Of the many daring and dangerous radio shows produced by Robert Ripley, his foray into subterranean broadcasting is one of his more famous. It may not sound as dangerous as an underwater show featuring sharks, or a play-by-play of rattlesnake milking from a pit of 500 venomous serpents, but Ripley knew that bringing the natural wonders of Americas to people at home was just as unbelievable.
Ripley’s crew was used to setting up antennas and transmission lines to send his voice home from the most remote parts of the world, but finding a way to get a radio signal to listeners from 850 feet underground seemed impossible—never-mind the dangers of navigating a pitch-black cave. To put things in perspective, Carlsbad Caverns had only been designated a National Park 10 years prior. Ripley interviewed Jim White—the man who discovered the caves—on-air. White was just 16 years old when he found the caves. After spotting what he thought was smoke in the distance, the young cowboy went to investigate. What he had seen wasn’t smoke, however. It was thousands of bats flying out of the cave. White told Ripley that he had explored the caves alone with a homemade ladder made out of wire. With no natural light in the deep abyss of the caverns, it took a long time to fully map out the enormous chambers Carlsbad is known for today.
When the park was first established, visitors only had two options for getting into the signature “Big Room” cavern. You could either descend the 750 feet using a slippery switch-back path, or you could jump in an old conveyor bucket whose original purpose was bringing bat guano up from the bottom. Many tourists balked at the bucket and would take the trip down, but would quickly realize the trip up would be even more arduous. Eventually, they built an elevator, and Ripley pointed out in his broadcast that it was the deepest in the world at the time.
Ripley’s second guest was Park Superintendent Thomas Boles—a big fan of Ripley’s. Boles had made over 3,000 expeditions into the caves himself and is an iconic figure in the caverns’ history. Boles wrote to Ripley about a park ranger surviving a fall down the park’s elevator shaft and regaled him with the caves’ “Rock of Ages” ceremony. Boles spoke of a famous opera singer wandering the caves and becoming so inspired by the natural beauty that he broke out into song—giving a reverberating performance of “Rock of Ages.”
Ripley considered Carlsbad Caverns the most beautiful natural caves on Earth and was delighted to pick up a few unique Believe It or Not! stories while he was there. His favorite was what he saw as a story of unrequited love for the ages. A stalagmite and stalactite in the caverns formed over a period of 50 million years. Despite growing towards each other for so long, they have yet to touch and are separated by just a mere quarter of an inch!
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