. I found myself gazing into the biggest and blackest hole I had ever seen, out of which the bats seemed literally to boil.”

Park Ranger Lacey Thomas wrote last January on the Carlsbad Cavern blog, “Because he knew the other cowboys would mock him, Jim didn’t immediately describe what he’d seen to anyone. He thought it over for several days. The deep hole in the ground and its secrets continued to gnaw at him.” Any ten-year-old who’d give up school to follow his dream has to be an adventurous soul. Ranger Thomas adds, “He had to find out what was down in the dark recesses.”

White returned to the cave a few days later. He had some rope, fence wire, and a hatchet. He made a ladder to descend sixty feet into the cavern, now illuminated faintly by his kerosene lantern.

Jim White in The Big Room. Photo by Kennicott.
Jim White in The Big Room. Photo by Kennicott.
He discovered two tunnels. He explored one leading to the bat cave and then the other. “I followed on until I found myself in a wilderness of mighty stalagmites,” he says. It was the first cave he was ever in but, he continues, “I knew instinctively there was no other scene in the world which could justly compare with my surroundings.”

If you’ve visited Carlsbad Caverns, as I have on a couple occasions, you know — during some of the tours — the park ranger sits you down on a low wall and douses the lights. For the first time in your life, you know what darkness really is. For me, it’s shortness of breath, constriction of throat, and heavy-handed self-control to beat back claustrophobia.

Imagine Jim White crawling all alone through that darkness, encountering stalagmites, rimstone dams, soda straws, and chandeliers — formations of incredible beauty and fascination. He was the very first person of European descent ever to see them.

A week later, he returned to the cavern with a fifteen-year-old Mexican boy he called Pothead. That may have been because of the shape of the kid’s skull and not what he smoked. For three days, the two young men explored the caverns, carrying food, water, fuel, and handmade torches. They also smartly unwound a ball of string as they wandered underground, the better to find their way out.

As White explored and became comfortable being underground, he named the formations — now familiar names like The Big Room, Queen’s Chamber, King’s Palace, and Green Lake Room. His earlier excursions tell a slightly different story — discomfort leading to names like Devil’s Armchair and Witch’s Finger.

Of course, the bat cave had a thick layer of guano, and it wasn’t long before a company was formed to mine deposits, used to fertilize California fruit orchards. While I couldn’t find out the name of the guano mining company nor if White was part of the enterprise, I certainly hope he was. He would have made considerably more money mining than cowboying.

The guano diggers used a large iron bucket, powered by a gasoline winch, to raise bags out of the cave. White found another use for the bucket. He used it to lower and raise hundreds to tourists into the cave, where — for a fee — they could see the spectacular formations. White is credited with devoting his life to promoting Carlsbad Caverns.

Ranger Thomas concludes her blog, “Carlsbad Caverns National Park owes its existence to the bats, who call this place home, and a young cowboy who had to know more about the dark hole that teased his imagination.”