Standing Witness
Devils Tower National Monument: A History
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MAGIC AND MYSTERY COEXIST WITH MORE TANGIBLE elements at the Tower, as I imagine they do at other scenic places with a sense of the sacred about them. This sacred/scenic dichotomy—the balancing act of the visual and the emotional—abounds within the National Park Service, and certainly in other organizations with missions of conservation and preservation. Many of the natural wonders that constitute NPS holdings were areas of prayer and sanctification long before they were selected as areas to be preserved for their scientific or scenic benefits.

Magic and mystery can be serendipitous. Cher and Mark Burgess of Sundance made an impromptu trip to the Tower one spring for a picnic with their family. As they walked the Tower Trail, music could be heard up ahead. A climber, on top of a pitch partway up the Tower, played a saxophone, the riff and shuffle of a blues solo drifting down through the pines to an appreciative audience gathered on the trail below.

There were several stories regarding events at the Tower that my research (to date) has not been able to corroborate. One such story claimed that William Rogers became incapacitated on the morning of the first recorded climb in 1893. He made it over the boulder field, but could go no further. While hidden from view, his wife Linnie changed into his climbing suit and proceeded to climb to the top of the Tower.

A verbal account, handed down from parents, who were present that day, to their daughter, contained discrepancies about other known facts, casting doubt on the veracity of their claim. Mention in a letter saying Linnie made the first climb could be interpreted as confusion between the 1893 climb and Linnie's recorded climb in 1895. To have been able to prove the story as true, especially in Wyoming, which is noted for other women's firsts, would have been a delight.

One woman had been told that she was born at the Tower while her parents were members of a commune there in the late 1960s. She was searching for answers to her personal history, but I did not come across any information to satisfy her curiosity.

Another story claimed that Theodore Roosevelt had personally visited the Tower. A letter from C. P. Berry to Dick Stone in 1933 related a meeting Berry had had with a group of horseback riders in 1887 or 1888, who were traveling to the Tower. Berry was convinced one of the riders was Roosevelt, and that Roosevelt had written an account of the trip in a popular magazine of that time. Berry's sister had read the article, and sent it to him, but he never received the magazine. Roosevelt may have passed through the area while on a hunting trip in the mid-1880s and, depending on weather conditions, he could have seen the Tower from a distance on the Gillette-to-Newcastle leg of his train tour in 1903. However, as yet, I have found no evidence of an actual visit to the Tower. Even with help from Dan Chapin (author of a thesis about Roosevelt and the Antiquities Act), Josh Reyes (park ranger at Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, Roosevelt's home), and the Theodore Roosevelt Association, I cannot confirm that Roosevelt visited the Tower.

In any historical writing, an author is dependent on the written records left—not only made and left, but also found. For every box of reports located and newspaper clippings unearthed, countless other documents may still reside in closets, desk drawers, and storage boxes. For every story reported in the newspapers or recorded in an official file, many more may exist in family diaries, journals, letters, and photographs.

Because this book is an account of the Devils Tower National Monument, there are many stories shared with me or found in my research that did not fit that basic mandate; personal experiences that did not fit the book's premise, but rather, were Tower stories—reflections of a personal tie to a public place, vignettes of experience that imbue a life with richness and depth.

One couple, who lived in a rented log cabin at the base of the Tower in the early 1950s, would sit on their porch during thunderstorms and watch lightning dance on the Tower. An 88-year-old great-grandmother recalled her first trip to the Tower in 1919—by 2002, four generations of her family from Ohio had made many visits to what she termed "God's country." Another grandmother of the Nakota Oyates, called the Tower "Gray Sacred Horned Pipe," and when in combination with the Little Missouri Buttes, referred to the group as the Four Sisters. She said people of a lesser spiritual nature went to the Buttes; only the spiritually strong went to the Tower.

Cheryl Wales, born and raised on a ranch 20 miles east of DTNM, attended a Relay For Life walk around the Tower. "Pretty amazing . . . seeing the sun rise at the Tower . . . walking a dirt path lighted by the luminaries . . ." She then joined a group of ladies practice-climbing on the talus slope and the Tower with commercial climbing guides supervising the activity: "..... I truly hope to rock climb more. I don't know if I have a need to go to the top; maybe. But I certainly want to climb again. The climbers talked a lot about the spiritual aspect of it; the intense focus and energy, the wonder of surroundings, the trust of partners, and the physical feel of stretching yourself. It is all powerful and real."

Dean and Tiny Bush (Dollie Ripley Heppler was Tiny's great-aunt) have many of memories of time spent at the Tower—her grandfather, Frank Proctor, brewing his "very potent" coffee in a copper boiler over an open fire for the Old Settlers' Picnics; the dances in the old log building with no chinking, so the children bedded down in cars could watch the festivities; eating "the best pies ever" at Thurman's cafe, located along the entrance road to the Tower; the school reunions, 4-H campouts, the picnics, rodeos, and horse races. Tiny says, "I am still in awe when I drive and come to the top of Oudin Hill [on Highway 14 to the east of the Tower] and there in the distance you see the Missouri Buttes in the background with the Tower standing out as if to say 'Look at me, one of the world's greatest wonders.'"

Warm and golden, cold and gray—the Tower has many faces, the shadow and color depending on a sunset, a sunrise, the slant of light angling through clouds. It is perhaps appropriate that many of the Tower's stories remain untold, that the mystery continues to enchant future generations, continues to create a place to let the earth shift—a place of wisdom and wonder and rock.

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Last Updated: 23-Jan-2009