Bat Cave Mine


Useful Information

Location: Western Grand Canyon, above Lake Mead. Guano Point, Grand Canyon South Rim. At the end of Road 7.
(36.033318, -113.824817)
Open: No restrictions.
[2020]
Fee: free.
[2020]
Classification: SpeleologyKarst cave
Light: bring torch
Dimension:  
Guided tours: n/a
Photography: allowed
Accessibility: no
Bibliography: Billingsley et al. (1997): Quest for the Pillar of Gold: The Mines and Miners of the Grand Canyon, Grand Canyon Association, ISBN 0938216562. BookChapter 3 part 1 BookChapter 3 part 2
Paul S. Martin (2005): Twilight of the Mammoths: Ice Age Extinctions and the Rewilding of America. University of California Press. ISBN 0520231414.
Address:  
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
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History

1930s Bat Cave discovered by a passing boater.
1957 bought by the U.S. Guano Corporation, cableway and road constructed.
1958 visited by paleontologist Paul S. Martin and a colleague.
1959 first production of mine.
1959 end of mining, deposits exhausted.
1959 U.S. Air Force fighter jet crashes into the cable and destroys it.

Description

photography
Aerial view of Guano Point, Arizona, U.S.A.. Public Domain.

The Bat Cave Mine is located in the western Grand Canyon of Arizona at river mile 266 on the northern rim, 300 m above the Colorado river. It was discovered in the 1930s by a passing boater and named Bat Cave. In the 1930s there was still no industrial fertilizer, and guano was called the white gold. It was nitrogen-rich and its importance for modern farming was enormous, its price too. As a result many people tried to loot this treasure in some way, but for 20 years any attempt failed.

The land was purchased by the U.S. Guano Corporation around 1957. A reputable mining engineer explored the cave and estimated 100,000 tons of guano. As a result they decided to invest further and started to develop the mining. Bat Cave became Bat Cave Mine. There is no road into the canyon, so all supplies and machinery had to be flown in. For this purpose a small airstrip was built on a nearby sandbar in the Colorado River.

The next step was the construction of an aerial tramway or cableway from Guano Point on the south rim to the cave entrance across Grand Canyon. The land at Guano Point was leased from the Hualapai Indian Tribe. The cableway span between the cave and the opposite side of the river was 2.3 km wide and it went up 760 m. This worked rather well, but the tramway proved to be far more expensive than planned. An accident resulted in the loss of the main cable, which had to replaced. After only a few months, the haul cable was frayed beyond repair and had to be replaced. The total cost of the mining had reached USD 3,500,000. But then they discovered, that the cave contained only 1,000 tons of guano, at a price of USD 100 per ton. The venture was a financial desaster and closed in the same year it began production.

During its short time of operation, the cableway was actually used as a filming location. The film Edge of Eternity ends with a fight scene between the Deputy Sherrif and the murderer on an U.S. Guano cable car high above the Grand Canyon.

A strange story happened soon after, when a pilot from nearby Nellis Air Force Base illegally flew through the canyon. He hit the cable, lost 15 cm of wingtip, capped the operating cable, and clipped one of the cable strands. The plane and pilot survived, but the tramway was destroyed. That was luck for U.S. Guano, who successfully sued the Air Force for damaging their property, offsetting some of their losses.

The source of the guano and the implications of its mining were unknown or ignored at that time. In 1958 the New York Times published an article about the mine and mentioned the guano came from "giant, meat-eating bats millions of years ago". This fantastic lie was read by the paleontologist Paul S. Martin who subsequently visited the mine. The guano was actually produced by free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) who are not very big, eat insects, and produced the guano during the last 15,000 years. He discovered what the miners called bat graveyards with mummified free-tail bats. He sampled guano from 2 m below the surface which was radiocarbon dated 12,900 ± 1,500 years ago.

Today there are two ways to visit the cave. One is to drive to Guano Point, have a coffee in the Guano Cafe and use binoculars. The cafe has a stunning outlook, and there is a short trail around the hill from which the upper station and the first tower can be seen. If you are already at the south rim and a history buff this place is definitely worth the drive. The second way is a flight with a helicopter, which stops at the Bat Cave Mine for a short visit. This is rather expensive, but with the view of the canyon during the flight definitely worth the money.