Standing Witness
Devils Tower National Monument: A History
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"Human environment, good and bad, starts with the rock, coupled with the other two major necessities, water and air. Ruin one of these three basic essentials and humanity is in deep trouble." Dr. J. David Love, scientist emeritus with the U.S. Geological Survey [1]

NATURAL WONDERS HAVE LONG HELD PLACES OF HONOR and significance for the humans who share their world. From a humble beginning as an eroded igneous intrusion, to the prestigious status as America's first national monument, to the monument centennial anniversary celebration, the Tower has beckoned and captivated visitors.

Rising 1,267 feet above the Belle Fourche River, the 867-foot rock Tower is one of the most conspicuous physiographic features of the Black Hills. Devils Tower National Monument (DTNM) lies at the western edge of the Hills, in the central-west portion of Crook County, Wyoming. The Little Missouri Buttes (three, four, or five, depending on who's counting), about four and a half miles northwest of the Tower, and the Tower are at the westerly end of a zone of igneous intrusives. Inyan Kara Mountain is at the easterly end, with the Black Buttes, Sundance Mountain, and other lesser-eroded domes in between.

To many American Indian tribes the Tower is not scenic, but sacred. Almost everyone, of any nationality, who visits the Tower experiences some sense of "other-worldliness," of a connectedness beyond the physicality of the rock—a sense of wonder, to be sure, but deeper and broader. The Tower evokes an emotional response from visitors, whether or not they have come in search of such an encounter.

Newell F. Joyner, custodian of DTNM from 1932 to 1947, said in a 1946 post-war report to the Department of the Interior:

From those I have contacted of the nearly one-third million visitors in the past fourteen years, I have decided that practically all of the visitors to Devils Tower have unexpectedly thrilled at the magnificence, the symmetry, the color, and the manifestation of the forces of nature. They have gained inspiration. They have been drawn out of the mundane and fleeting affairs of man, measured in minutes, and for a while been lifted to the timeless realm of magnificent nature whose perpetuity of plan is but slightly and temporarily affected by the idiosyncrasies of man and the 'catastrophic' situations he develops. Although undisputedly listed as a scientific wonder, it is more than that—it is primarily one of the world's inspirational wonders, even to the majority of scientists. Since peace and well-being can only come about by the relegating of human affairs to their proper place in nature, and since such relegation can only be brought about by an awareness of the whole scheme, it seems to be that the Devils Tower, along with other inspirational phenomena, has a tremendous significance to our nation which is looked to for leadership in establishing the peace. [2]

In the book Voices of the Rock, author Robert M. Schoch, PhD, writes of cataclysmic natural events that have physically shaped our world. Sudden and severe events—earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, meteors, and asteroids—abruptly affect a civilization's equilibrium and such great natural disasters may have played a role in the rise and fall of certain peoples throughout history. While the sudden and severe do happen, so, too, do the slow, methodical processes that contribute to our landscape.

The rock that makes up the Tower's multi-sided columns has been named trachyte, phonolite or phonolite porphyry, nepheline syenite, and analcime phonolite over the years since Ferdinand V. Hayden, a geologist, visited the area in 1859. Today phonolite porphyry is the name of choice—phonolite for igneous rock composed primarily of feldspar and so-named because the rock rings when struck, and porphyry for rock with conspicuously large mineral grains in an equal-granular finer-grained mass.

The Tower is uniform, in both composition and grain size, throughout its exposed areas, leading some geologists to believe that the igneous intrusion that formed the Tower happened as a single event—not a periodic activity as in some volcanic fields—and that the upward movement of the magma was probably slow and steady over a long period of time. The phonolite porphyry's grain size indicates that the Tower cooled at a great depth below ground.

Nature continued to work—a river, the rains, the winter snowmelt all wearing away at the sediment layers surrounding and covering the intrusion. As weathering and erosion break down the sediment layers along the sides of the valley, the river transports and deposits material in its bed and along its banks, these alluvial deposits contain rounded fragments of all the rock types that occur in the Belle Fourche River drainage area, including rock from the Tower and the Little Missouri Buttes.

In the past, the river carried more water and flowed at a higher level, especially during glacial periods in the far past. Seasonal flooding deposited even more alluvium in the riverbed and along the banks; the flooding sometimes forcing the river across a bend and eroding a new channel. The completion of Keyhole Dam in 1952 forever changed the ways of the river downstream from the dam. No longer would spring flooding carry cottonwood seeds to the terrace deposits in the watershed valley. No longer would the river flood her banks, carrying mineral-rich silt to nurture fields and meadows. The regulated flow determined the course of the river, changed the temperature of the river, changed much of the historic range and use of the river.

The impact of those changes on the two-plus miles of river within, and adjacent to, the DTNM boundary is manifesting in ways not expected or considered, or simply disregarded, when the dam was built. The national monument campground, now shaded and protected by tall, elderly cottonwoods, could soon be denuded as the cottonwoods continue to age and die. Some have had to be cut down for safety's sake, and there are no young saplings eager to grow and take their place. The river deposits necessary for natural cottonwood regeneration and growth are non-existent now that seasonal flooding no longer takes place. Species of fish native to the river can no longer sustain themselves with the decrease in the temperature of the water due to the dam; introduced non-native species come with their own set of problems.

MARY Alice Gunderson's book, Devils Tower: Stories in Stone, includes several American Indian creation stories concerning the Tower. Geology of Devils Tower National Monument by Charles S. Robinson and Robert E. Davis gives a concise and readable scientific explanation for the Tower. Standing Witness will look at the historical events of the national monument and will also explore the human factors that helped shape Devils Tower National Monument—from the coexistence of the Tower, the river, the sandstone, and the Red Beds, we can draw a parallel with the different objectives for the national monument, and the people who visit, work, and live in the shadow of the Tower.

A Tower in the Belle Fourche River (Devils Tower National Monument)

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Last Updated: 23-Jan-2009