Mesa Verde National Park:
Shadows of the Centuries
NPS Arrowhead logo

Chapter 10:
"A Solid Mass of Milling Humanity"

THE 1960S STARTED OUT AS HAD NO OTHER DECADE in the history of Mesa Verde. The Wetherill Mesa Project was well under way, and Mission 66 promised to bring about needed improvements. Exciting times, these, as the park fairly buzzed with activity.

The peak of activity at Wetherill came in 1961, with four field crews working at various sites and a laboratory team cleaning and cataloguing items recovered from the digs. A steady stream of participating scientists from other agencies and institutions visited the project to contribute their expertise and to tour "the largest archaeological program carried out" at Mesa Verde, one that "ranks with the most extensive ever performed in the United States." Al Lancaster, who had worked at Mesa Verde since the early 1930s, having been one of the earliest members of the stabilization crew, recalled some resentment of the Wetherill Mesa group by the park people, which was ultimately resolved. Lancaster was "in charge of excavation and stabilization of Mug House and Long House. I enjoyed it all." So did archaeologist Robert Lister, who served on an advisory committee to the project, which met several times with the National Geographic Society research committee. Lister later said, "I recall the NGS airline photographers bringing in a group of airline stewardesses to pose among the ruins and also how well the NGS provided for their committee members—hotels, food and drink, rides in special cars on the narrow gauge railroad, etc." [1] Lister, whose career at Mesa Verde spanned several decades, remembered, with some amusement, one unnamed superintendent who kept referring to the ruins as "fossils"!

The days of primitive archaeology had long disappeared when the Wetherill Mesa Project began. A sandstone slab threatened Mug House, but a hard-rock miner, cribbing, and blasting saved it. (Courtesy: Richard Ellis)

The fifth and final season of field work in 1963 found a reduced crew making a few last test excavations and stabilizing endangered sections of four large cliff dwellings, which would be viewed from vantage points on the cliff edge. Laboratory and paperwork continued into 1965, when the project's field work and research were completed at a cost of over $1 million. Three cliff dwellings had been cleared and eight other ruins had been excavated to depict the full sequence of Mesa Verde culture. A second section of the park was now ready for visitors, as soon as a transportation system could be devised. [2] All in all, it proved to be an outstanding program, one that benefited scholar and visitor alike.

Archaeologist Alden Hayes captured the spirit of the project and spoke for others, when he wrote:

Those of us who were privileged to take an active part in the exploration of Wetherill Mesa devoutly hope that each visitor in the future, who looks down at the sightless windows of Double House from a rock ledge or who rounds the bend in the cliff to set foot in Long House, will experience some of the same thrill of discovery that was ours. [3]

After the completion of the Wetherill work, the University of Colorado again had crews in the field, under Lister's direction and with the skilled assistance of Lancaster and some of the experienced Navajos. It had been a busy period in the park. Eventually, the public would gain further understanding under less crowded conditions from all this effort. This multidisciplinary research program added immeasurably to the knowledge of Mesa Verde prehistory and placed Mesa Verde back in the forefront of southwestern archaeology's current developments. The fortunate circumstance of available money coincided with park needs as never before or since. The park, the visitor, and the scholar benefited from the Wetherill Mesa Project; its impact is still being felt forty years later.

The opening of a new area could come none too soon—crowds literally overran the park during the peak days of the summer season. Every room at the lodge and all campsites were occupied nearly every evening in 1963, and an estimated 200 to 300 cars were turned away. And conditions got worse. By July 1965, Superintendent Chester Thomas pointed out the obvious: Any cliff dwelling trip of over forty people was considered a "potentially dangerous one both from the standpoint of the damage to the ruin and the risk of human life from crowding and joggling" in the confines of the cave site. That month, 619 groups had toured Cliff Palace, of which 26 percent fell into the acceptable size range, 12 percent were barely manageable, and 62 percent were unmanageable parties that included up to 210 individuals. "There were times when people were strung from the top of the ingoing stairway to the top of the exit ladders, a solid mass of milling humanity."

