Elevators might seem like a strange topic for a National Park Podcast, but today we’re going to talk about a special elevator. In 1931, the National Park constructed what was then the second highest (or shall we say deepest) elevator shaft in the world — descending tourists 754′ into the wonders of Carlsbad Caverns National Park — and it’s been at the center of some pretty wild incidents.
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Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode.
Carlsbad Caverns – National Park Service Website
What kid isn’t fascinated by elevators? I know I was, probably still am. My oldest son was obsessed when he was younger. Is it glass? Is it fast? Can I push the button?
Elevators might seem like a strange topic for a National Park Podcast, but today we’re going to talk about a special elevator. In 1931, the National Park constructed what was then the second highest (or shall we say deepest) elevator shaft in the world – descending tourists 754′ into the wonders of Carlsbad Caverns – and it’s been at the center of some pretty wild incidents.
Here’s Abigail Trabue.
Deep below the surface in the Guadalupe Mountains at the border of Texas and New Mexico lies one of the world’s greatest wonders – Carlsbad Caverns. When the park opened, the only way to enter the cavern was to be lowered in a large bucket that had been previously used to harvest bat guano. Shortly after, a staircase and trail were constructed to takes visitors in through the natural entrance — a one and a quarter mile strenuous hike down winding switchbacks.
The 30s brought innovation to the Caverns, allowing one of the more difficult parks to enter to become one of the easiest – an elevator shaft was blasted 750 feet into the ground. On December 29, 1930, around the clock excavation began from both above and below. It took 12 tons of explosives to clear out the 4,000 cubic yards of rock. On December 23, 1931, the state of the art Otis elevator was finished. It cost an additional 50 cents, causing usage to be limited until the end of the great depression.
On January 25, 1939 at 12:31 PM, Ranger Leslie Thompson was working the elevator shift, and had just returned to the surface where a group of 11 visitors were buying tickets. Assistant Electrician Claude Carpenter took control of the elevator from Thompson to bring the chief clerk and the auditor down ahead of the tourist party. Thompson stood by the oil heater to warm up while awaiting the tourists.
Ranger Thompson began his speech to the tourists, similar to the one still given today. He opened the elevator door and turnied to the crowd to see their tickets as he backed into the elevator. In those days there was no failsafe to keep the door from opening when there was no elevator car in place. The tourists tried to stop him, but it was too late; Thompson plunged down the elevator shaft.
Thompson quickly grabbed on to the cables to try to slow his descent. Thanks to the thick cable grease he was able to decelerate without harsh friction burns. Thompson stopped himself just 140 feet into the 750-foot elevator shaft, clinging to the cable in the dark.
Unlike most elevators covering a large distance, there are only two “floors,” and a rescue with only two entrances into the shaft is challenging.
Employees brought the second car down the adjacent cable, and pulled him in, with only a well-greased uniform and a few blisters to show for it.
The Superintendent of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Thomas Boles, wrote to Robert Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” and Floyd Gibbons’ “Headline Hunter” radio program about the unbelievable story of a ranger falling down a 754 foot elevator shaft and surviving. The Associate Director of the National Park Service quickly squashed the publicity, pointing out that such an accident could scare visitors away. The story was buried in the National Park Service records, only to be found at the National Archives in Denver 3 years ago.
Visitation steadily increased after World War Two. By the 1950s, the Park Service blasted a second elevator shaft for a pair of larger elevators.
On July 10, 1979, a ranger was working the underground information desk and had just checked the clock. Nearly 200 visitors and Park Service employees were down in the cave. the Ranger glanced into the elevator lobby. An elevator had just come down, and a long black object stuck out of the elevator door. It looked like a gun barrel. No way, he thought. It must be a cane.
Two men got off of the elevator, accompanied by a ranger. The men were both carrying rifles. He first thought was that some sort of law enforcement situation was going on. Then he saw the look of terror on his colleague’s face. She came over to the desk, followed by the men, and picked up the microphone to announce that the cave was being taken over and everyone needed to leave out the natural entrance as the men brandished their weapons.
