Standing Witness
Devils Tower National Monument: A History
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Chapter VIII

1973 — Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling on abortion
1974 — Richard Nixon resigns Presidency over Watergate
1976 — Concorde supersonic jet service begins between U.S. and Europe
1978 — American Indian Religious Freedom Act becomes law
1979 — Iran hostage crisis begins

DURING OCTOBER 1971, ONE OF THE WORST SNOWSTORMS in years hit northeast Wyoming, paralyzing all travel for several days. Devils Tower National Monument experienced a power outage that lasted five days, with telephone service out for nine. Hundreds of power and telephone poles throughout the county were broken and blown down.

In June of 1972, national monument staff began the Old Ladder Restoration for a historic preservation project. The plan was to restore part of the wooden ladder that Ripley and Rogers built and used for the first recorded summit climb of the Tower in 1893.

Terry Rypkema and Bruce Bright climbed the Tower to do a reconnaissance of the condition of the remaining parts of the old ladder. It was deemed feasible to reset some old pegs, replacing and relocating a few, then attaching a new 1" x 4" railing to the outside of the pegs to restore the top 140 feet of the old ladder.

On July 3 Superintendent Robinson brought lumber, nails, hand drill, sledge hammer, wire, and pliers to the Visitor Center for the "Ladder Crew"—Bob Hirschy, Roger Holtorf, Bright and Rypkema. They loaded these materials, along with two ropes and climbing hardware into a litter and pulled it all to the base of the talus slope. The men then moved equipment by hand up to the base of the ladder crack in the side of the Tower.

On July 9 work on the ladder began in earnest. They spent the day on the Tower, with Rypkema tightening, replacing, and relocating the stakes, while Bright belayed (worked safety for Rypkema), and Holtorf sent tools and materials up on the pulley.

The next day Bright again worked belay while Holtorf attached the 1x4s to the pegs of the ladder, and Rypkema worked the pulley system, sending repair materials up the Tower side. Before leaving for the day they all went to the top of the Tower to record the climb they had made while scoping out the ladder project, then rappelled down the 600-foot pulley rope.

Bright and Rypkema finished the project the next morning. Rypkema concluded his report:

When we inspected the old ladder before the project I felt that it was in such poor condition that it would have essentially disappeared in another couple of years. After completing our work I felt that the portion we restored is probably sturdy enough to be climbed on, and if undisturbed, should last many years. . . .

Judging from the old photographs of the old ladder, and the remaining portions we found during the project, I think we restored it as closely as possible to its original design. When the new 1x4s weather in color to match the old wood, it should be almost an exact replica of what was placed there in 1893. [1]

DURING 1972 THE Crook County Bicentennial Committee developed a proposal for a Museum of Natural and Western History to be built on state land adjacent to the national monument. The proposal contained a narrative explanation of the three major portions of the museum—natural history, American Indian culture, and the white settlement—as well as sketches and other supporting material.

The committee hoped to give recognition to the Tower as the first national monument, to create a visual lesson, documenting the various developments in the history of the West and Wyoming, in particular Crook County and the Tower area. Each of the three major segments would be dramatized by a life-sized diorama, all housed in a large rectangular building built of phonolite porphyry, the rock of the Tower. The building would be situated on the property such that the Tower would rise on one side, and the Bear Lodge Mountains would be the opposite view.

One sketch in the proposal shows several different wagon roads that crossed the area—the Cheyenne wagon road, the old Montana road, the Miles City-Deadwood trail, the Texas trail—and where the Wilson Price Hunt party crossed Wyoming in 1811, and the Custer expedition route across the county in 1874.

Another drawing depicted where the museum building would sit in relation to the Tower, while a third portrayed a shaded viewing terrace, with an office and storage building.

The narrative briefly covered the natural history of the Tower area, the American Indian presence—including two legends regarding the Tower and noting the finding of what is now known as The Vore Buffalo Jump east of Sundance—and the early settlement of Crook County.

The proposal closed with a newspaper story about the buffalo jump, a picture of Sundance Mountain, and a letter of support from Superintendent Robinson, in which he said the proposal had merit, and could very well enhance the interpretive story already being shared at the Tower.

