Mesa Verde National Park:
Shadows of the Centuries
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Chapter 2:
"Like an Immense Ruined Castle"

AFTER EXPLORING CLIFF PALACE, Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason found Spruce Tree House and Square Tower House within twenty-four hours. Then the two cowboys turned toward home with the news of their find. They did not arrive that day. When they reached the camp of several friends, they excitedly told of their discoveries in the canyons. Catching the fever, the whole group, joined by John Wetherill, set out on foot, with packs, to collect artifacts. Success rewarded their dig; John later wrote that they dug for about thirty days and took out a fine collection, which they carried back to the Alamo Ranch. In the spring, Mason and Clayton Wetherill went back to collect more; the "rush" had begun.

According to John's recollection, B. K. Wetherill grasped the significance of what his sons and friends were uncovering and wrote to the Smithsonian Institution to inquire about selling the collected relics. He contacted the Smithsonian because it administered the United States National Museum, the designated repository for artifacts found on federal land. Unfortunately, museum funds were not available, and the Smithsonian became the first, but not the last, to pass up a momentous opportunity. [1]

The institution's decision reflected the economics of the situation rather than a lack of interest. Americans in the 1890s were showing more concern for conservation and preservation. Yellowstone National Park had already been established, and a movement for creating national forests was gaining momentum. The Wetherills, in their own quiet way, were in the vanguard of the so far unsuccessful movement to establish some form of protection for the ruins; they looked beyond mere collecting to preservation.

It has been documented that Benjamin Wetherill wrote again to the Smithsonian Institution in December 1889 and several times in early 1890 to seek assistance and guidance for exploration. In so doing, he revealed much about his sons' activities and attitudes. "We keep a strict record of all our discoveries where found etc and all other items of interest," he proudly noted and included a copy of the notes for December 11, 1889. Considering the state of archaeology at that time and the Wetherills' lack of training, the six handwritten pages displayed an astonishing competence and sensitivity. Of the cliff houses, which he claimed the boys had been exploring for four years, he said: "We now have a number of photographs of some of them." Tragically, the Smithsonian did nothing to support the family's explorations, a not unexpected response from an institution that depended so extensively during these years on donations and volunteers to supplement its chronically underfunded budget. With incredible insight, the senior Wetherill wrote on February 11, 1880: "We are particular to preserve the buildings, but fear, unless the Govt. sees proper to make a national park of the canons, including Mesa Verde that the tourists will destroy them." [2] Nothing happened, the moment passed, and Mesa Verde's treasures were left to chance.

Meanwhile the Wetherills took the first collection to Durango on March 2, 1889, where it was placed on exhibit the following week in the Fair Building. Several hundred Durangoans toured the exhibit in its first three days, to Mason's amazement: "We had not expected that other people would be as much interested in the collection as we had been." The excitement the show generated led the Wetherills to charge twenty-five cents admission in order to pay for their time in showing visitors around. Several citizens of Durango considered buying the collection, which the Herald rated as the "finest collection of relics in existence . . . a valuable one." They, too, failed to come up with the necessary funds. In mid-April, when B. K. Wetherill appeared with some new artifacts, which included an "infant dried to bones," the curiosity seekers flocked in once more. [3]

Realizing the public's interest and hoping, no doubt, that a larger profit could be reaped on their previous winter's work, the Wetherill boys packed up the collection and sent it off to Pueblo, Colorado, under the watchful eye of Charles McLoyd. McLoyd had been among those in the stockmen's camp on that day, which now seemed a lifetime ago, when the first news of the discovery of Cliff Palace had been related by his spellbound cowboy friends.

Pueblo proved to be less than a rousing success, so it was on to Denver. The exhibition landed a prime site, opposite the famous Windsor Hotel on Larimer Street. Enthralled Denverites flocked to see the "best collection of Cliff Dweller relics in the world." The Weekly Republican, May 30, 1889, urged the people of Denver to purchase the collection, saying editorially that "it will be an offense no less heinous than a crime" if it were to be removed from the state. The writer added that it would be of great benefit to the town and the state to have the collection permanently placed in the Historical Society.

At last, the Colorado Historical Society showed interest in purchasing the collection. Fearful that the relics might be taken from the state, the Society agreed to buy them for three thousand dollars, giving a handsome profit to the boys back in Mancos. The Society lacked sufficient ready cash, so it accepted personal notes from several of its members until appropriations the next year could provide funding. It was, crowed the Society's annual report for 1889­1890, "the largest and most complete collection owned by any institution, far outranking the one in the National Museum in Washington. [4]

Both groups involved in the transaction were pleased with the outcome of their negotiations. The fears of the Society that the relics would leave the state had been assuaged. Now it owned the fine collection, which was first exhibited in the Chamber of Commerce building and later, in June 1895, moved to the State Capitol (today the collection is in the Society's museum in Denver). The Wetherills, the beneficiaries of this unexpected windfall, went back to digging at Mesa Verde. Artifact collecting offered them the benefits of excitement and adventure, with the added prospects of considerable profit. Its advantages outweighed those of ranching and farming.

