It is the very fountainhead of the springs where Comanches camped on the War Trail to Mexico and emigrants filled their kegs after struggling through barrens.
Comanche Springs Cave: a maze of water-hewn channels, domes, pits, and squeezes, hidden beneath the city of Fort Stockton and its fabled Comanche Springs.
For millennia that system of springs gushed forth enormous quantities of water--sixty- five million gallons a day during the early years of the twentieth century. It quenched the thirst of wildlife and cowboys and freighters, spawned an army post, gave birth to a city of nine thousand on the fringe of the Chihuahuan Desert. It abided while cacti and creosote waged war for the surrounding alkaline waste, and even decades after the irrigated crops of the farmer stilled the flow, it unleashed new ways to excite the imagination. And all because three brothers persevered five years to see their innovative quest become reality.
Dennis, Glenn, and Haley Haynes grew up roaming the back-country hills near Sanderson and hearing tales of Comanche Springs. They eventually found in caving a quality that stirred their lifeblood and propelled them into years of exploring the state's subterranean features. When Dennis and Glenn moved to Fort Stockton and listened to mysterious stories weaved by water-well drillers (bits plummeting through cavities) and by homeowners (wells pumping dry one day and surging the next), they reached into their background and decided an intricate labyrinth of aqueous and dry channels lay below.
|A chamber deep within Comanche Springs Cave. Taking a respite is Bill Bentley.|
"We could tell it was the tunnel entrance," recalled Dennis, and even in remembrance, the awe of the moment brought a quake to his voice. "We figured it was just rain water that had created a sump, like a trapin a sink. But we didn't think we'd get permission to pump it out [in order to explore it].
Four and a half frustrating years passed, and still Comanche Springs held fast its secrets. Finally in 1983, with the political prodding of the editor of the Fort Stockton Pioneer and a Pecos County commissioner, the spirits smiled on the Haynes brothers and flung them into an adventure where no man had gone before.
For two straight weeks their combustion-engine pump sucked water from the passageway seemingly to no effect. But their dream remained unclouded, even when they almost were overcome by carbon monoxide fumes that hugged the bottom of the pool.
|Bill Bentley rappels down to a pool in Comanche Springs Cave. Checking the rope is Richard Galle.|
Donning headlamps, they descended to the muddy grotto and slithered through 138 feet of queezeway. An opening suddenly loomed above; they looked to see the beams of their lamps splash into a small chamber that sparkled with thousands of fossilized shells imbedded in limestone for 130 million years.
Their hearts hammering against rib cages, the brothers clawed upward through the mire into the glittering room. And when they placed bootprints before the comparatively dry passage threading onward, they felt they had taken as unparalleled a leap into the chronicles of man as had Neil Armstrong on the moon.
For Dennis, it was an incredible culmination of years of anticipation and wonder.
"The main thing we search for in caving," he reflected later, is virgin caves. To me, it was like being the first man to cross West Texas ... or being the first to set foot on the moon. Most people don't understand it, because most people haven't been where no one's been before. It was exciting, not knowing what was around the next curve. You never knew what you were going to find. Comanche Springs is one of the biggest springs in Texas, and we knew it had to be big inside.
With Mary Kay Shannon, curator of Annie Riggs Museum in Fort Stockton, they endured one hundred percent humidity and temperatures in the upper seventies in exploring the maze. They discovered a half-mile of domes and crawlways and "bottomless" pristine pools, which glowed bluish-green before their headlamps. But as they squirmed in and out of the Chief Spring over the days, a problem developed--the rising water table slowly was reclaiming the natural entrance.
With compass, tape measure, and their wits, the cavers decided upon a point in the ceiling of a squeezeway and began to dig their way out. They dug for eight hours, shoveling the dirt back down the doghouse-sized passage. After they had stopped for the night and retreated to the freshness of the air bound only by the starty expanse, Glenn began poking around with a crowbar in a rodent-like hole in the bed of Government Spring--which they believed lay directly above their subterranean dig--and the ground collapsed at his feet.
And for the first time in its millions of years of history, Comanche Springs Cave opened to the hand of man.
Later sealing the cavity against sloughing by inserting six fiftyfive-gallon drums welded end-to-end, the cavers abandoned the natural entrance to rising water which soon choked off what had been the sole air vent. Stringing lights for a few hundred feet along the squeezeways where razor-sharp rocks carved into knees and forearms and banged against hard hats, the Haynes brothers began the arduous process of mapping. For each passage and squeeze, each pool and dome, they concocted names: Wounded Knee, Mary's Misery, Stephan's Well. The latter pool stirred their imaginations to a fever pitch, for within its crystal-clear purities gaped a submerged passageway immense enough to accommodate a car. It offered the promise of a much larger cavern system beyond, one that might transcend even their greatest fantasies.
But it was water--the most underrated of all natural forces-- that had created Comanche Springs Cave, and water that seemed destined to guard its mysteries forever.
"I think," said a frustrated Dennis, "the cave goes down those wells and comes up to dry space. We think those are big sumps, maybe a quarter-mile long. West of town in Belding they started irrigating in the 1950s and they pumped this spring dry [in the summer of 1951]. So we know if the water was coming all the way to Belding, there's probably ten miles of cave if there's just one tunnel. If it is possible to get into it, we think there's probably one hundred miles of cave in all. We don't think there's any big rooms in it until you get to Belding, where we've had drillers tell us there's ninety- and one hundred-foot cavities.
|Richard Galle squirms through Mary’s Miserey in Comanche Springs Cave. (Photo Courtesy of Ron Jaap)|
Excluding the possibility of an unprecedented drop in the Fort Stockton water table, in only one way may man ever gain the full secrets of Comanche Springs Cave-by scuba diving its mysterious pools and watery channels. Only then might Dennis Haynes's ultimate dream of a vast cavern reach fruition.
“Portraits of the Pecos Frontier” by Patrick Dearen.