Robinson's annual reports were generally a two-page synopsis of the previous year's activities at the Tower. He broke them down into sections—Administration, Interpretation and Resources Management, Maintenance, and the catch-all "Other" category—and succinctly recapped the national monument's programs, operations, and personnel changes.

In 1972 full interpretive programs began on June 5 and included four nature walks weekly, the popular climbing demonstrations, nightly campfire programs, and short interpretive talks held in front of the Visitor Center. By Labor Day all programs were discontinued for the year.

A new naturalist position was split between DTNM and Grand Teton National Park. With a naturalist on staff, DTNM planned an environmental program to begin in May of 1973.

Over the Labor Day weekend the motorcycle gang "El Banditos" held their national meeting near the Tower. Six rangers were brought in from other areas, but there were no major incidents.

Robinson noted that the power line to the entrance station was put underground, and a six-pair direct burial telephone cable given to DTNM by Big Bend National Park for the new radio system was installed. New radios were planned for installation early the next year.

The radio system—a base radio with seven remote stations, three portables and four mobiles—became fully operational in March. Robinson reported that they could communicate with Mount Rushmore and the Badlands, but not with Wind Cave or Jewel Cave. The new system also included a receiver on the frequency used by the Sheriff and Highway Patrol, with a receiver on the national monument frequency ordered for the Sheriff's Office to complete two-way communication with them.

The Devils Tower Natural History Association continued to be an active partner with the national monument, and used their funds to purchase items that directly improved visitor satisfaction. In 1972, those purchases included a 16mm movie projector for use in the interpretive programs. New trail interpretive markers were made for the Tower Trail, Joyner Ridge Trail, and the Southside Trail. An oil painting depicting one of the Cheyenne Indian's stories of the Tower formation was restored, and new interpretive exhibits on prairie dogs were purchased. A medallion of the Tower was created to be sold in the Visitor Center bookstore.

Maintenance duties were an on-going process. As soon as the Visitor Center was repainted, new grills were ready for installation in the campground. The Tower Trail, office sidewalks, and one-half mile of a secondary road were all seal-coated, and the maintenance building insulated. An underground fuel oil tank was installed and the oil heating in the six-unit seasonal apartment building was replaced with electric heaters.

As usual, other improvements would be made "when funds permitted."

AS EARLY AS 1920, the NPS had issued sign standards for its national parks and national monuments. The standards were periodically updated and eventually replaced, first in 1940, and again in 1972. The principles that formed the basis for NPS park ranger uniform standards—the value of unity and the power of consistency—would also guide the development of park signs. In 1920, Director Stephen Mather issued Uniform Regulations, part of which required that all NPS rangers, no matter where they were located, wear uniforms of the same design. The uniforms became indelibly associated with the NPS and, as with the uniforms, signs that were distinctive and consistent in their appearance would be recognized as an official voice of the agency.

Visitors to the parks would see signs with wording and design consistent from park to park and be reminded that individual parks were part of a larger organization with common practices and shared purposes. With common standards, signs could be more authoritative, functional and representative of that larger organization.

Robinson noted progress installing new signs at the DTNM in 1972. "The first series of new signs were installed in early May. The signs are well-made and appear to be a durable product." [2]

In 1974 sign conversion continued, but things were not going well. "A $1,300.00 order was sent to FPI [Federal Prison Industries] on July 1, and only a portion of the order has been received after more than six months. It is obvious that we will be unable to meet the conversion deadline without additional funding." [3] Robinson's displeasure was obvious, too.

FPI is a government corporation created by federal statute in 1934. It was given several mandates, one of which was to serve as a "mandatory source" in selling its products to federal agencies. This required public agencies to at least try to buy from FPI before they could buy from the private sector.

