carlsbad caverns cavern

Carlsbad Caverns National Park : The Big Cave

Carlsbad Caverns National Park consists of 46,761 acres in the Trans-Pecos region of southeastern New Mexico, in the central part of Eddy County. It shares borders with various types of lands, including Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management territories, as well as state and private lands.

Within the park, perennial streams are absent, but there are numerous intermittent streams that receive water from springs and flash floods. Rattlesnake Springs serves as a consistent water source, where a spring-fed stream emerges from a thick bed of alluvial gravel and eventually disappears into the water table. These springs are crucial for sustaining wildlife in the area.

Elevations within the park range from 1,095 meters (3,595 feet) in the lowlands to 1,987 meters (6,520 feet) at the highest point on the Guadalupe Ridge escarpment. The park’s climate varies significantly based on elevation, with lower elevations being warmer and drier, while higher elevations experience cooler and moister conditions.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park holds significant historical value as it preserves remnants of the Capitan Reef, one of the world’s most remarkable ancient barrier reefs. The Guadalupe Range, rising from New Mexico, reaches its highest peak within the park. Over 250 million years ago, lime deposits from seawater and marine organisms formed this reef along the shallow shelf of the Delaware Basin in the Permian Sea. Subsequent sedimentation covered the reef, and geological forces uplifted the region during the past 10 to 12 million years, gradually exposing the resilient limestone of the Capitan Reef. Ongoing erosion from the old reef has resulted in the deposition of salt flats west of the park boundaries.

For centuries, nomadic hunter-gatherer groups inhabited the survey area, leaving behind traces of their presence such as pictographs and cooking pits in the Guadalupe Mountains. In the 1300s, a more settled group of people occupied the caves in the survey area and built pit houses west of the Pecos River. Spanish explorers, including Álvar Núñez, Cabeza de Vaca, Antonio Espéjo, and Castaño de Sosa, traversed the area in the early 1500s, following the course of the Pecos River.

Around 1400, the Mescalero Apaches settled in the survey area, sustaining themselves through hunting and gathering local plants for food. For almost 200 years, the Apaches clashed with Comanche Indians and settlers from the Guadalupe highlands, considering the Guadalupe Mountains as one of their final strongholds before eventually being displaced from the region in the late 1800s.

The area witnessed the passage of the first Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoaches in 1858, which converged just west of Guadalupe Pass along the St. Louis-San Francisco mail route. In 1867, Dick Reed established a trading post on the Pecos River, which later became known as Seven Rivers. New Mexico achieved statehood in 1912, and in 1930, Carlsbad Caverns National Park was designated by Congress.

Notable developments within the park include the laying of six miles of water pipe from Carlsbad Cavern to Rattlesnake Springs in 1934, replacing Oak Springs as the park’s water supply. A Civilian Conservation Corps camp was established at Rattlesnake Springs in 1938, and this area became an additional unit of the park in 1963. In 1995, Carlsbad Caverns National Park attained World Heritage Site status, recognizing its global significance.

In 1745, Padre Juan Miguel Menchero conducted a mapping of the region that would later become Carlsbad Caverns National Park. During his exploration, he observed herds of cattle near the Pecos River. As the late 1800s approached, settlers began to arrive and engage in farming and ranching activities in the mountains.

In 1866, Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving led extensive cattle drives along the Pecos River and established “cow camps” in Seven Rivers and the present-day Carlsbad area. They were soon joined by John Chisum, who brought his own estimated 100,000 head of cattle through the Pecos Valley. In 1880, a group of settlers arrived in the town of Seven Rivers with sixteen wagons. Dan Lucas started ranching along the Black River, which now encompasses the Washington Ranch. Around the same time, Charles B. Eddy, along with his brother John and partner Amos Bissell, founded the Eddy-Bissell Cattle Company. In that same year, Henry Harrison from Indiana settled at Rattlesnake Springs, and his farm served as a supply point for cavalry patrols in the 1880s.

In 1884, the Eddy brothers and Bissell initiated the Halagueno Ranch, spanning from Seven Rivers to La Huerta (a Carlsbad suburb). In 1887, Charles Eddy constructed the Halagueno diversion ditch on the Pecos River, situated three miles upstream from the Avalon Dam (completed in 1890). He incorporated the project as the Pecos Valley Land and Ditch Company, with the aim of attracting European settlers to the area.

On January 10, 1891, the first railroad train arrived in Eddy from Pecos, Texas. This new means of transportation facilitated the movement of cotton, alfalfa, cattle, sheep, wool, and people. As a result, more investors were drawn to the region, leading to an influx of settlers.

