James Larkin White, better known as Jim White was born July 11, 1882, on a ranch in Mason County, Texas.
He preferred “bustin’ broncos to books and blackboards” and started working Texas cattle at a very early age.
One day, Jim told his father “I want to be a cowboy.”
So, at the age of 10, his father agreed to take him to the southeastern corner of the New Mexico Territory.
His father left Jim at the XXX Ranch of John and Dan Lucas. Before long his father bought some land at Lonetree, just west of the developing town of Eddy and moved the rest of the family there three years later.
Jim occasionally stayed at his family’s small horse farm, but mostly lived and worked on the Lucas ranch.
Discovery of Carlsbad Caverns
An inscription reading “J White 1898” was discovered deep within Carlsbad Caverns in the 1980s. It provided witness to the presence of 16 year old Jim White.
One day in 1898, while riding his horse through the Chihuahuan Desert looking for stray cattle with a fence mending crew for the Lucas brothers, Jim saw a plume of bats rising from the desert hills. To Jim, the bats appeared to be a volcano, or a whirlwind but did not behave quite like either. He tied his horse to a nearby tree and worked his way through the brush to the edge of a large opening in the ground.
Jim described the moment by saying,
“I found myself gazing into the biggest and blackest hole I had ever seen, out of which the bats seemed literally to boil”.
A few days later, Jim returned to the hole with some rope, fence wire and a hatchet. He cut wood from some nearby shrubs and assembled a makeshift ladder.
“Standing at the entrance of the tunnel I could see ahead of me a darkness so absolutely black it seemed a solid.”
—Jim White, Jim White’s Own Story
He lowered the ladder into the opening and using a homemade kerosene lantern, descended approximately 50 feet to a ledge.
Jim then climbed down an additional 20 feet to a floor. Using the “sickly glow” of his lantern, he made his way into the cave.
He later said he felt as if he “… was wandering into the very core of the Guadalupe Mountains.”
After reaching a chamber, Jim noted two tunnels leading off in opposite directions, one downward and to the right and one, more level, to the left. He decided to go left first and discovered the Bat Cave.
“… any hole in the ground which could house such a gigantic army of bats must be a whale of a big cave.”
—Jim White, Jim White’s Own Story
He explored it for a while then proceeded back and down the other tunnel.
“I followed on until I found myself in a wilderness of mighty stalagmites. It was the first cave I was ever in, and the first stalagmites I had ever seen, but instinctively I knew, for some intuitive reason, that there was no other scene in the world which could be justly compared with my surroundings”
By the time Jim reached these first formations, he had “… crept cat-like across a dozen dangerous ledges and past many tremendous openings …”.
He saw more stalagmites, “… each seemingly larger and more beautifully formed than the ones I’d passed”. He encountered chandeliers, stalactites, soda straws, flowstone, pools of water, rimstone dams and other formations.
Jim dropped rocks into pits to determine their depth. He rolled one boulder into a pit and it fell for a couple of seconds and then “… kept rolling and rolling until its sound became an echo”.
Then the light from his homemade kerosene lantern went out. The darkness seemed to smother him. Jim described the incident by saying, “It seemed as though a million tons of black wool descended upon me.”
After refilling his lantern from a spare canteen of oil, he made his way back to the surface.
The next day, Jim returned to the cave to show a friend what he had found. His friend was a 15 year old Mexican boy — known only as Muchacho, The Kid, or Pothead.
Four days later, Jim and the Kid began their exploration. They carried food, water, fuel and homemade torches, they searched for three days.
They used a large ball of string to use to ensure their exit.
“… it would be impossible to even exaggerate our experiences during those three days.”
—Jim White, Jim White’s Own Story
They explored approximately the same areas of the cave that our modern tourist trails cover including the Big Room, the King’s Palace and Queen’s Chamber.
Jim White’s Own Story
The original record of the early events surrounding Jim White and Carlsbad Caverns comes from a booklet, self-published in 1932, titled Jim White’s Own Story.
The booklet was ghost written by Frank Ernest Nicholson in exchange for payment of a boarding bill. Nicholson was a journalist and later led the ill-fated Nicholson Expedition to Carlsbad Caverns in 1929 sponsored by The New York Times.
Jim White had a permit with the National Park Service to sell the booklet from the Underground Lunchroom.
Dennis Chavez, a U.S. Senator helped Jim obtain the permit. At first, the agreement was oral but later, it became more formal.
“Jim White discovered the Caverns in the good old American way of adventuring.”
—Senator Dennis Chavez of New Mexico, One Man’s Dream
The guano bucket
One of the early guano companies dug a shaft making a more direct route to the guano deposits in the Bat Cave. It was serviced by a large iron bucket operated by a gasoline winch. This system was used to haul bags of guano out of the cave for use as fertilizer in places like the California fruit orchards. The guano was sold for 90 dollars a ton.
Jim White used this guano bucket to transport hundreds of tourists into and out of the cave.
The original guano bucket was used as the stand in the Underground Lunchroom from which Jim White sold his booklets.
In 1899, the local citizens of Eddy voted to rename the town of Carlsbad.
Jim White married Fannie Hill on January 1, 1912. She was eighteen and a longtime friend from the town of Lonetree. Their first house was provided by the guano company. It was a “… two room shack, set practically on top of the small bat cave, which was several hundred yards from the main cavern entrance.”
Jim and Fannie had a son named James Larkin White, Jr. on March 23, 1919. Jim moved his family into a four room house provided by the guano company when Jim Jr. was about two years old. It was a few hundred feet farther from the cave entrance. They did not have running water at the house; instead, Jim would take a burro to Oak Springs and let it loose to find its way home with two cans of water on its back. Fannie would empty the water into a barrel when the burro returned. On May 1, 1926, Jim White became Chief Ranger of Carlsbad Cave National Monument.
His home did not get electricity until 1929 or 1930 and then it was only on during the day.
Jim White died April 26, 1946 in a hospital in Carlsbad, New Mexico at the age of 63. He suffered from Bright’s disease and died of coronary thrombosis.
He told a reporter for the Carlsbad Current-Argus, two days before his death, that he felt well but was not ready to ride a horse to California, again.
He is buried alongside his wife, Fannie, at Carlsbad Municipal Cemetery in Carlsbad.
The epitaph on his tombstone reads “The Discoverer of Carlsbad Caverns”.
Sales of the booklet Jim White’s Own Story ceased two months after his death.
Then a movement was started to have a statue of Jim White erected at the cavern entrance. Instead, a bronze plaque was placed in the lobby at the park visitor center which reads:
JAMES L. WHITE
Beginning in 1901, Jim White made the first known extensive explorations of the Carlsbad Caverns.
He was chiefly responsible for bringing the attention of the public, scientific groups and the federal government to the importance and significance of the caverns.
In 2011, a large, bronze statue of Jim White descending a wire ladder was unveiled at the National Cave and Karst Research Institute (NCKRI) building in Carlsbad, New Mexico.
Now WE know em