When Robinson reported on the sign program in 1975—"Conversion continues but at a greatly reduced rate. FPI service continues to deteriorate; orders now take longer than six months" [4]—his comments still maintained some measure of hope. However, by 1976, his patience had run out. "FPI service has become intolerable. Our last order took six months and all wood signs received were unacceptable. It is essential that another source of signs be found." [5]

Robinson did not address the sign issue again in the yearly reports available, and his frustration with the project did not permanently affect his sense of humor with other responsibilities. DTNM hosted a camp for the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC). Robinson said, "A 24-person coed residential camp was operated for 8 weeks in the summer. The enrollees liked the program very much and some excellent work was accomplished. The administrative part of the program was slightly better than chaotic." [6]

IN 1974 ONE climber was rescued from the top of the talus slope. He fell while down-climbing and broke a thigh bone. Robinson had a 40-minute interview on KASL radio in Newcastle in July. One hundred and nineteen motorcycles visited the Tower in August during the annual Sturgis rally. The radio receiver installed in the Sheriff's office in Sundance was not working well—effective two-way communication remained elusive.

In 1975 the History Association purchased a large color aerial photograph of the national monument for display in the Administration Building lobby and they contracted with Miller Dimensionals in Denver for a 4'x 6' relief map of the Tower.

Concrete slabs for picnic tables were poured and new grills installed in Loop B of the campground, completing that improvement project.

The bridge over the Belle Fourche River was sandblasted, primed, and painted, and rotted timbers, guard posts, and railings were replaced with treated lumber.

Under his "Other" heading Robinson included the following: "The Sturgis motorcycle club came on their annual visit in August with ninety-six motorcycles. Actor Cliff Robertson was here for three days filming a documentary on Indian legends. Sonic booms are on the increase, with 24 recorded in 1975." [7]

In February of 1976 Superintendent Robinson received the Excellence Award for Energy Conservation from the Federal Energy Administration—their highest award.

For America's bicentennial on July 4, the 1893 flag-raising on top of the Tower was reenacted, with climbers setting a United States flag atop the Tower. Climbing demonstrations by national monument staff were provided each morning of the summer season, and Tower staff facilitated one rescue of an injured climber from the top of the leaning column.

THE MID-1970s were fairly quiet years at DTNM, but the Tower was about to come out of the quiet and into the spotlight.

From the national monument's beginning in 1906, events and changes at one time or another increased visitation to the Tower. One such event catapulting visitor numbers to a new level was the release of the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind in late 1977.

Columbia Pictures spent almost two weeks at DTNM in May of 1976 shooting scenes for a movie described by film critic Rex Reed as ". . . a wasteful depressing failure . . ." [8] and by Jack Kroll in Newsweek as, ". . . .the friendliest, warmest science-fiction epic you've ever seen. It brings the heavens down to earth." [9]

Steven Spielberg, writer and director, felt the movie should encompass one of his favorite themes—the ultimate glorification of the common man. "A typical guy—nothing ever happens to him. Then, all of a sudden, he encounters something extraordinary and has to change his entire life in order to measure up to the task of either defeating it or understanding it." [10]

Spielberg instructed Joe Alves, the production designer, ". . . to search America for a place that only my imagination told me existed." [11] This place would be the mountainous area where extraterrestrials make their first contact with earthlings. Alves covered 2,700 miles throughout the west before recommending the DTNM location. The Tower structure then became a motif in the film until appearing as itself as the story moves to the climactic meeting between the humans and the aliens.

Columbia Pictures sent a "Scope of Filming Activity" to Robinson. It delineated where they would be filming within the national monument boundary, what action they would be filming, and their intended time frame for the construction and shooting schedule. They would start construction March 15, 1976 at the entrance gate area, and photograph both day and night scenes in DTNM from May 3 to May 15, depending on weather conditions and changes in their shooting time.

They expected to bring 100 crew people and twenty actors, along with supply vehicles and equipment trucks, all of which would be on national monument grounds at some point during the shoot.

Columbia had asked to make a few changes to the DTNM entrance: build a false facade in front of the existing gate entrance log building; remove and replace existing DTNM signs, or cover up the existing signs with their own signs for the film; add a traffic arm at the entrance gate. They also asked permission to park Army vehicles on both sides of the road between the entrance gate and the bridge.

