Greetings From: Carlsbad, New Mexico

Carlsbad One of the rooms at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Walkway handrails in the middle of the photo give sense of scale.

by Michael Boyink / mike@douglascountyherald.com

You’d think the story came from the pages of Boy’s Life magazine.

Or from the pen of Jack London.

10 year old Jimmy hates school. Wants to be a cowboy.

He is from Texas, after all.

His family is already in the cattle business, so it wasn’t a big stretch.

But he doesn’t stay in Texas. 

Jimmy’s dad brings him to the southeastern corner of New Mexico Territory.

Other cowboys in the area knew about the big hole in the ground.

But one day Jimmy, now 16 and going by Jim, saw something they hadn’t.

Bats.

Thousands of them.

Swirling and curling like so much smoke.

Coming out of that hole.

Jim later wrote “any hole in the ground which could house such a gigantic army of bats must be a whale of a big cave.”

He returned with tools and a lantern. Made a ladder from rope and sticks.

And all alone, Jim lowered himself into that hole.

In the dim beam of his kerosene lantern, an underground wonderland opened up. Gigantic stalagmites. Hundreds of stalactites. A rainbow of color. Pools of water.

Carlsbad Caverns, National Park, Carlsbad, NM.

And bat poop. Thousands and thousands of pounds of it.

For the next 20 years, Jim explored the caverns, building trails and naming the different rooms and features. He worked as a bat guano mining foreman and ran a B&B to pay the bills.

Carlsbad Caverns, National Park, Carlsbad, NM.

He also guided visitors to the caverns, lowering them down in the bat guano bucket. Each time, he’d hope this was finally the visitor that would realize the beauty and significance of what he’d found, and want to help promote it.

That visitor never came.

So Jim turned to the government instead. A visit from a mineral examiner from the local Land Office started the process that led to President Calvin Coolidge declaring Carlsbad Caverns as a National Monument in 1923.

And Jim?

The government let him be a guide. And sell his story about finding the caverns for $0.75 in the cavern lunchroom.

But he wanted more. He wanted to be officially recognized for what he’d already been doing for decades.

He wanted to be named Chief Explorer of Carlsbad Caverns.

The Park Superintendent lobbied for him. The Governor of New Mexico lobbied for him. Jim submitted a petition that included their signatures along with other important people from the area.

No dice.  

You know how it goes with bureaucracy. That title didn’t exist in the park system. If they created it, would other people want it? Would other parks require that same position? And Jim, you know, didn’t have any sort of degree. Shouldn’t a chief position require that?

It took a New Mexico Senator to pass a bill just to allow Jim and his wife to continue to sell their books at the park.

They also let Jim  continue to guide others through the parts of the caverns he knew so well.

After 30 years spent below the dry scrubby plains of New Mexico, Jim “Mr Carlsbad Caverns” White died in 1946.

He’d discovered the largest cave chamber in America, then went on to map out 19 miles of cave connecting to it. He promoted the caves by introducing thousands to their wonders. He’d helped establish one of the nation’s most popular and unique National Parks. 

Not bad for an old cowboy.

Carlsbad Caverns, National Park, Carlsbad, NM.

Learn more about Carlsbad Caverns at nps.gov/cave. Jim White’s book can be found by searching for “Jim White’s Own Story” on Amazon.com.