Thomas went on to note that in July 1965, for the first time in the history of the park, a month's visitation figures exceeded 100,000. [4] That number by itself represented a staggering total, but it becomes even more startling when one realizes that the cumulative total of Mesa Verde visitors had not topped that figure until sometime early in the 1930 season, twenty-four years after creation of the park.

Mesa Verde's popularity and the throngs of "milling humanity" threatened ruination of the tourists' visit and serious damage to the cliff dwellings, even with the ongoing maintenance and stabilization programs. One description of a trip into Cliff Palace in mid-decade went this way: The cave acted as a sounding board for "scuffling feet, wails of crying kids, the rangers' voice; bedlam is the rule of the day all summer long." With the rangers forced to "yell above the racket . . . interpretation at this site is rapidly becoming a farce." Reform had to come and it did, with a ticketing system that limited the number of visitors to Cliff Palace and Balcony House.

Self-guided tours of Spruce Tree House were tried, without success, because few people "paid any attention to the number of stations or referred to the guidebooks." Superintendent Thomas concluded that self-guided tours would not be used in the ruins unless he were forced into it. [5]

Mission 66 continued to promise some relief from the crush of visitors. As the years sped toward the end of the project, discussions moved slowly concerning new campgrounds and a lodge away from Spruce Tree Point. The surging crowds of the 1960s added urgency to the deliberations. One stumbling block finally was removed—a new concessionaire contract was signed in 1964, after on-and-off negotiations over the course of thirteen years. Ansel Hall did not live long enough to see the conclusion; the company remained under family ownership, but the new management did not hold Ansel's strong objections to moving the lodge.

There were some complaints about allowing the continuation of a monopoly in the park. Circumstances in the national parks in general, however, were not conducive to effective competition. Eager tourists, busy running hither and yon, did not have the opportunity or the desire to study and support competitive enterprises. From the point of view of the National Park Service, a regulated monopoly appeared "preferable" to competition in park concessions; one concessionaire seemed easier to keep tabs on than several. [6] Competition outside the park gave the visitor a choice in lodging, and in Mesa Verde's case particularly, nearby campgrounds were able to relieve some of the camping pressure inside the park by the early 1970s. The Mesa Verde Company and the National Park Service moved ahead toward planning and developing new facilities. The final decision placed the lodge on Navajo Hill and the campground at the upper end of Morefield Canyon. Bill Winkler, commercial manager for the company, told how the final lodge site was chosen:

The day it was selected, I remember walking through the sagebrush on that windswept hilltop, with the regional director of the Park Service. He had a walking stick with him, and he plopped it in the ground with a big thump and said, "Let it be there."' That's how they picked the site. . . . He was angry as to how hard it had been to get to this point [in the negotiations]. It hampered his vision as to what the people needed. Some of his staff could see that it was going to be a real challenge to develop a good visitor experience out of this site he had selected. I remember to this day his comment, "Let them look at the oakbrush." I think the architectural firm selected was very sensitive to the needs and came up with the best.

Construction on the Far View Lodge and service station began in late 1965, and rooms were ready for occupancy by the following season. Only one small problem remained: Guests had to take their meals at the old Spruce Tree Lodge, some six miles to the south. Construction at the Morefield Campground, meanwhile, moved forward. Finally, at the end of the 1967 season, all facilities at Spruce Tree Point were turned over to the federal government. Far View, by then, had a restaurant and a cafeteria, as well as other concessions. The former hospital, which had evolved into a first-aid station as times changed and transportation improved, evolved one more time into a remodeled food service facility for visitors to the museum and Spruce Tree House.