The production company itemized what activity would take place right at the Tower:

Devils Tower rock area at base of national monument:

We will have actors climbing on big rocks below actual Devils Tower fluted sides. We may start to climb up the side of Devils Tower only a short distance, never to the top of it at any time.

We will have cable-electric lights to rig at base of Devils Tower.

We would like permission to fly helicopters around Devils Tower, which will be shining lights at night down on actors climbing over big rocks at base of tower.

The helicopters will not land near the tower at any time. They will land and take off from private property nearby the entrance to the park area, but never in any of the park area. [12]

Lynn Thompson, Regional Director of the Rocky Mountain Region of the NPS, based in Denver, signed off on a review of Columbia's filming permit. The review letter to Robinson echoed his initial concern about the effects of the filming activities on the features of the national monument, the wildlife, and on visitor access and use. The review also addressed the special requests that Columbia had made:

We object to building a false facade in front of the existing gate entrance log building; to removing NPS signs; and to adding a traffic arm at the entrance gate. We see no benefits from such changes and this would, in our opinion, unreasonably curtail and impair visitor use of the area. Also, a filming company should not be allowed to do things in a park which are denied the general public.

The use of helicopters should be closely regulated. Before allowing overflights, particularly at night, we would like to have the Office of Air Services, Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., review this. . . .

This does not prohibit issuing a filming permit immediately. We need this information before allowing helicopter flights over the Park. The safety of human life is a major responsibility, and we must be assured that proper precautions are being taken at all times. [13]

The NPS was concerned about disturbance to visitors and wildlife in granting permission for production vehicles and helicopters to operate within national monument grounds. They wanted to make sure that the use of film company vehicles anywhere within the Park did not interfere with visitor access and use, or with normal NPS activities. This included Columbia's proposals to have actors entering DTNM in Army vehicles, and parking vehicles alongside the road between the entrance station and the bridge.

The review letter concluded with discussion of a bond or cash deposit to be made by the production company and the concurrence with Robinson's approval to allow Columbia to proceed with their plans, with the stipulation that all conditions of the permit be met.

In April, Robinson sent a letter with the requested information on the helicopters to the Regional Director. Four helicopters would be used in the production, all the pilots had commercial licenses, and all had extensive mountain flying experience. The helicopters would be based on private land adjacent to the east boundary of DTNM.

Robinson summed up the action plans for the helicopters with this paragraph:

The flights over the national monument will be approximately NW to SE on the west side of the Tower. The anticipated minimum altitude over the talus slope will be no less than 200' and hopefully it will be nearer 500'! The horizontal distance from the side of the Tower will be about 500'. If all goes according to plan all of the filming and flying will be from about 4:00 p.m. until dusk for three days. [14]

Robinson recalls the filming of Close Encounters in a 1981 interview with D. L. Berglund:

The [film] crew was here for 12 days in May, 1976. The studio brought 110 people from Burbank and they hired locally on a daily basis up to 300 'extras.' Their filming base camp was at the now KOA. At that time only the 'A' frame was standing. The film company rented ten acres from Campstool [Ranch] around the 'A' frame, installed a chain link fence, and constructed the 'Decontamination Station' seen in the movie.

Filming was done at the camp, on Campstool Hill (two locations), at several places on and near Paul Conzelman's (maintenance worker) ranch, and at the foot of Pine Ridge on U.S. [Highway] 14 (about 14 miles east of Moorcroft).

The company (Columbia) did film from about nine sites inside the National monument, but only used about five in the movie. They filmed at the west end of the old bridge and at two places on a bench about 100 feet above the old bridge, in the trees just north of Prairie Dog Town, and at several sites in the talus slope and just west of the talus slope.

Nearly all locals who wanted to be in the movie were. None had speaking parts.

They [Columbia Pictures] did not need permission. Filming is considered as a 1st Amendment right.

Columbia asked for permission to cover the entrance signs, disguise the entrance kiosk and land helicopters on top of the Tower. All were denied and the only attempt to circumvent the denial was when they put a strip sign 'Park Closed' on the entrance sign. I caught them and stayed until they took it off.