1901 Jim White: Carlsbad Caverns NATIONAL PARK NEW MEXICO Its Early Explorations as told by Jim White Born—July 11, 1882 Died—April 28, 1946

“Jim White, native of Mason County, Texas, grew up ranching … surrounded by the cattle-business, without even a grammar school education. Jim would have preferred bustin’ broncos to books and blackboards even if there had been a little log schoolhouse on his native soil. So it was an experienced ten-year-old range-rider who teamed up with John and Dan Lucas of the X-X-X Ranch in New Mexico, three miles or so from the entrance to the cave. Jim White spent eight or ten years on the range surrounding Lucas’ Ranchhouse, and like the other rangemen, had known of “the bat cave”, but he had felt no impelling urge to see what was hiding in its darkness.

Then came the day of the bat-flight. Crawling through the rocks and brush, Jim White approached the spot from which the bats seemed literally to boil. The incredulous young range-rider made a feeble guess about the number of bats—could think no further than millions—but realized that any hole with capacity for that many bats must be a whale of a big affair. Creeping still closer, Jim finally lay on the brink of the chasm and looked down … into awesome, impenetrable blackness.”

Timeline History of the Carlsbad Caverns (from National Park Service (PDF) U.S. Department of the Interior
Carlsbad Caverns National Park New Mexico)

1400 – Mescalero Apaches come to the Guadalupe Mountains area.
1536 – Cabeza de Vaca is the first of the Spanish explorers to cross southeastern New Mexico.
1583 – Antonio de Espejo leaves Acoma and travels south along the Pecos River into Texas. He calls the river Rio Salado.
1724 – Pedro de Rivera inspects the province of New Spain. His engineer, Francisco Alvarez y Barriero is one of the first to map the Guadalupe Mountains.
1745 – Padre Juan Miguel Menchero maps the area of present-day Carlsbad. He notes herds of cattle along the Pecos River.
1849 – Captain Randolph B. Marcy explores the Guadalupe Mountains area. Numerous expeditions crossed this area that had recently acquired by the United States.
1855 – Captain John Pope of the Army Topographical Corps crosses the Guadalupe Mountains surveying routes for the railroad.
1858 – The route of the Butterfield Overland Mail runs through the Guadalupe Mountains. A stage station is established at Pine Springs.
1866 – Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving begin driving cattle north along the Pecos River on the
route that becomes known as the GoodnightLoving Trail.
1867 – Dick Reed establishes a trading post on the Pecos River at the later site of Seven Rivers.
1870 – Seven Rivers (originally called Dogtown because of the prairie dog colonies there) is settled
by the Herskill Jones family of Virginia. Situated where seven arroyos lead into the Pecos River, it became an important trading post on the cattle trail from Texas. Outlaw Billy the Kid frequently visited Seven Rivers.
1880 – Sixteen wagons full of settlers arrive at Seven Rivers in September. Dan Lucas begins ranching along the Black River on the property that is now Washington Ranch.
1881 – Henry Harrison arrives from Indiana and homesteads at Rattlesnake Springs. Cavalry patrols use his farm as a point of supply during the 1880s.
1882 – July 11, explorer/guide James Larkin White born in Mason County, Texas.
1884 – John T. Plowman comes from Dallas County, Texas to ranch on the Black River. (Patterson)
Captain John Shattuck of Anderson County, Texas settles on a spring in Dark Canyon. (Patterson)
The settlement of Badgerville is started at the present site of Hope. Many of the residents lived in
dugouts like badgers.
1892 – White family moves to Lone Tree, New Mexico.
1898 – 16-year-old, Texas-born cowhand Jim White probably enters the caverns for the first time. The
first to find the entrance remains disputed.
1912 – January 6, New Mexico becomes a state, 62 years after becoming a territory.
1915-1918 – First photographs in cavern’s Scenic Rooms and Big Room taken by Ray V. Davis. His
photographs stimulate interest in the cavern. Davis’ photos appear in the New York Times in 1923.

