First Fifty Years - The Early Years
Ray H. Mattison, Historian
Almost a quarter of a century was to pass after Devils Tower was given national recognition before a full-time National Park Service employee was to be stationed at the monument. Consequently, there is little information about the area for the period from 1906 to 1930. When the monument was established, the Commissioner of the General Land Office directed the Special Agent of the district in which the area was located and the local Land Office to act as custodians of the newly-created area. They were to prevent vandalism, removal of objects and all unauthorized occupation or settlement of lands on the monument. Mr. E. O. Fuller, of Laramie, served with the Sundance office of that agency as special investigator from 1908 to 1919. He informed the writer that, among his various duties, he was charged with the responsibility of looking after the Tower. Mr. Fuller related to the writer that on one occasion a Wyoming newspaper carried an article indicating that souvenir hunters were damaging the Tower by chipping it. The story soon reached the East, and within a short time one New York and several Washington, D. C. papers were carrying alarming stories that the giant formation was being undermined and seriously threatened. The fear was voiced that, if measures were not taken immediately to prevent it, the famous landmark would soon be destroyed. As a result of this publicity, the Commissioner of the General Land Office sent out instructions to place warning signs on the monument asking people not to molest the Tower. It was Mr. Fuller's responsibility to post these signs on the area. He visited the place from time to time to prevent people from destroying trees and damaging the natural features of the area.
Meanwhile, Congressman Mondell made persistent efforts to interest the Federal Government in developing the monument as a tourist attraction. In May 1911, he introduced a bill (H.R.8792) providing for an appropriation to build an Iron stairway from the foot to the summit of Devils Tower. The proposal was referred to the Committee on Appropriations and, apparently, never reported out. Two years later, Mondell reintroduced the bill (H.R. 88) in the 63rd Congress, and it too died in the committee. In 1915 and 1917, he introduced bills (H.R. 165 and 60) to provide for the building of roads at the monument "and for other purposes." These met the same fate as the earlier bills. Mondell, however, continued to urge the Secretary of Interior and the Director of the National Park Service to build a bridge across the Belle Fourche River, east of the monument, and construct a suitable access road to the area.
With the popularizing of the automobile, the need for visitor’s facilities on the area increased. In 1916, the National Park Service was organized and the monument was placed under its jurisdiction. Prior to 1917, Congress made no general appropriations for the protection and maintenance of the national monuments. Until the 1930's the amounts allotted for this purpose continued to be very small. Various groups continued to urge for a satisfactory access road to the area and for a bridge across the Belle Fourche River near the monument. Early in 1915, Mondell transmitted a request to the Secretary of the Interior from the three legislators from Crook County asking Congress for funds to build a road to the Tower. At a picnic held at the monument on July 4, 1916, which was attended by some 500 people, a petition was drafted and signed by 153 persons and sent to Congressman Mondell. The petitioners complained that they had been compelled to walk a mile and a half that day over a trail which was "washed out and filled with logs" in order to reach the Tower. They asked Congress for an appropriation of $20,000 to convert the giant formation into a public resort and to build a bridge across the Belle Fourche. Pressure from the various groups through Congressman Mondell was soon to bring some results. In 1917 the National Park Service, with the assistance of Crook County, built a 12 to 16-foot road three miles in length and with a grade of eight percent leading to the giant formation. In the following year, this road was improved so that it could be reached more easily by automobile. The spring at the base of the Tower was also made more serviceable.
It was some time, however, before pressure was sufficiently strong to compel the Federal Government to build a bridge across the Belle Fourche near the monument. For many years, it had been necessary for those entering the area from the east to ford the river. During the summer months, the river was subject to sudden and unpredictable rises which frequently made it impossible for people visiting the area to return to the east bank until the waters subsided. In many instances, those so stranded were compelled to camp out one, and in some cases, several nights. Pressure from local people and travel organizations to build the bridge continued to be strong throughout the early 1920s. In 1923 a petition, containing seven pages of signatures of people from Wyoming and South Dakota, was submitted to the Secretary of the Interior asking that the Belle Fourche near the monument be bridged. Both Senators Warren and John B. Kendrick lent their support to the movement. It was not until 1928 that the bridge was built.
During the 1920s, the National Park Service was able to provide only the most minimum accommodations for visitors at Devils Tower. Some work continued to be done in maintaining the roads. In 1921 John M. Thorn, County Commissioner of Crook County, of Hulett, was appointed custodian at an annual salary of $12 a year. Thorn served primarily as foreman of maintenance work and performed the minimum paper work necessary, in preparing payrolls and making purchases. In 1922 the Service built a log shelter to protect the visitors from inclement weather, cleaned the spring next to the Tower and improved the road within the monument boundaries. However, in spite of the improvements the Government was able to make, the maintenance at the monument must have been very inadequate. Trespassing stock continued to graze on the area and occupy the log shelter erected for visitors. The Secretary of Custer Battlefield Highway Association complained to the Director in 1929 that the road to the Tower the previous year "was a disgrace, many people turned back because of the terrible road conditions." He also pointed out that the area needed a full-time custodian.
Despite the hardships in reaching the Tower and the lack of accommodations after reaching there, visitation to the area continued to rise during the 1920s. "The monument is receiving an increasing number of visitors who like to camp on the ground," reported the Director in 1922. From 1921 to 1930 the estimated number of visitors rose from 7,000 to 14,720, the average being 9,100. After 1925 a register was kept at Grenier's Store which was located near the east entrance to the monument.
During this period the National Park Service was under continued pressure to authorize concessions at the Tower. Numerous applications were made by individuals and companies to erect restaurants, gasoline stations, hotels and recreational facilities there. The Service consistently maintained that such developments of a permanent character should be made out side the monument boundaries and not within the area itself.
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.