The Far View Lodge, sitting amid the oakbrush on that windswept hill, overcame its unpromising location, thanks to the architects and to the Winklers' dedication. The magnificent sweeping views to the south and west contributed their share to the lodgers' enjoyment of the site. Discussing those times, Bill and Merrie Winkler explained:

A hotel or inn is a very personal place. You either relate to it or you don't. What we wanted was that lodge to leave an impression on the visitor; I guess that's the best way I can express it. The visitor came, saw the lodge, would stay in the rooms, eat at the lodge, then they would come away and say, "I will never forget Mesa Verde." A lot of motel rooms look alike; we wanted people to come away with a different feeling, especially with that lodge. We really poured ourselves into that lodge, wanted that to be a super interpretive experience. [7]

Navajo Hill
Navajo Hill, the visitors' center (foreground), and the Far View Lodge (background) are locked in by a winter's day. (Courtesy: Mesa Verde National Park)

The new generation of visitors would have to judge for themselves the success of the Winklers' dreams and efforts.

The long-felt need to relieve crowding at Spruce Tree Point had been met, at least partly. At the same time, plans were under way for a new visitors' center on Navajo Hill and for the organization of tours through the Wetherill Mesa sites. All a part of—or a spin-off of—Mission 66, some of those plans would come to fruition long after that project had become history. Like Rocky Mountain National Park, which received similar help on a grander scale, Mesa Verde was better prepared for the tourist crunch of the seventies.

So much progress had its price, even if it was only an emotional one. Gil Wenger, chief park archaeologist, remembered that "many older folks commented that they hated to see it [the lodge] go"; it had been a delightful place in earlier years. [8] Memories alone remained by the beginning of the new decade, as the National Park Service removed buildings and began "landscaping."

Memories were also the stuff of the Wetherill-Mason family reunion in the park in June 1965. For a brief moment, the park turned back the clock to honor the family that, seventy-six years before, had started it all. It was just like old times, even to the reinflaming of some long-simmering arguments. Except for that continuing debate over whether Richard or Al had first seen Cliff Palace, the reunion proved to be a rousing success. The "Al" faction carried on a running feud with the National Park Service, much to Jean Pinkley's disgust, over what Al's supporters believed were unfounded pothunting accusations made against the Wetherills. [9] The feud amounted to a tempest on a potsherd, but it managed to stir up feelings long thought to be dead.

Pinkley also became angry, and justifiably so, with the Rocky Mountain AAA over its 1964­1965 issue of "Where to Vacation in Colorado." The motor club described the Manitou cliff dwellings as an "archeological preserve dating from approximately 1019 a.d." The AAA rubbed a raw nerve with that item; the park staff had already suffered nearly sixty years' worth of aggravation from the impostor. This latest description brought a sharp retort from Pinkley: "Not only are they fakes, poorly constructed fakes at that, but the self-guiding panel exhibits in place are full of mis-information, some of which is actually ludicrous." She rated it as no better than a "tourist-trap," whose reproductions "are not an archeological preserve." [10]

On a more positive note, the Navajo Trail (Highway 160) was finally completed across the Navajo Reservation in Arizona. The Denver Post, September 17, 1962, described it as "a vital east-west connecting link between Mesa Verde and the Grand Canyon." As the shortest, most scenic, "all-weather route" between Los Angeles and Kansas City, Highway 160 generated new tourism possibilities for Mesa Verde.

For Cortez, the new highway provided the final link in its tourist chain; at last, the city was tied directly to the Arizona and California tourist market. Now Cortez emerged as a serious threat to the longtime dominance of Mesa Verde tourism by Durango. Highway 160, southwestern Colorado's main artery, stretched between the two towns, and each planned to dominate that gateway to the park. Cortez grew by two-and-one-half times, and Durango topped ten thousand in population by 1960. The conversion in the 1960s of the narrow-gauge railroad from Durango to Silverton to a tourist attraction, providing a round-trip train ride, hinted at a nearly unbeatable bonanza for future tourism. Old-timer and banker Neil Camp accurately prophesied that the railroad "may be as important to Southwest Colorado as the establishment of Mesa Verde National Park." [11] Durango also acquired a ski area when Purgatory Resort opened twenty-five miles north of town, but this only slightly affected park visitation. Most people did not think of Mesa Verde in the winter, despite its own special charms at that season of the year.

