Today’s post is written by Cody White, an archivist at the National Archives at Denver.
In February 1939, 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 what he considered to be an unbelievable story; a ranger had fallen into the 754 foot elevator shaft at the park and survived! The Associate Director of the National Park Service in Washington D.C. quickly squashed the publicity, pointing out that it was “highly unadvisable” to report such an accident that was due to “the carelessness or negligence of the park personnel.” Boles, whose 19 year tenure as the superintendent was filled with such efforts to gain the park more attention and publicity, complied and so the story was buried in the National Park Service records, only to be now found here at the National Archives at Denver.
To properly preface the story one must go back to 1923 when the Carlsbad Caverns National Monument was established. Shortly thereafter the National Park Service set to work creating trails throughout the main rooms of the cave and in 1930 when the monument was elevated to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, plans began to develop for an elevator that would connect the surface directly to the Big Room, bypassing the natural cave entrance and its numerous steps. On December 29, 1930, around the clock excavation began both at the top and bottom of the proposed shaft and by December 23, 1931, the elevator was finished. At the time second in height to only the Empire State Building elevators, it took 12 tons of explosives to clear out the 4,000 cubic yards of material for the 754 foot double elevator shaft. The entire project cost $88,292.43 and was celebrated at a grand opening on January 23, 1932. The state of the art elevator, capable of bringing throngs of tourists to the Carlsbad Caverns Big Room at 700 feet a minute, would be the setting for Ranger Leslie Thompson’s remarkable story.
It was January 25, 1939 at 12:31 PM. Ranger Thompson was working the elevator that day and had just returned to the surface where Ranger Dave Heib was selling tickets to a group of 11 visitors. Assistant Electrician Claude Carpenter stepped into the elevator building and told the two rangers he needed to bring the chief clerk and the auditor down ahead of the tourist party. Thompson acknowledged Carpenter and strode over to the oil heater to warm up while awaiting the tourists. The Otis elevator car whooshed down.
With the tickets all purchased, Ranger Thompson began his prepared speech to the assembled tourists. He opened the elevator door (there was no failsafe to prevent this when the car was not there) and turning to the crowd stated “Let me see your tickets” while he backed in. A woman shrieked “Look out” but it was too late; Thompson plunged into the abyss.
Thompson knew the elevator and quickly realized the cables were his only hope. He grabbed on and thanks to the thick cable grease he was able to slow his decent while preventing severe friction burns. After falling nearly 100 feet and sliding an additional 40, Thompson found himself clinging to the cable in the dark elevator shaft. Calling out for help to the glimmer of daylight far above him, Hieb and two other employees brought a second car down the parallel cable, inching ever so slowly to where Thompson was still hanging on in the shaft. While pulling him in the men found Thompson “none worse for the experience other than a well greased uniform and a few blisters on right hand and a friction burn on left arm.”
There is no evidence in the records Thompson was reprimanded for his safety error; by his own admission he stated to the effect “that was a damn fool thing for me to do. I knew that elevator had been taken down just a few minutes ago.” In a safety report ordered by the Washington D.C. headquarters the deficiencies in safety locks on the elevator door were noted and slated to be fixed. As Superintendent Boles wrote in his official report, Thompson “is free to admit that his guardian angel was on duty that day” and so perhaps cheating death was punishment enough.
All images, quotes, and source material comes from the two RG 79 Records of the National Park Service series; Southwest Regional Office “Correspondence Relating to the National Parks, Monuments, and Recreational Area, 1927-1953,” Box 249, NAID 602229, and Carlsbad Caverns National Park “General Correspondence Files, 1930-1953,” Box 42, NAID 939395.