Two more assailants joined, with enough weapons for a small militia. And they were drunk. They had been drinking since the night before, stayed up all night, and were carrying fifths of whisky as they took the cave hostage. They fired off dozens of shots at what they thought were approaching rangers in the dark. They trapped over a hundred nearby in the Big Room in 56-degree temperatures, for the next five hours. A woman on her first day of work at the caverns suffered a series of epileptic seizures. A claustrophobic man with a heart condition managed to be snuck out by park officials.
The terrorists demanded a million dollars, a flight to Brazil, and a reporter to record their words. Less than an hour and a half after the first hostage was taken, authorities brought the publisher of the local newspaper, The Carlsbad Current-Argus, to meet the third demand, but when he attempted to call from the surface, the men refused to talk.
“Get your ass down here,” one of the men said. “They’re screwing us around. We want to tell the world exactly what we need. I’ll guarantee your life.” The FBI hesitated to let the reporter into the cave, but the journalist was up for it and took the elevator down to the underground cafeteria.
A special agent trained in hostage negotiations came the 110 miles from El Paso. A SWAT team was at the ready. The reporter started notating the story that would be picked up by papers all over the country:
“I’m tired of Mexicans coming in and taking our jobs. No, make that all aliens. They ought to kick them all out. They’re making $20 billion in welfare . . . ” complained one of the terrorists. The most articulate of the bunch, a Native American, talked about how the United States was oppressing his people. They complained about rising gasoline prices.
The men fired off several more shots and told the reporter they didn’t plan on making it out alive. They came there to die.
Once the liquor ran out, the men proposed to trade the reporter to the FBI for a bottle of vodka, but then released the reporter and the ranger they still held hostage on their own accord.
The FBI negotiated to knock the charges down from a felony to a misdemeanor for attempted false imprisonment, and at 8:47 p.m the men surrendered up the elevator. On August 2nd, all four men pled guilty to misdemeanors for false imprisonment and the destruction of federal property and were sentenced to a year in prison. In August of 1980, the perpetrators of America’s only subterranean terrorism incident were freed.
The vast majority of visitors access the elevators at some point during their visit. Constant monitoring and upkeep are required for visitor safety. Each morning, mechanics run a check on the elevators before allowing visitors to ride, and from time-to-time, the elevators are not available. In November 2015, a six-inch motor shaft unexpectedly sheared off in the primary elevator system. Both the primary and secondary elevators were deemed unsafe. The secondary elevators re-opened in May of 2016, and have been the only functioning elevators since.
Earlier this year, in March, one of the two operating elevators failed, trapping a family of three. The Carlsbad Fire Department began training for elevator incidents after the primary system failed in 2015, and once they arrived on the scene, they brought the second car down, using a ladder to land on the roof of the first and rescuing the trapped tourists.
And yet, after 87 years the not once person has lost their lives. Certainly there have been moments of great peril and fear, yet the elevator remains the main route of access for millions of people, and a way to help ensure all visitors to the park have a chance to see the wonder underground.
The best way to visit the Caves at Carlsbad Caverns National Park is to walk down in through the Natural Entrance, and then take the elevator back to the surface. Once you’re down in the main cave, much of the trail is wheelchair accessible. You do not want to miss the journey down through the Natural Entrance – some of the best wonders of the cave are along the switchback trail. If you’re up for a steep vertical hike, you can go the opposite direction, taking the elevator down, and walking up and out. Your entrance ticket gets you as many elevator rides as you want for the day, so you can come back up for lunch and then head back down. No pets are allowed in the cave, nor can you leave them in your vehicle, so a kennel service is provided for a small fee.
There’s more to the park than just the cave. Rattlesnake Canyon is a beautiful crevice in the Guadalupe Mountains. You can hike a trail through it, or see it from an overlook on a scenic drive.
One of the best attractions at Carlsbad Caverns is the nightly flight of thousands of Brazillian free-tailed bats from the entrance. The park service has built an amphitheater to view the creatures—which are the fastest animals on earth—at the mouth of the Natural Entrance. The bats are in residence at Carlsbad from late April through October, and the park service begins a nightly ranger-led program each year on Memorial Day.
You can check the status of the Elevators, which are still unavailable from time-to-time, on the park’s website.
This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to hit the subscribe button, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group for national park lovers. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.
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