The two rival towns occasionally joined in a common promotion, but more often their relationship remained at the dog-eat-dog level of the nineteenth century. Each sought to prevent the other from gaining an advantage. The National Park Service and the Mesa Verde Company were able to promote without the obvious bias and prejudice often seen in the efforts of Cortez and Durango. Other firms joined with them in special promotions; one example was Frontier Airlines, which did business in the Four Corners region. All the publicity paid off handsomely in the long run, as tourism boomed in southwestern Colorado.

The road system outside the park was now in place and needed only maintenance and repair to keep the traffic flowing. Inside the park, slides, buckling, and road damage continued to undermine crucial parts of the roadway, which was underlain by the unstable Mancos shale. Money, repairs, and plans all failed to overcome the problems; drivers still had to slow down to pass work crews and dodge chuckholes. Traffic delays irritated impatient travelers, some of whom simply turned around and left. Patience was a prerequisite for enduring the struggle to improve park roads.

Superintendent Chester Thomas, an experienced administrator who had dealt with many of the same problems at Zion National Park, worked all the while to build bridges of cooperation to the neighboring communities. He encouraged his employees to "become good neighbors," to join civic clubs, library and hospital boards; to work with the Scouts; and simply to be involved wherever the opportunity arose. Park wives, he believed, often did more along these lines than their husbands. He understood the generations-old love/hate relationship between the West and the federal government, and he endeavored to reconcile it: "Mesa Verde National Park and a large number of our parks and monuments are in or near small communities where the people tend to be conservative and to hold the general attitude that Federal activities are suspect. Quite often as representatives of the Federal Government, employees are also suspect." He painted a fair picture of Mancos and Cortez and, to a lesser degree, of Durango. He pointed out that the towns needed the jobs and money that the federal agencies provided, but they did not have to like the purveyor or its employees. This distrust, or jealousy perhaps, would have been perfectly understandable to the Wetherills and their neighbors of the 1880s.

Thomas, though, did not stop his reconciliation efforts there. He was fully aware that attitudes worked like a two-way street and that government employees could make impressions that reinforced preconceived opinions. "By the same token, small communities are suspect by our employees," who saw their life centered in the park: "To hell with the community and what people outside may think." This kind of antagonism boded ill for the park, Thomas warned. "We as individuals, our institutions, our country and our bureaus, prosper largely as the image we present to the public is good or bad." [12] Thomas hit the mark on all counts, but his education efforts fell on hard times in the 1960s and early 1970s. The Vietnam War and the Watergate misadventures dragged public confidence in the government down to nearly all-time lows.

Mesa Verde could even be troubled by a seemingly harmless government decision, such as the one that allowed the states to adopt daylight saving time. In 1965, Colorado went along with the plan, but its three neighboring states (Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah) did not. The park staff anticipated problems but did not realize their magnitude until June. The campfire talk lost its flavor in daylight, so it had to be delayed until 9:00 p.m., which made an intolerably long day for the speakers, some of whom had gone to work at 7:00 a.m.

Employees started work very early, because people began arriving in the park at all hours. Early arrivals were not attracted to the early trips into the ruins, which were poorly attended and were eventually dropped in favor of late afternoon ones. Traditional meal times had no meaning, thrown completely out of kilter as they were by hungry tourists. Some of them ate breakfast while others nibbled their lunch. Campers started to arrive later in the day in order to take advantage of the extended driving hours. The superintendent confessed, "no one could imagine the difficulty the camping situation would create." [13] Despite Jean Pinkley's fears that all of these disruptions would put an end to the Interpretive Division, everyone adjusted and the park survived.

The federal government unintentionally created other problems, too. When supersonic planes began to fly over the park, creating their sonic booms, they seemed harmless enough. Not until 1966 did the frequency of flights (almost daily by December) produce enough thundering vibrations to threaten the cliff dwellings. Protests went immediately to the National Park Service and to the Federal Aviation Administration: "We are now faced, however, with a new threat to the continued preservation of the ruins—the ground jarring, shockwave effect of the 'sonic boom,' . . . they do present a potential threat to the structural stability of the fragile, original prehistoric walls." Special devices to record pressure sensitivity were installed in several ruins. Then, at last, a strongly worded communiqué to the Air Force recommended that its flight patterns be moved west of Mesa Verde to the canyon country. [14] When that was accomplished, the threat receded.

