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Borderlands: Jim White Explored Carlsbad Caverns for Years 23 (2004-2005)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Jim White Explored Carlsbad Caverns for Years

Article first published in Vol. 23 (2004-2005)

By Ruth Reyes, Kyndle Tooke, Audra Graziano and Casandra Jimenez

"I worked my way through the rocks and brush until I found myself gazing into the biggest and blackest hole I had ever seen, out of which the bats seemed literally to boil. ... I couldn't estimate the number, but I knew that it must run into millions." So begins the amazing story of cowboy ingenuity, perseverance and the later controversy surrounding a cowboy named Jim White, who discovered Carlsbad Caverns in 1901 and explored the caves for decades.


Image caption: Jim White explored & promoted Carlsbad Caverns for more than 30 years. Photo courtesy of the El Paso County Historical Society 

White was born in Mason County, Texas, on July 11, 1882. He grew up working on ranches in the heart of the cattle business. Favoring "bustin' broncos to books and blackboards," Jim White was educated in the great outdoors.

In 1892, the White family moved to New Mexico, and Jim began work on the X-X-X Ranch, owned by John and Dan Lucas. Three miles away, his destiny waited.

Like other cowboys, Jim White knew of the dark hole in the ground but never felt the desire to explore it until he witnessed the bat flight. In Jim White's Own Story: The Discovery and History of Carlsbad Caverns, White wrote, "any hole in the ground which could house such a gigantic army of bats must be a whale of a big cave."

A couple of days later, he returned to the cave with some crude tools and a kerosene lantern. He cut sticks of wood from nearby shrubs and built a rope ladder in order to descend into the mouth of the cave. When White ran out of rope as he stood on a ledge, he lit his lantern and could see a tunnel off to his right about 20 feet down. Holding onto the wall, he descended to a level surface into a huge chamber. He now saw another tunnel off to his left.

He explored the tunnel to the left first, finding the bat cave. Returning to the large room, he headed for the tunnel to the right where he saw a wonderland. Enormous stalagmites rose from the floor, clusters of stalactites in a variety of colors hung from above and onyx-lined pools full of pure water sparkled brilliantly on the floor. Jim White would return again and again, often staying as long as three days within the caves.

Eager to share his discovery, White relayed his stories to the cowboys who laughed at him in disbelief. One who did believe White was a 15-year-old Mexican boy who began accompanying White in his explorations. All that White and "the Kid," whose real name the cowboys did not know, took with them were crude handmade lanterns, rope, a canteen of oil, and food and water. They wore overcoats to combat the steady 56-degree temperature and high humidity.

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White wrote, "Our lanterns looked like coffee pots. We had 'em fixed with string wicks an' made arrow and crosses on the walls an' rocks as we went along ... we'd come to a hard place and throw our packs over an' then climb down."

In their explorations, White and the Kid discovered an intact skeleton, about twice the size of an average man. When White went to pick up one of the bones, it crumbled into pieces. The skeleton had lain under a water drip for years, softening the bones with minerals and enlarging them with lime. White and the Kid found other skeletons during their various explorations. Archeologists think that an ancient people called the Basketmakers lived in the caverns around 1000 B.C.E. Apaches were known to live close to the cave in the early 1920s.

The bats, however, had been certain inhabitants for centuries. The caverns contained an incredible amount of bat guano. In 1901, Abijah Long, a fertilizer expert, realized that guano could be used as a nitrate-rich fertilizer. The following year, Long filed a claim for guano mining inside the caverns, and he offered Jim White work as a foreman. White now had every opportunity to spend time in the caves. In about 20 years, an estimated 100,000 tons of guano were taken from Carlsbad Caverns at as much as $90 a ton.

Throughout his career as mining foreman, White sought to bring recognition to Carlsbad Caverns. Over the years, he lowered hundreds of people into the cave in the guano bucket and guided them over trails he himself had built. When he was finally able to persuade a photographer to go down into the caverns in 1915, people began to believe the incredible stories White had told about the beauty and variety of the caves.