1924 Elizabeth Lee served on the 1924 six month (day-trips only) National Geographic Society sponsored caverns expedition led by her father, the noted geologist Willis T. Lee. Dr. Lee took leave from his regular
job with the United States Geological Survey, not only to direct the expedition, but also to act as the Carlsbad Cave National Monument’s first custodian in charge. Besides hiring
White as the expedition’s guide, and local writer/expert Carl Livingston as his personal helper (and several others), Dr. Lee hired both his children, Elizabeth and Dana, to serve on the expedition.
In his unpublished memoirs written after the expedition (Lee died in 1926 at 61) Lee said, “My daughter, Miss Elizabeth L. Lee, began work as secretary to the expedition but soon proved that she could be useful as a ‘cave woman.’ assisted me in the cavern much of the time, especially in the
photographic work. Her figure may be recognized in many of the photographs here used for illustration.”

CANYONS & CAVES A Newsletter (PDF) from the Resources Stewardship & Science Division

1923 –April 6 to May 8, Robert Holley, General Land Office, surveys and maps the cavern, guided by Jim
White and photographed by Ray V. Davis. Recommends establishment as national monument. On October 25, Carlsbad Cave National Monument was established.
1923 to 1927 – W.F. McIlvain serves as first custodian (superintendent), overseeing first trails, stairs and
lights. He supervises Jim White, works with Willis T. Lee, coordinates with city officials, including the
Chamber of Commerce, and makes $12 a year.
1924 – March 20 to September 15, Dr. Willis T. Lee, sponsored by National Geographic Society and assisted by Jim White, extensively explores cavern. NPS Director Mather visits in April.
1925 – Staircase from natural entrance to Bat Cave installed, eliminating use of guano bucket to enter
cave. Donated by Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce.
1926 – First trail by NPS—dirt path and wooden stairways through Main Corridor, Kings Palace,
Queens Chamber, and three quarters of the Big Room. Installation of first electric lighting system
via Main Corridor and Kings Palace.
1927 – Trail past Bottomless Pit opened. School for employees’ children established in park. Cavern
Supply Company is established as the park concessioner. Entry fee – $2.00 per person.
June 23 – First wedding ceremony is held in Carlsbad Cavern, performed at Rock of Ages.
1928 – February, Charlie White (no relation to Jim) homesteads 120 acres at the entrance to Walnut
Canyon, the future Whites City. Amelia Earhart visits the caverns in September. S
1930 – May 14, Congress designates Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
1931 – January-August, 750′ elevator shaft is drilled and blasted from both ends—the surface and the
cavern. In November, the elevator is installed, going into operation in January 1932. Two larger elevators and another shaft are added in the middle 1950s.
1934-1935 – Six miles of water pipe is laid from Carlsbad Cavern to to Rattlesnake Springs replacing Oak Springs as the park water supply.
1937 – February 9, Jim White begins selling his book (ghostwritten by Frank Ernest Nicholson) in the
cave. His wife Fanny continues to sell it until her death in 1964. In July, Tom Tucker discovers Slaughter Canyon Cave (New Cave).
September 28, park receives the 1 millionth visitor. Through February 2005, the park has received over
39,000,000 visitors.
1938 – July 1, a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp is established at Rattlesnake Springs. The
camp is in operation until April 1942.
1946 – Jim White dies in Carlsbad, on April 26, at the age of 63. For his exploration, guide services, and
promotion of sharing the caverns with the public, he is unofficially “Mr. Carlsbad Caverns.”
1959 – In March, construction of the current visitor center is complete; old stone buildings near the cave
entrance are removed and tour operations transferred to the visitor center. Adjacent parking
areas, originally constructed in 1940 as overflow, are now used as primary parking, with the lower
parking area designated as overflow and Bat Flight parking.
In June, the motion picture Journey to the Center of the Earth with Pat Boone and James Mason, is
filmed in the Kings Palace and Boneyard.
1963 – The bat flight amphitheater at the natural entrance is constructed and placed into operation.
First requested some 16 to 17 years earlier as seating area for bat flight viewers at the natural entrance watching the bats. In December, the Rattlesnake Springs was added as a detached united of the park.
1967 – In June, self-guided trips through the Big Room are begun. Rangers stationed at points
throughout the Big Room interpret their section as visitors pass by. Tours are still guided through Main Corridor and Scenic Rooms.
1972 – On January 6, self-guided tours of entire Cavern are initiated.
1975-1977 – Cavern’s lighting system replaced.
1986—Lechuguilla Cave discovered to “go further” than expected. Over the coming years, it is taken to over 100 miles of explored passageway.
1995 – In December, Carlsbad Caverns National Park is declared a World Heritage Site.
1998 – Employee reunion held.
2005 – Lechuguilla Cave tops 110 miles of passageway

See also: Janice’s Journal on Carlsbad Caverns