Soldier Explorers of the Fort Stanton Cave
by Mike Bilbo and Walter Earl Pittman
Stretching underground beside the Bonita River in Lincoln County is one of the longest caverns in the United States, the Fort Stanton Cave. There are many unique features of the Cave, besides its fantastic length. The most spectacular and scientifically interesting is "Snowy River", the worlds largest calcite formation, a two-mile long feature that looks like a sparkling, snowy, frozen river.
Already known to Native Americans, the first Whites to discover and explore the Cave were soldiers of the U.S. Army. Within weeks of the founding of Fort Stanton in May 1855, a group of soldier tourists found the Cave, explored some of it and left their autographs carved in the soft rock of what has since become known as "Inscription Rock".
Six men of the 1st Regiment of Dragoons signed their names and the date 1855. Their Company ("K") was known to have been at the Fort from May to mid-July, 1855. Four of the men were Germans; one was Emil Fritz, who later served with the California Column and the New Mexico Volunteers during the Civil War, and during several Indian campaigns. Settling at Fort Stanton, Fritz went into business with his Army buddy, Lawrence G. Murphy, as ranchers, post traders and store owners at the Fort and in Lincoln. Complications caused by Fritz' death in 1874 triggered the bloody Lincoln County War.
The earliest written account of the Fort Stanton Cave came in 1862. It was recorded by Bredett C. Murray, a young Arizonian, raised in Michigan. Murray, who became a prominent newspaper editor in Texas after the War, had been an editor of the short-lived Mesilla Times during the Confederate occupation. He joined the Confederate Army in 1862 as part of asecret Confederate unit designed to operate behind Union lines in the West, the "Brigands", later reorganized as Company "E", Madison's Regiment (3rd Regiment, Arizona Brigade) of Texas Cavalry. Thorugh out the War, Murray carried a little notebook in which he jotted down various things of interest, including several stories that he apparently intended to write about one day. The notebook still exists.
Murray recorded one of the stories while his Regiment was at San Antonio in the fall of 1862. It was told to him by two of his fellow soldiers, also from Arizona, First Sergeant James Cullimore and William Boyle, both born in Ireland. In 1856, Cullimore and Boyle had been troopers in the First Dragoon Regiment stationed at Fort Stanton and had explored the now famous cave. This is Murray's account as he wrote it:
A New Cave - Sargt Cullimore in company with a part of men in 56 discovered a large cave about 2 miles below Fort Stanton, Aza. It commenced in the side of a hill - in a ravine, where the land for several acres around appeared to have sunk, leaving the cave open. Cullimore and another gentleman explored the cave some 1 1/2 or 2 miles, stretching cotton cord when they thought there would be difficulty in finding their way back. At about 2/3 of the distance, they found the remnants of a fire -- the fire brands and all, but everything was petrified. Here were also the most beautiful stalactites hanging from the sealing [sic]. They went on until they came to a lake of water covered over with a thin incrustation of rock but which was not strong enough to bear a man's weight. Here were fish without eyes. Having no boat, they were obliged to retrace their steps. They could not find out the extent of this lake. In their travels, they passed under the Rio Bonita towards the Capitan Mts. It ran on a level not far below the surface. An account of this exploration was prepared by C's partner Bill Boyle (I believe is the acc & published in a New york paper & also in Doublin(?) - some Indians (a chief) with whom they met were questioned in regard to it but although they were acquainted with its existence, they refused to enter it, having serious superstitions in regard to it.
There is no way of knowing how many other soldiers followed Fritz, Cullimore, and Boyle into the Cave during the years Fort Stanton was an active Post (1855-1896). Many did. Few left any written traces beyond cave wall graffiti. An exception was a well-organized trip in 1871 by Lt. Oresemus Boyd, accompanied by the Post Quartermaster, Capt. Casper H. Conrad. The two intrepid explorers took with them a small boat, built by the Fort's carpenter, to explore the large, underground lake known to exist there. The remains of the boat can still be seen in the cave. They spent several days underground and penetrated some eight miles by their own reckoning, which is entirely possible.
The underground lake they described is apparently an ephemeral phenomenon that appears when the water table is high during wet climatic periods. It was reported in 1856 and 1871 but disappeared by 1877. It has not appeared in modern times. "Eyeless" fish were also reported, although it doesn't seem possible for fish to exist in water saturated with calcite.
In 1877, the U.S. Army made a scientific exploration of the cave. It was a spin-off of the large Wheeler Survey which undertook to map the entire American West between 1869 and 1879. The exploring party was commanded by Lt. Morrison and spent several days in the Cave in which they "were a little disappointed". It was, they felt, "a very commonplace cave," not worthy of note. They found no underground lakes or eyeless fish or beautiful formations or anything else that they liked. The geology was simple and boring. Their shallow penetration into the Cave (1,000 feet from the opening) probably prevented them from reaching the more spectacular parts. After 1877, the scientific world lost interest in the Fort Stanton Cave for another century.
This is what the Wheer Survey reported about the Cave. Recently, lead cave researcher, John Corcoran, overlaid the 1877 map on a current high-tech research map and found a remarkable degree of accuracy in the Wheeler map. The Army moved from Fort Stanton in 1896 and soldier explorations ceased.
from the Lincoln County Historical Society newsletter, Spring 2015