Standing Witness
Devils Tower National Monument: A History
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Chapter III

1923 — Yankee Stadium opens
1924 — Indian Reorganization Act
1925 — Scopes Trial
1927 — Charles Lindbergh makes first trans-Atlantic flight
1929 — Great Depression begins

DURING THE 1920s THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE PROVIDED only the most minimal of accommodations for visitors to the Tower. Some work continued to be done in maintaining the roads, but the lack of supervision at the Tower invited vandalism and offered nothing to enhance a visitor's experience.

Frank Johnstone—an area rancher, active politician, and friend of Wyoming U.S. Senator John Kendrick—was offered the position of custodian at the Tower, but he recommended John M. Thorn, a Crook County Commissioner from Hulett, for the job. Thorn became custodian in 1921 and would serve for ten years, with his starting pay $12.00 a year. Thorn's main duties were acting as foreman for maintenance and construction work and doing the paperwork necessary for preparing payrolls and making purchases.

Thorn was born January 25, 1875 at Belle Plain, Iowa and moved with his family to a homestead on Kara Creek in Crook County in 1881. As teenagers, he and his brothers would catch wolves and receive a bounty on them from the owners of the large area ranches. At one time he held the world's record for calf roping, winning that honor at a Gillette, Wyoming rodeo.

He married Anna Peterson in 1912, and served as Crook County Sheriff from 1913 to 1918, residing those years in Sundance at the courthouse, where their three children were born. They moved to Hulett in 1919 to operate the livery stable; Thorn also carried the Hulett-Aladdin mail.

In 1922 the NPS built a log shelter to protect visitors from bad weather—a three-walled cabin made of logs and roofed with wood shingles. The use of native materials in the shelter conformed to the current trend of constructing rustic architecture in national park areas. Trespassing stock, an on-going problem for Tower personnel through the years, continued to graze on the national monument grounds and would sometimes occupy the log shelter. (Grazing livestock could eventually destroy vegetation, defeating the conservation and preservationist principles of the NPS.)

Thorn supervised the cleaning of the spring at the base of the Tower, which was said to have water so cold it would make your teeth hurt. He improved the road within DTNM boundaries, and established a specific area for a campground at the Tower—until then, campers could, and did, make camp wherever they wanted on the national monument grounds.

DESPITE THE DIFFICULTIES in reaching the Tower and the lack of amenities there, visitor numbers continued to rise over the years. The Tower was a favorite rendezvous point for picnickers, campers, and holiday gatherings, and from 1921 to 1930 the estimated number of annual visitors rose from 7,000 to 14,720. After 1925 George Grenier kept a visitor's register at his store just outside the east entrance to DTNM.

A log dance hall, located right outside the east boundary of the national monument on the hill behind Grenier's store, was a favorite meeting place. Community events meant visiting, singing, and lots and lots of dance music.

Lloyd Redding remembered one dance in the open pavilion. "Open was about right, too. One time they had a dance there and it rained. Oh boy, it rained. Just down through the center, that part of the building leaked. So there was about two inches of red mud all over that floor. People, men, rolled up their pants legs, to keep their pants legs from getting sloppy. Fun! I never had such fun in my life." [1]

Picnics, rodeos, baseball games, and dances were part of nearly every Fourth of July celebration and many of the Old Settlers' get-togethers at the Tower. Rodeos were held on a meadow in the Belle Fourche River valley, with wagons, buckboards, buggies, cars, and trucks forming the arena "fence." The arena sometimes became a track for horse races—in one instance with tragic results.

Thirteen-year-old Joe Kelly was looking for his parents and spotted them on the other side of the track. Unaware that the race had begun, he started across the arena and a running horse went right over him. John Woods, a local rancher, recalled the scene after Joe ran onto the track: "The horse just kicked him up and just rolled him up under the belly." [2] Joe was buried in the Tower Divide Cemetery, just one plot away from Esther Dollard's grave.

ON SEPTEMBER 11, 1927, Babe White, sometimes referred to as the "Human Fly," made the last recorded ascent of the Tower using the ladder constructed in 1893. He was a professional climber, and believed climbing the Tower any other way was impossible.

White, who was local rancher Herman White's relative (Babe was his dad's half-brother's son), spent a couple of days at the Tower repairing the ladder for his climb. Earlier that year he had climbed the 58-story Woolworth Building in New York City (at that time the tallest building in the world) and the nine-story Baxter Building in Harlingen, Texas. (Because the stories in the Woolworth Building were so large—11 to 20 feet—the building was actually considered to be 79 or 80 conventional stories.) White had been a daredevil climber for about 15 years.

Clifford Cole and several other men rode horseback to the Tower to see the "Human Fly" climb. Reportedly about 500 people were present for the event. At the publicized time, White climbed with his rope and equipment up the ladder, and made his way over the Meadows to ascend to the top. He stepped to the edge of the Tower and waved to the crowd below before beginning his descent.

Cole recalled the climb down:

He climbed down as he went up, except in coming down he attached his rope used for climbing to a solid object descending as far as the length of the rope would allow, then after getting good footing he would jerk the rope loose from its anchor and then reattach it to a solid object before descending again to a new point where he could get good footing. In order to do this of course he had to use appropriate knots which would hold him for the descent but allow him to jerk the rope loose after he had reached new footing. [3]

White also advertised that he was going to climb the 165-foot tall Capitol building in Pierre, South Dakota. To gain some publicity for the Capitol climb, White scaled the St. Charles Hotel in Pierre on the afternoon of September 21, 1927. Three hundred people gathered that night in front of the Statehouse to watch him climb the building, with a spotlight following his every move. White died some time later in a fall from the side of a building before a large crowd in southern California.

(DTNM staff eventually removed the lower section of the ladder and prohibited people from climbing it after determining the ladder to be unsafe—many of the stakes were deteriorated and much of the outside rail was missing.)

SENATORS WARREN AND KENDRICK agreed to lend their support to the local endeavors to see a bridge built across the Belle Fourche River. Another petition, this one containing seven pages of signatures of people from Wyoming and South Dakota, had been submitted in 1923 to the Secretary of the Interior asking, once again, for funds to construct a bridge over the river, but even with the congressional delegation's help, they were not successful.

Finally, in 1928, with the increasing popularity of the automobile, the NPS could no longer put off building a bridge across the river. If a sudden rainstorm blew in, visitors could be stranded for hours—the river too high to cross, their cars mired in gumbo (thick, slick, sticky mud), or simply unable to navigate the steep slopes and narrow roadways. Cars stalled if drivers tried to cross the river too fast, drowning out the motor. A few enterprising locals pulled tourist cars from the river, charging a fee to tow them out with a team of horses.

The bridge, designed by the Bureau of Public Roads, was a Parker steel truss with a polygonal top chord, which gave the bridge additional strength. A flood washed out the east approach in 1929, and the NPS constructed a new approach, supported by timber trusses.

They also approved a plan to divert the Belle Fourche River flow by excavating a canal to create a new channel. To prevent the river from cutting into the old channel, 39 concrete tetrahedrons, each one nine feet high, were placed along the bank, 16 feet from center to center. That bridge revetment project was completed in August of 1930.

After the bridge over the river had been constructed, Thorn became the "dynamite man," setting charges on the river ice in the early spring to break it up before it could reach the bridge and damage it or wash it out. He and Anna moved to a tourist campground outside the national monument boundary in 1937, which they operated until his death in 1942 of a heart condition.

Devils Tower at a glance . . .

Custodian: — John M. Thorn 1921-1930
Visitors: — 96,510

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Last Updated: 23-Jan-2009