Even though the modern world kept closing in on Mesa Verde in the most unexpected ways, some of the pressures of the 1960s looked familiar. Jesse Nusbaum would have empathized with Meredith Guillet, superintendent in the late 1960s, who complained about the overtime it took to gather statistics for government reports. Washington promised reimbursement, a gesture that ignored the point Guillet was trying to make. Complaints about excessive paperwork did not relieve the burden of the rapidly multiplying required reports and the lost time that could better be utilized for something more worthwhile. The National Park Service had difficulty finding qualified seasonal rangers, and the Mesa Verde Company had a hard time retaining its staff until after Labor Day; neither problem was new. Some employees' attitudes shocked even the old hands, however. Roger Hall complained about employees who agreed to stay and then went back on their word: "They don't even feel it is necessary to offer an explanation—it is the nature of the times."

Tourists and employees were no less accident prone than in earlier days. The hordes of tourists and the high level of activity in July and August, the peak months of each season, generated most of the mishaps. In August 1965, for example, 258 persons required some "form of first aid," the number being almost evenly divided between visitors and staff. Two years later, the same months brought reported injuries of turned ankles, wrenched knees, and one headfirst fall into a kiva. [15] Some people seemed to be accidents looking for a place to happen.

All previous superintendents would have recognized the continuing plague of vandalism. In April 1961, in what appeared to be a major cleanup of unresolved cases, letters were mailed to people from as far away as Massachusetts and California (the list of recipients was three pages long). The letters all opened with "It has recently come to our attention that your name and address are inscribed on government owned structures in Mesa Verde." After politely requesting that the individual return and remove the offending inscription or arrange through the chief park ranger to pay for someone else to do it, the letter flashed the iron fist. A fine of not more than five hundred dollars or six months of imprisonment awaited those who failed to respond. Probably the most shocked and embarrassed of the miscreants were several adults whose names had been left by some of the boys whom they had chaperoned on a tour of the park! [16] Fortunately, those who had the urge to leave a marker to their memory constituted only a very small percentage of the visiting public. Slowly and painfully over the years, Americans had become more aware of their individual responsibilities as stewards of their national parks.

Concerns could go both ways—the public had some complaints of their own about developments in the park. Objections quickly surfaced to a proposed reduction of the deer herd in the park in 1966, after the number of deer had outgrown the available food supply. Some of the more emotional protesters saw the plan as a plot to kill the lovable "Bambi" of childhood memories. Only after the superintendent made many appearances and answered reporters' questions from as far away as Seattle did the tempest subside and the reduction take place. Even the state of Colorado jumped into the fray briefly with the cry, "The State owns all game." Colorado might think that, but the question has never been decided in court. From Mesa Verde's viewpoint, these are "Federal deer." The wildlife in the park more than held its own and included mountain lions and bobcats. Abert squirrels had to be reintroduced to supplement the dwindling populations, as did the Gunnison's prairie dogs. [17] Those frisky little fellows gave fits to the staff when they refused to stay in the areas assigned to them!

Friction between the National Park Service and the Ute Mountain Utes remained unresolved decade after decade. Some of the park complaints were old ones. Sheep grazing and poaching were virtually impossible to prevent. The Ute section of Mesa Verde appeared to be valuable as domestic sheep pasture, but it proved unsuited to continuous utilization, which led to erosion. The sheep, not recognizing man-made boundaries, moved contentedly onto park land to graze. Discussions about effecting a land swap failed when no suitable government land could be found.

The Utes had their own grievances, making negotiations that much more difficult. They claimed that the park employed Navajos on labor projects to the exclusion of Utes. These two tribes also disputed part of the land that the Utes believed they had been awarded in the 1911 and 1913 exchanges for part of Mesa Verde. The Navajos eventually prevailed, and the Utes received other land and financial compensation. Unhappy over this turn of events, the Utes blamed the government, meaning Mesa Verde, which inherited a further legacy of mistrust.

