By Janice Dunnahoo
Special to the Daily Record
This is the second part of a two-part story about the beginnings of the discovery and exploration of Carlsbad Caverns. This story was taken from the January 1934 edition of the New Mexico Magazine, and is shared with permission from the editors of New Mexico Magazine. Along with the amazement of how they explored the caverns in those days, there is humor in this article, and you can’t help but respect those who put their life on the line to do this.
Although this story was written about and told in 1934, I’m including a short article to begin with, taken from the Alamogordo News, April 24, 1924, when the exploration began:
Carlsbad Caverns Will Be
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Surveyed By National Experts
“While in Carlsbad recently Forest Supervisor O. Fred Arthur attended a smoker in honor of Stephen Mather, director of national parks. Mr. Mather had made a tour of Carlsbad Caverns, outlining the work to be done by his department in making this area a national monument.
“The government and the National Geographic Society have set aside $20,000 for a detailed survey of the Carlsbad Caverns, and Dr. Lee of Washington D.C., is in charge of the work. The caverns, Mr. Arthur says, are closed to the public for six months while the survey is being made.
“Mr. Arthur assured the national park officials of the full cooperation of the United States Forest Service here in making exploration of the caves. A survey will also be made of the Guadalupe Caverns, which lie near Queen, in the Lincoln National Forest. These caves are similar to the Carlsbad Caverns, being of the same formation but smaller than those at Carlsbad.
Other men’s bones — part 2
New Mexico Magazine
”… At that time descent into the cavern was by bucket let down by an ancient engine, or by a ladder, which was 185 feet long. Guano was also lifted up in the bucket. Once a drunk man fell down the shaft but luckily landed in the bucket, which was bringing up a load of guano to the surface.
“That bucket was a peculiar contraption. It was just a metal barrel and wobbled until properly balanced. Usually four skinny men were lowered at one time, in order to balance each other and keep the bucket stable. Two fat men usually made a load.
“I remember one occasion when we had only one fat man, and he was so big we decided to lower him by himself. He was a jovial priest and started the trip with a smile, but when the rope stuck and his bucket began to rock perilously from side to side with 100 feet of air between him and the bottom, his smile gave way to fear and later he started praying. He must have done a pretty good job of it, for we got him out in a few minutes.
“Usually trips were uneventful. We had a skillful man to operate the hoist. But there came a day when that skillful man didn’t appear. He was ill, I believe. We had another man on the job who posed as an expert hoistman, and swore he could lift that bucket down or haul it out like lightning. We didn’t realize at the time that he made the remark literally.
“Jacob Gayer, chief photographer for the National Geographic, was there, and he wanted to go down into the cave with me. Gayer was one of those rare men who doesn’t know what it is to be afraid. He had taken one of the first air trips over the Andes and obtained some remarkable pictures.
“I climbed in that bucket to make the descent, but instead of going down I went up. By ducking quickly, I didn’t get brained. The hoistman had a funny look on his face and I wasn’t sure whether he had done it on purpose or not. Then the bucket started down … like lightning. But by some miracle just before it hit bottom that hoister pulled the right lever and I made a perfect landing.
“The bucket started up again and Gayer started down … with a fortune in photographic equipment with him. His descent still stands as a record. He was making about 100 miles an hour just before the bucket landed. Gayer was one of those men who not only knew how to cuss, but believed in it. He lifted his equipment out of the bucket and had one leg over the side when the hoist man pulled another lever and the bucket shot upward again. Gayer hung by one leg for about 20 feet then shook himself free and made a three point landing … both shoulders and one hip. He then sat upright on the spot where he landed, to regain his breath and cuss. Meanwhile the empty bucket was ascending to the dizzy heights of the cave dome, the equivalent of the top of a 10-story building.
“After Gayer had emitted a short series of blankety, blankety, blanks, suddenly I heard an ominous buzzing sound. I looked up toward the ceiling and there came the bucket down at the speed of an airplane in a nose dive. We shouted at Gayer to roll out of the way pronto. He didn’t seem to know just what was the matter, whether it was a rattlesnake or what, but being in the wild together for a few months, we had learned to act suddenly and investigate afterward. So Gayer just rolled out of the way without trying to get up. The bucket landed … like a pile driver hitting a bridge pile … on the exact spot where he had been a second or two before, and bounced about 20 feet into the air. Regardless of the thrilling trip that each of us had on the way down into the cave, we never felt that we were not so much out of luck, after all, seeing the bucket with the bottom almost telescoped.