One park employee had to be with the crew when they were in the National monument. I did all of this and it amounted to about 50 hours during the 12 days. The road was blocked several times for up to 25 minutes from the East Prairie Dog parking strip to the sawdust pile. The company hired off-duty deputy sheriffs and on a few occasions the Highway Patrol helped them. Visitors were inconvenienced for some hours over the 12 days. I give Columbia high marks for being easy to get along with and for being a considerate, helpful outfit. . . .

Others in the film from this area: Gisele, Mike, and Scott Robinson [his family]. (Also the dog and pickup.) Some of the local game wardens were also involved. (Jim Johnston, now of Laramie, was one.)

Nothing was filmed at Moorcroft. Columbia wanted to film the train evacuation scene there, but Burlington was not interested, so it was filmed in Alabama.

Most of the filming was done in a WWII blimp hanger at the airport in Mobile, Alabama. The world's largest sound stage at that time was constructed inside the hanger.

The climb of Devils Tower as depicted in the movie was done in Mobile on the set. Rock climbing of Devils Tower does require technical skills. [15]

Local extras hired for the movie were used in scenes shot along Wyoming State Highway 24, to the south outside DTNM, and along U.S. Highway 14 toward Moorcroft. The main shooting location for local talent was at the foot of Pine Ridge on U.S. Highway 14, north of Keyhole State Park.

H. L. Edwards, a veterinarian from Gillette, was on the set during the filming of the "dead" animal scenes. In the movie, the military uses a ruse to evacuate the area, claiming there is poisonous gas in the air, leaving "dead" animals the actors find as they make their way to the Tower. The cattle were trucked over from Gillette, anesthetized on location to appear dead, and all were returned, alive and well, in the evening.

The scene of the actors climbing over the talus slopes of the Tower while evading the helicopters spraying a sleeping agent was shot at what the film crew call "magic time," the thirty minutes or so just before and after sunset. They accomplished the shot in one twenty minute take before the light faded away on one of the last days of filming at the Tower.

After filming at the Tower, the film company moved to Alabama for two months, followed by the editing process, which took over a year. (First scheduled for release in April of 1977, Close Encounters of the Third Kind would finally open in November.) No outside photographers were allowed on any of the sets, as Spielberg wanted to keep the Tower presence, and the alien story line, as secret as possible until the film opened to the public.

Al Ebner, public relations director for the film, asked that no pictures be taken with the Tower in the background, saying, "Because such a picture might get out and there are actually very few people world-wide who have ever seen it [the Tower]. Just imagine," he pointed, "when they suddenly see that. It'll blow their minds." [16]

His words were prophetic. Robinson later stated, "National monument visitation was 156,293 in 1977. Visitation jumped to 272,617 in 1978 after the release of the movie (+74%). Visitation continues to rise yearly." [17] Devils Tower National Monument became a vacation destination of thousands of movie-goers.

AS WITH ALL administrators of DTNM, Robinson dealt with his share of employee issues, position vacancies, and a near constant influx and transfer of personnel. The split position for naturalist lasted only two years before the position was moved to Grand Teton National Park. The Administrative Clerk transferred to another national monument in June of 1978; the position remained open in January of 1979. The inconvenience of such movement within the NPS was evident in Robinson's punctuated remark, "His position is still vacant!!" [18]

An Administrative Clerk was hired in August of 1979, but transferred after only four months. Robinson notes another job opening with the retirement of the maintenance man in October, and makes an unemotional observation, "The Janitor position has now been vacant for three years." [19]

In April of 1979 another film crew descended on DTNM, this time to record a free climb of the Tower. ABC planned to film George Willig and Steve Matous climbing the Tower for a live broadcast on their television show "The Wide World of Sports."

This Tower climb would be one of a series of live broadcasts featuring Willig. He rose to instant fame in 1977 when he climbed up the 110-story South Tower of the World Trade Center. Arrested when he reached the top, he was eventually charged with criminal trespass and served with a $750,000 civil suit. The local news media rallied to Willig's support, taking up the cause of an underdog against humorless bureaucrats. Willig in the end took a tongue-in-cheek plea: He agreed to pay the city a penny for every floor he had climbed, a total fine of one dollar and ten cents.

