First Fifty Years - The 1930s
Ray H. Mattison, Historian
It has only been since 1930 that Devils Tower National Monument has become a national tourist attraction. This has been the result of several factors. During the latter part of the 1920s, the Custer Battlefield Highway (U.S. Highway 14) was built between Spearfish, South Dakota, and Gillette, Wyoming, and came within only seven miles of the Tower. The State also built improved roads into Sundance from U. S. Highways 85 and 16. A paved highway was also constructed from U. S. Highway 14 to Alva making the area from the south entirely accessible by paved roads. Local and state Chambers of Commerce, travel associations, newspapers and periodicals gave the Tower wide publicity as one of the natural "wonders of the world."
The decade of the 1930s was one of extensive development for the monument. Although the Nation was in the throes of the Great Depression, considerable sums of money as well as manpower were made available for public works through the various relief agencies. Working under the supervision of the National Park Service, these agencies, particularly the Civilian Conservation Corps, inaugurated an extensive development program at the monument. From 1935-1938 a CCC camp was located there. Practically all the improvements on the area at the present time are the results of their efforts. New roads were built, modern water and electrical systems installed, footpaths were laid out, picnic areas were established with tables and comfortable benches, and trailer and overnight camping areas were provided the visitors. Residences for employees, workshops and machine shops were erected. In 1938 a museum of sturdy log construction was completed.
The result of the improved roads and visitor facilities at the monument is reflected in travel records. During the ten-year period from 1931 to 1941, in spite of the Great Depression, the number of visitors practically tripled. In 1931 the count was 11,000; in 1936, 26,503; in 1941, 32,951.
In the early 1930's, the first full-time custodian was stationed at the monument. This was George C. Crowe, who previously had been a Ranger-Naturalist at Yosemite National Park in California. Crowe served from April or May 1931 until March 1932 when he was transferred to Yellowstone National Park as Assistant Park Naturalist. Newell F. Joyner, who earlier had seen service at Yellowstone as Ranger and Naturalist, succeeded Crowe as Custodian. Joyner served in this capacity for 15 years.
The big annual event each year at the monument, the Pioneers' Picnic, had its origin at this time. Although old-timers frequently met at the Tower prior to that time, it was not until 1932 that they formally organized. In that year, the Northern Black Hills Pioneer Association came into being. Its membership was limited to people who had resided in that section for at least 35 years. On one day each year, usually in June, this organization sponsors a program which features speakers, music, and sometimes contests.
In the late 1930's, professional mountain climbers gave their attention to Devils Tower. Although the summit of the giant formation had by then been reached a number of times by means of the ladder which Rogers had built in 1893, no one had reached the top without this device. With the consent of the National Park Service, three mountain climbers, all members of the American Alpine Club of New York City, led by Fritz Wiessner, in 1937 made the first ascent of the Tower solely by rockclimbing techniques . They reached the top in four hours and forty-six minutes. This party made many scientific observations and brought down samples of the rock as well as vegetation found there. Eleven years later 16 members of the Iowa Mountain Climbers Club, after reaching the summit, hoisted bedding and food and spent the night. To date (November 1955), there have been 173 recorded individual ascents of the formation by skilled climbers. Practically all of these were made on the south-east side of the Tower by three different climbing routes. In 1955 James McCarthy and John Rupley made the first ascent on the west side.
Did You Know?
One of the fastest climbs of Devils Tower was done in 18 minutes by Todd Skinner in the 1980s. A typical climb usually takes 4-6 hours.