In 1922, a group of 13 businessmen from Carlsbad went down with White to confirm that he was not a liar. The men stayed with the Whites overnight (Jim had married in 1912) and explored the caverns the next day, beginning a type of bed and breakfast (and dinner) for the family, for which they charged only $2. White often took those who could not afford the $2 fee into the caves for free. He always took reporters in free for the resulting advertising.

In 1923, Robert Holley, the mineral examiner at the General Land Office, was sent to survey the caverns. The skeptic soon became the believer and wrote, "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 a desire for an inspired understanding of the Divine Creator's work which presents to the human eye such a complex aggregate of natural wonders in such a space."

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It had taken White 20 years to interest someone in the value of the cave. In his book, White wrote, "It occurred to me that since I was unable to interest an individual in further development and presentation, perhaps I could get the government to do something." In October 1923, President Calvin Coolidge declared Carlsbad Caverns a national monument, and Jim White became cavern guide. In 1924, a government geologist by the name of Willis T. Lee also got to experience the caves with White, resulting in pictures and articles in the National Geographic magazine.

When the federal government took over the caverns, it had been understood that White would be named chief explorer. However, no such position existed on park service lists, so it was up to the government to create the position. Thomas C. Boles, park superintendent, supported White in his battle for the position, but White was ignored. The cowboy was allowed to sell his story at 75 cents a booklet in the caverns. The Whites lived in a bungalow built for them at the caverns while he was chief guide or ranger. He resigned from that position in 1929.

White again applied for the job of chief explorer, and with that application he included a petition signed by many, including New Mexico Governor R. C. Dillon and prominent El Pasoans. An editorial in the El Paso Times on September 28, 1929, encouraged the director of national parks to "liberate Mr. White from the routine of guiding and permit him to devote his time and strength to the job for which, ..he is best fitted -- exploring the still unknown depths and recesses of that mighty underworld." White did not get the job.

In 1930, Carlsbad Caverns became a national park. According to One Man's Dream, a book by Ruth Caiar which takes up White's story after his own book ends, an oral contract was drawn up in 1937, permitting his father and mother the sale of the elder White's books in the national park. Even this recognition was not granted until New Mexico Senator Dennis Chavez introduced a bill that would grant right of concessions to White and his wife.

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More controversy arose after Jim White's death on April 26, 1946. A debate with Jim White, Jr., and the National Park Service began after the government allegedly forced his mother to sign an agreement that reduced her income from the books and another that allowed government officials to change White's book in any way they wished.

White's son said, "If we never get a dime more, I want the park officials to recognize that Jim White worked in the Caverns for 25 years before the government took any interest in it, and now they are trying to discredit him."

For Jim White, exploring Carlsbad Caverns had always been a time of joy. His wife early understood that he loved the Caverns almost as much as he loved her, and his greatest wish was to share his wonder and pleasure in the caverns with as many people as possible. In his lifetime, he was an explorer, guano miner, guide, trail-builder, park ranger and promoter for the caverns, profiting little from his activities. Carl Livingston wrote in the New York Times, "Jim White is not the explorer with the pith helmet, tight-legged pants, and horn-rimmed glasses  -- but the genuine article of cowboy tradition."

Today, millions of visitors have witnessed the magnetic qualities that tantalized Jim White to go deeper and discover more. The explorer's legacy is preserved in the name of White's City, located about seven miles from the Caverns, and in the short booklet telling of his adventure when he discovered this marvel, available from the Guadalupe Mountains Association for $4.95.

Today, Carlsbad Caverns National Park covers 46,766 acres and contains more than 90 caves. Only experienced cavers are allowed into most caves. In 1986, explorers discovered Lechuguilla Cave, more than 100 miles long. Because of its delicate ecosystem, Lechuguilla is open only to scientific groups.

Jim White explored these caves for 30 years, using the simplest of tools. Today, the official park guide to the caverns includes a small photo of White and a short summary of his exploration. Each evening that visitors watch the bat flight, they are experiencing the same sight a young curious cowboy did over 100 years ago. Jim White would be pleased.

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Tags: biography

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