Have you been to Great Basin National Park? If not, you’re missing a place of incredible beauty, from Wheeler Peak to the Bristlecone Pines. But an incredibly important part of the park is also worth seeing, but it isn’t readily visible: Lehman Caves. This year marks the hundredth anniversary of Lehman Caves becoming a national monument.
It all began about 500 million years ago, geologically speaking. We know Indigenous people used the caves. But they began to get more attention thanks to Absalom Lehman, a miner on the Gold Rush and in Australia. He moved to the Snake Valley in the 1860s and started ranching. Sometime around 1885, he came upon the caves that bear his name and started giving tours. After his death, others continued to explore the stalagmites and stalactites.
Just before he left the White House in 1909, Theodore Roosevelt issued a proclamation creating a forest reserve in the Snake Range. Three years later, federal officials added Lehman’s ranch and caves to what became the Humboldt National Forest. With the building of a highway, which has evolved into Highway 50, more visitors came to the caves. Tonopah businessman C.C. Boak and U.S. Senator Tasker Oddie began looking into creating a national monument. It didn’t hurt that Oddie belonged to the same political party as the president, Warren Harding. In January 1922, he proclaimed the creation of Lehman Caves national monument.
The big celebration in Baker, Nevada, was that August 6. Forest Service employees, Boak, and then-Nevada state engineer James Scrugham addressed a crowd reputed to be about 500 — and in those days, the entire population of Nevada was less than eighty thousand. Clarence Rhodes was named the official custodian of the caves; he already was giving tours, and he made improvements in the area designed to ease the path for visitors—for example, he built sleeping tents outside the caves and put stairways in the caves to replace the rope ladders used to descend into them. Later, Rhodes and his wife Bea added cabins and a lodge. White Pine County declared the area a wildlife refuge, and the state designated the caves and the surrounding area a recreation ground and game refuge. After he became governor, Scrugham believed natural landmarks and history could be important attractions for Nevada, so he supported these efforts.
The Forest Service controlled the area until 1933, when President Franklin Roosevelt moved control of national monuments to the National Park Service. The federal government made frequent improvements to the facilities. By the mid-1950s, about eighteen thousand people a year found their way to Lehman Caves. With the National Park Service expanding, Nevada’s U.S. Senator Alan Bible tried to turn the area into a national park. Opposition from ranching and mining interests, and Representative Walter Baring, got in the way. Finally, in 1986, then-Representative Harry Reid, with some help from his House colleague Barbara Vucanovich, was able to pass the legislation to create Great Basin National Park… still a jewel of eastern Nevada. And Lehman Caves helped start it all… and the tours continue. They’re really worth seeing.