New Mexico’s Fort Stanton has an interesting history—above and below the surface. The U.S. Army built the post in 1855 as a base of operations against raiding Mescalero Apaches, and in July 1878 its soldiers marched 10 miles east to Lincoln to support the Murphy-Dolan faction in the Lincoln County War. According to historian Lynda A. Sánchez, officers and others with ties to the fort were also avid cavers. “In 1855 Emil Fritz and other Company K troopers went on a ‘patrol’ underground,” she explains, “with orders to observe and explore topography that might interest the military. This was about the same time soldiers had chased Apaches into the interior of the sinkhole now known as Fort Stanton Cave. Fritz and others signed their names on a cave wall.” Lieutenant Orsemus Boyd and Captain Casper H. Conrad later became cavers, building a boat in the early 1870s to cross what they thought was an underground lake. “It was a bust and sank, almost drowning Conrad,” says Sánchez. “Conrad’s Branch, inside Fort Stanton Cave, is named for him, and today pieces of ‘Conrad’s boat’ are still visible in the mud near Inscription Rock and along the sides of the cave.”
Newspaperman Ash Upson—later ghostwriter of Pat Garrett’s biography, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid—described the cave in 1872:
In one place a lofty dome seems to pierce the roof of the outer world.…It confuses the sense to gaze so long upon the brilliant beauties of this place. General [James Henry] Carleton and several other officers were more than two days and nights in the cave. They burned a box of candles but failed to find a terminus.
Five years later the Wheeler Survey, supervised by 1st Lt. George M. Wheeler, surveyed about 2 miles of the cave. They had only scratched the surface. “Today members of the Fort Stanton Cave Study Project have mapped more than 31 miles,” Sánchez says, “rivaling the length of Carlsbad Caverns.”
This spring project members will publish 12 Miles to Daylight, about the cave and its exploration. While the cave itself remains closed over concerns about white-nose syndrome affecting its bat population, the project is working with the Bureau of Land Management on special permits and guides for public access. WW