In 1947, the Utes had taken their claims to court, suing for payment for millions of acres of land in Colorado and Utah. Part of this case involved the Southern Utes and that ill-starred 1911 land exchange. In a precedent-setting 1952 decision, the Court of Claims had awarded the Utes $32 million, which was divided among the various bands. This, the first major Indian victory, opened the door to a series of later suits.

Other Mesa Verde issues continued to fester. Discussions involving land exchanges or sales to acquire archaeological sites or a better roadway went on sporadically. Informal negotiations in 1957 to arrange a possible exchange for the rich archaeological area south of Chapin Mesa had been indefinitely postponed with the discovery of potential oil and natural gas sites. No progress was being made, and the atmosphere of mistrust and failure did not improve. Superintendent Thomas's request that "all members of the Park family take every available opportunity to promote good relations with the Utes" came too late. Platitudes, as well-intentioned as they might have been, would not heal deeply ingrained animosities.

Superintendent Meredith Guillet, who came from an old Montezuma County family that traded with the Utes and Navajos, had first worked in the park in 1930 and then returned with the C.C.C. Now he was brought back in 1966 to help resolve some long-festering Ute problems. With skills born of experience and cultural understanding, Guillet moved to work with the park's neighbors. All his patience and tact were required for the job. He and the National Park Service cooperated with the Utes on a plan to develop the Indians' archaeological sites directly south of Mesa Verde. Out of the studies and discussions, which began in the mid-1960s, came the Ute Mountain Tribal Park. The superintendent hoped it would take some of the visitation pressure off of Mesa Verde and provide jobs and tourist income for the tribe, which badly needed both.

But there were other complications. Part of the loop road to Cliff Palace crossed Ute land, and failed negotiations for a road to Wetherill Mesa had caused hurt feelings, particularly regarding Chief Jack House, who had been tactlessly pictured at a press conference as living rather primitively in a hut. The superintendent worked hard to overcome past animosities, and he eventually soothed feelings. Guillet, who knew Jack House, "got along good with him and we got everything settled. We got boundary lines set and everything." For the moment, the tension seemed to relax. Looking back over his superintendency, Guillet considered "good rapport with the Ute Tribe" as one of his major accomplishments. [18]

In the midst of things old and new, in 1965 Mesa Verde for the first time maintained a formal winter schedule of tours. Before then, tours to Spruce Tree House had been conducted on an irregular basis (at least as early as 1960, when it was suggested that the trail be shoveled free of snow). Now there would be two tours a day. The new policy was publicized in neighboring communities, and 201 visitors came that December of 1965. [19] The potential popularity of winter was demonstrated the next December, when nearly twenty-five hundred people arrived; however, the same month in 1967 showed the inherent pitfalls; the number of visitors was cut over sixty percent by a record snowfall.

The next year, Mesa Verde received automatic nomination for the National Register of Historic Places by virtue of its previous designation as a National Landmark. The new status of course helped to promote the park and give it additional prestige, which perhaps at this late date was hardly needed. Mesa Verde, by the end of the 1960s, had emerged as a major tourist attraction and economic benefit to the Four Corners region. Most tourists, it was hoped, agreed in principle with the comments of one of their contemporaries from St. Joseph, Missouri: "I was impressed at the manner in which you people conduct this operation. I am sure that foreign visitors as well as American citizens are very proud of what is being preserved for us to look at and study." The National Park Service could take pride in its accomplishments. The 1960s had generated much progress and groundwork had been laid for future developments.

Over half a million visitors entered the park in 1969, a new record and a significant indication that Mesa Verde had come of age. How to handle these numbers, this "solid mass of milling humanity," while maintaining a pleasant learning environment would be a major challenge for the next decade.


Mesa Verde National Park: Shadows of the Centuries
©2002, University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved by the University Press of Colorado

smith1/chap10.htm — 06-Oct-2004

Copyright © 2002 Duane A. Smith, published by the University Press of Colorado. Material from this edition may not be reproduced in any manner without the written consent of the author and the University Press of Colorado.