Matous began climbing with his brother in the early 1960s in Central Park in New York City, under the watchful eye of their grandfather. Matous was Program Director at the Colorado Outward Bound School, worked as a ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park, and founded and ran two climbing guide services. He would take part with Willig in live televised shows of rock climbing in the United States, filming ascents of Angel's Landing in Zion National Park in Utah, Castleton Tower in Utah, and the Tower.

ABC first approached Superintendent Robinson in 1978 about the Willig climb, and wanted to use a helicopter to put people and cameras on top of the Tower. Robinson turned that idea down, but ABC talked to a higher authority in Washington, D.C., and Robinson was told to let them land on top. For reasons unknown, ABC decided instead to film Willig and Matous climbing Angel's Landing. Willig's previous climb to the top of Eldorado Canyon in Eldorado Springs, Colorado, in October of 1977, marked the first time that live coverage of a climb was presented on American television.

When the television company returned their attention to a Tower climb in 1979, they again asked permission to land a helicopter on the top of the Tower. Again, Robinson told them no, and again they talked to someone in Washington, but this time Washington did not intervene, and ABC used climbers to run up 30,000 feet of cable. Robinson had this to say about their hired help, "The climbers brought in (about 10) were led by Bev Johnson and Mike Hoover. It is accurate to say that all the ABC climbers were better than Willig (even Steve Matous)." [20]

Robinson did not have much good to say about the ABC filming crew, either. "ABC was not particularly easy to get along with. They have little, if any feeling for the environment." [21]

In a 1981 interview Robinson recalled the details about the climb and the filming.

About 60 people came from ABC; they had about a dozen vehicles, including two GMC mobile homes and two trucks (one for the blimp). In addition, there was a semi-truck that provided the satellite up-link. (1st time a live sports program was sent by satellite.) ABC came on a Monday [April 23] and left about 9PM on Saturday, April 28, 1979.

ABC, like Columbia, was required by me to post a $100,000 bond. In addition, each company had to have accident insurance.

ABC used 9 camera locations—1 in a helicopter, and 1 on the west side of the main road about 1/4 mile below the west road. The rest were close to the Tower or on the Tower.

There were 1500 to 2000 people here for the actual climb on Sat. They started coming at 6 AM and by 10 AM the parking lot was filled. People finally started leaving by 3:30 PM and by 5 PM there were some sites again available in the VC [Visitor Center] parking area. We brought in 5 extra rangers for the big day and should have had 10 or 15. It was a mess with much off road driving and we had no one to write citations.

Again, it was a public rip-off to provide a money-maker for a single company for free. [22]

Robinson had not been impressed with the production. In his 1979 annual report he said, "It was far more disruptive than was the 'Close Encounters' film crew." [23]

An Associated Press story printed in the Salt Lake Tribune that Sunday summed up the Willig climb with this paragraph, "The two climbers braved chilly winds and a sleet storm to scale the 1,280-foot natural volcanic obelisk while agile ABC Television crews climbed alongside beaming close-ups by satellite to millions of armchair mountaineers." [24]

BY 1979, THE bridge built in 1928 to span the Belle Fourche River needed more repair and reconstruction than could be justified. In September, a contract was awarded for the construction of a new bridge near the entrance, to replace the existing, sub-standard bridge. If the General Services Administration agreed, the old bridge could be given to the county for their use elsewhere.

Work started on the new bridge in September of 1979, and was completed in the fall of 1980. The new concrete bridge curved over the river, changing the approach on the west side and creating a longer, flatter tangent in the road. The old DTNM bridge became a new county bridge about five miles down river from the Tower.

Devils Tower at a glance. . .


Superintendent: —Homer "Pete" Robinson 1971-1980

Visitors: — 1,212,038
Climbers: — 12,133
Summits: — 9,333

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Last Updated: 23-Jan-2009