First Fifty Years - Stake Ladder
Ray H. Mattison, Historian
National Park Service
Although it was difficult to reach, the Tower early became a favorite camping and picnicking spot for people living in the vicinity. One of the inviting features was the large spring of pure cold water located near its base. It was some distance from a railroad so it could be reached only over unimproved roads or trails by horsebacks wagon or buckboard. One long-time resident of Hulett, some ten miles distant from the monument by present paved highway, informed the writer that in the 1890's, it was necessary to ford the Belle Fourche River seven times to get to the Tower. Many of the people in the vicinity went to the Tower once or twice a year and spent one or two nights. The Fourth of July observances for the community were sometimes held there and people often came from considerable distance to these events.
The best-known early event was the 4th of July celebration held at the Tower in 1893. According to the handbill circulated for the occasion, the principal speakers were N. K. Griggs of Beatrice, Nebraska, and Col. William R. Steele of Deadwood, South Dakota. The handbill announced "There will be plenty to Eat and Drink on the Grounds;" "Lots of Hay and Grain for Horses;" and, "Dancing Day and Night." It also stated "Perfect order will be maintained." The feature attraction, however, of the day was to be the first climbing of the Tower by William Rogers, a local rancher. The event was apparently given wide publicity.
Rogers made elaborate preparations for the big event. With the assistance of Willard Ripley, another local rancher, he prepared a 350-foot ladder to the summit of the Tower. This was accomplished by driving pegs, out from native oak, ash and willow, 24 to 30 inches in length and sharpened on one end, into a continuous vertical crack found between the two columns on the southeast side of the giant formation. The pegs were then braced and secured to each other by a continuous wooden strip to which the outer end of each peg was fastened. Before making the exhibition ascent, the men took a 12-foot flagpole to the top and planted it into the ground. The building of the ladder by Rogers and Ripley was an undertaking perhaps more hazardous than the climbing of the Tower itself.
People came for a distance from 100 to 125 miles to witness the first formal ascent of the Tower. The more conservative estimates are that about 1,000 people came by horseback, wagon and buckboard to see the spectacular feat. For most of them it was a trip requiring several days of tedious travel over rough and dusty trails. Rogers began his ascent following proper ceremonies which included an invocation. After climbing for about an hour, he reached the top. Amid much cheering from the many open-mouthed spectators some 865 feet below, he unfurled an American flag, which had been specially made for the occasion, from the flagpole. Devils Tower had at last been conquered in the full view of an assembled throng. During the afternoon, a gust of wind tore the flag loose and it drifted down to the base of the Tower. Here the promoters tore it up and sold the pieces for souvenirs.
Much of the ladder has since been destroyed. However a portion of it may still be seen on the southwest side of the Tower. A viewing device on the Tower trail assists the visitor to locate the remnants of the ladder.