“We then shot several pictures and decided to return by way of the ladder. The cavern in its early days had several types of ladders. There was the wire ladder which dropped from the first level of the cavern to a chamber 175 feet under the Big Room. A wire ladder sounds alright, but it took an acrobat to climb either up or down one. You would get halfway down and the ladder would turn around, or begin to spin. Part of the time you would have your face to the wall and part of the time your back would be against it and your feet fighting to find a rung. Exploring the cavern at that time was something like crossing the ocean in a caravel. You could do it, but when you got to thinking about your narrow escapes later, you swore never to do it again.
“Gayer had no fears about scaling that rickety old wooden ladder 185 feet to the surface of the cave. I did. But I had more fear of that bucket and that wild-eyed hoistman. The ladder was in several pieces and in some places it swayed out from the wall. Many of the rungs were gone. When I had made 100 feet, I looked up, then looked down, and wished that I had chanced the bucket. Gayer was coming along behind me unconcerned. I remembered that old priest praying and I tried it, but it was a poor kind of prayer, being out of practice the way I was, but it got me up … and I never trusted myself on that half-rotten ladder again.
“Dr. Lee was a great old gentleman, but he had his vanities, and one of them was his children — daughter Elizabeth and son Dana. He had brought both of them along on the trip, and they were with us on most of our explorations. Dr. Lee also liked his publicity and he had a knack for such things. For instance on our first few trips to the caverns, we could have discovered about everything there was to discover, but that wasn’t Dr. Lee’s way. He discovered just one thing at a time and even though it had been known to old timers for years, it was given to the papers as something new and wonderful — and Dr. Lee got credit for the discovery. Occasionally he allowed son Dana to make a discovery; but so far as I can remember I didn’t make any — not in print anyway.
“When we were photographing objects of beauty or interest in the caves to go with our story of the new discovery, Dr. Lee would say: ‘Daughter Elizabeth, you stand right over here. That’s it. Now face the camera. Come a little closer both of you. That’s fine. Now Carl, you go way-y-y-y back there and stand sideways.’
“I would walk back a couple blocks or so and stand sidewise … and the good Lord himself would have trouble recognizing me in the picture. Dr. Lee wanted me in the picture only as a measuring stick, so the people viewing the picture could judge the height of the stalactites and stalagmites by comparing them with me. Well, I made a good measuring rod and if anyone doubts it, he can refer back to the old files of the National Geographic and take a look for himself.
“Throughout our explorations I was constantly amazed by the information about the cavern that the old-time cowboys of that section possessed. For years the caves of the Guadalupe had been a hobby of mine, but I learned a lot from the cowboys I had known for years.
“One day a rider stopped his horse near our camp and watched us for a time, then volunteered that if we would go ‘way back in there’ we would find a beautiful totem pole arrangement with a fine spring flowing at its base. I had never heard of a spring in the caves, and Dr. Lee scoffed at the idea, but weeks later we discovered both the totem pole and the spring far back in the cave where the cow puncher had said it was. Such knowledge was encountered almost daily. Many old timers knew far more about the cavern than they were given credit for knowing. With this being the case, it seems strange at first that they were not brought to the attention of the world long before they were. But there are many reasons why they weren’t.
“In the first place, the Carlsbad Cavern embraces only a few of the caves in the Guadalupe country. There are other series of caves in this region, which may be as large or even larger than the Carlsbad Cavern. Dr. Lee believed this to be true. We made preliminary explorations of several of the caves in the Guadalupe’s and had Dr. Lee lived, he would doubtless have had an another and more extensive expedition to study the caves in the more inaccessible parts of the mountains. Deep Cave is one of the larger of this group; the Black Cave, Cottonwood, and the Hidden Cave are others, and there are a score more in addition to these. Caves are no novelty to the residents of the Carlsbad area. They didn’t know how large the caverns were, and they didn’t particularly care.
“It took some highly influential group, such as the National Geographic Society, to give the world the real picture of the Carlsbad Caverns, and to arouse public interest. After that had been done, their appeal to the imagination of millions of people was assured.
“After Dr. Lee had obtained a fairly comprehensive idea of the extent of the cavern, and after a trail through the more spectacular portion had been roughly mapped out, he became anxious to show off his baby and arranged for a grand tour of the cavern. For this tour he invited only celebrities, and what a group he picked! The first big tour is historic, or should be. I was among those who conducted it.
“But that story will be told later.”
Janice Dunnahoo is chief archivist at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.