When Mission Creep Led to Discovery

Inner Space Cavern iPhoneography © 2015 by Jann Alexander
What Jack Couldn’t See: Inner Space Cavern iPhoneography © 2015 by Jann Alexander

A typical flashlight’s beam traveled sporadically and for just a few feet in 1963, certainly not enough to brighten the pitch-black cavern Jack Bigham was being lowered 33-1/2 feet underground to explore.

Jack Bigham, in fact, didn’t even know what he would be encountering on that long descent in a makeshift stirrup fixed to the end of the drilling rig, as he was lowered though the Georgetown, Texas karst in an 24-inch diameter tunnel. His passageway had been drilled by stymied Texas Highway Department engineers and geologists with an auger rig, when they couldn’t authorize building of Interstate Highway 35 atop the Balcones Fault Zone until they were satisfied of the terrain’s stability for support.

Jack did know that they’d been drilling the area for days, straight down through 40 feet of solid limestone, encountering a extensive network of underground voids and caves and dropping a drill pipe here and there in the vastness below.

Jack also knew he was one of the smallest men on the crew, so his shoulders could fit in the shaft.

Presumably, he was not claustrophobic.

Inner Space Cavern iPhoneography © 2015 by Jann Alexander
Mammoths and tigers and no air, oh my! Inner Space Cavern iPhoneography © 2015 by Jann Alexander

Today, visitors to Inner Space Cavern learn that he was one of a crew of five to be lowered into what’s now called the Discovery Room, where exploration and the mapping of the vast cave system began with its accidental discovery half a century ago.

But in 1963, the beam of his intermittent flashlight wouldn’t have lit his way down through the small tunnel into the pitch-black cavern that turned out to be the final resting place of numerous mammoths, peccaries, camels, bat rabbits, dire wolves, horses and saber-toothed tigers. Jack couldn’t have seen the thousands of stalactites and stalagmites, the fossiliferrous limestone beds and massive dolomitic limestone dripping water down honeycombed walls to form pools in the cavern floor. He couldn’t have seen the nodules and beds of chert and the red clay mud on his boots. He probably could smell the bat guano, its age unknown.

He was in utter darkness, blacker than black, where the air was stagnant and short on oxygen, in a place of unknown size whose inhabitants, if alive, were unknown, and his only means out was back up the 33-1/2 foot hole he’d dropped in from.

Inner Space Cavern iPhoneography © 2015 by Jann Alexander
Flashlight not needed today: Inner Space Cavern iPhoneography © 2015 by Jann Alexander

If he had returned in 1966, when Inner Space Cavern opened to the public, Jack might have joined a guided tour along smoothed pathways, observation decks with railings to grip where it was slippery, and plenty of electric lighting to illuminate the geological wonders. Jack would have found it easier going than being lowered through a 24-inch drill hole into creepy pitch-black parts unknown.

If Jack arrived by car for a guided tour today, he’d drive over the cavern’s void, formed when the Balcones Fault Zone was active about 25 million years ago, traveling at about 70 mph on IH 35—like millions do annually, and probably unwittingly. 

Creepy, huh? Would you have volunteered to go first?

There’s a lot more than meets the eye from above ground about Inner Space Cavern, HERE. Hat tip to Texas Highway Department geologist James W. Sansom, Jr. for his account of the original descent. Shot below-ground with my iPhone 5s in the Inner Space Caverns, Georgetown, Texas. Consider this my nod to the Daily Post’s creepy challenge. For more iPhoneography tips and tricks, click HERE.

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10 thoughts on “When Mission Creep Led to Discovery

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  1. Nice post, Jann, very informative. I worked underground in an Oil Shale mine in Western Colorado for about 9 months, and as you said: it is blacker than black in there when the lights are off.

    This is the first that I have heard of this series of caves. Thanks for taking us on a tour of them. Ω

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’ve had some pretty interesting experiences, Allan, from the heights of the SFB Bridge to the depths of an oil shale mine—which do you prefer? I’ve experienced the blacker than black phenom on every cave tour I’ve ever made, and it never gets fun. Would your eyes ever adapt, I’ve wondered? I think not. Nothing to adapt to.


      1. I prefer the view from the GGB over the darkness of the mine, although working inside the unlighted cells of the towers was like being back in the mine. Ω

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Well how fab is that, Lynn, that you were among the first to enter! That must have been a big deal, back in the day. And clearly memorable, for the little infant you must have been to recall it now. Thanks for sharing your experience.


  2. No, I’d not be that first guy. I don’t do small spaces well. But I love seeing what’s been discovered. Haven’t been to this place, but I have been to Carlsbad Caverns, Jewel Cave, and some other beauties.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep, not me either. The lowering on a makeshift drill stirrup gave me the heebie-jeebies, with the skimpy flashlight (what if you dropped it?). Sure would have been cool to have safely made the journey to discovery, though!

      I too prefer my caverns already explored and mapped out, like Luray Caverns, where I first got the cave bug as a kid in Virginia. I’ve enjoyed Carlsbad and Wind Cave too. I think Wind Cave is my favorite. Maybe cause of all those cute little prairie dogs surrounding its entry. Thanks for the memories, Janet!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I went spelunking in Australia in the Jenolan Caves, which were discovered in the 1800s, meaning people crawled through them with CANDLES in their mouths! Candles! Way less light than a flashlight, and you had to worry about hot wax dripping on your lip. That I don’t know if I’d have the guts to do because I’d be worried about setting myself on fire. But lowered from a rope with a flashlight? Sure, sign me up! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A flickering flashlight sounds more trustworthy to you than a mere candle, I get that. But crawling on bellies is less daunting than falling 30 feet in the pitchblack, don’t you think? I’m just happy there are people like you who like to go first, whether by candlelight or flashlight.


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