Mason spoke for all of them when he concluded: "Our previous work had been carried out more to satisfy our own curiosity than for any other purpose, but this time it was a business proposition. In no work I ever did are one's expectations so stimulated—something new and strange being uncovered every little while." Such a commercial attitude might shock today's archaeologists, but the times of 1889­1890 were very different, and these were pioneers just beginning to feel their way. The editor of The Archeologist, in the February 1894 issue, frankly addressed the question: "The sale of a whole collection, or part of it, so long as complete finds are not split, is always proper. Single specimans, bought of dealers, may be sold with a free conscience, also complete finds." [5]

The Wetherills actually proved to be much more conscientious in their archaeological activities than their Mesa Verde predecessors had been. Richard explained in an April 7, 1890, letter: "We recognize the fact, the principal sceintific value of collections existed in the circumstances of their original position, or reference to the implements or objects with which they are associated, and we worked accordingly, with a view to throw as much light upon this subject as possible." [6] The second collection was followed by two more early in the 1890s, all of which eventually found their way into museum holdings.

Exploring and collecting, exciting as they were at times, also had their tedious side. Columbia University professor T. Mitchell Prudden, who dug with the Wetherills off and on from the mid-1890s through the next twenty years, recalled entering "upon the search in the choking dust heaps which the ages have strewn over all the ruins, and under the piles of fallen masonry." The sun was unrelenting, the dust cloyed insufferably, and tons of stones resisted displacement. [7] These summer adventures assuredly gave the tall, slightly balding physician and professor the relief he sought from his teaching responsibilities. He grew to love the Southwest.

As the Wetherills explored, dug, and exhibited, news of their discoveries spread wide. Almost immediately, more visitors began to appear at the Alamo Ranch, wanting tours. One of them was Frederick Chapin, an author, confirmed traveler, and enthusiastic mountaineer who had been visiting Colorado—primarily Estes Park—for years. He arrived at Durango on September 18, after "ascents of Pike's Peak and Mt. Sneffles," and went on to Alamo Ranch the next day. He returned the next year for a second tour. His articles and his 1892 book, The Land of the Cliff-Dwellers, called further attention to Mesa Verde. The thirty-seven-year-old Chapin thought of his investigation of the antiquities as a "variation from mountain climbing," but he used his skills for "scaling cliffs" to reach the "fortresses."

Chapin thoroughly enjoyed himself and recounted his experiences with a vigor that captivated readers. From the time of his arrival at the Alamo Ranch until he returned there from his camp at the ruins, each day brought new adventures. Chapin found several ways to reach the mesa top, including the Wetherill's Crinkley Edge Trail, later known as the infamous Knife Edge. One path led down into the Mancos Canyon until it intersected an Indian trail; another went west across the Mancos Valley to Point Lookout and then up a cattle path. The third, pioneered by Chapin in September 1890, ascended from the Montezuma Valley. No matter which route was chosen, a trip without pack animals was out of the question. Provisions for several days had to be accommodated. And no matter how one reached the top, one arrived hot and thirsty, with water in short supply.

Balcony House
Balcony House had been visited by several parties when Nordenskiold took this photo. John Wetherill is sitting in the center. (Courtesy: Mesa Verde National Park)

Richard Wetherill served as Chapin's guide. They had a brief confrontation with the Utes, who demanded a toll for the privilege of crossing the mesa. Wetherill refused to pay and nothing came of the incident, a fortunate ending because the party was armed with only a "rickety revolver." Richard's earlier friendship with the Utes did not prevent trouble throughout this period. They claimed, and rightly so, that the ruins lay on their reservation. At least one of them feared the potential impact of the digging on their land. Chapin recorded these words: "White man dig up Moquis, make Ute sick."

Overcoming the Ute hindrance, Chapin went on to find Cliff Palace everything he had hoped: "Surely the discoverer had not over stated the beauty and magnitude of this strange ruin. There it was, occupying a great oval space under a grand cliff wonderful to behold, appearing like an immense ruined castle with dismantled towers." Across the canyon from the site, Chapin and his guide used some of the hand and toe holds of the original inhabitants to climb down to a dead tree, then used its branches as a convenient ladder. A steep gulch stopped them, but not for long, as Richard's rope rappelled them over the ledge. A few minutes more and Chapin was at last climbing into Cliff Palace.

He later toured other ruins and poked around mesa top "mounds," where he found pieces of broken pottery and arrow heads. He avidly photographed what he saw, but like many later visitors, he lost several of his best shots "from a stupid double-exposure." One of those he described as "a weird ruin, almost inaccessible." He also lost two glass plate negatives to a falling rock dislodged as he, John, and Richard were climbing out of an isolated ruin. [8] Such minor setbacks did not deter Chapin from this fascinating, strange, and, for him, very romantic place.

Chapin came to Mesa Verde to experience it and to write about it. He believed his major contribution to be his photographs and his descriptions of the ruins. Chapin called national attention to what had been only a local and state sensation, and he set literary and reporting standards to which those who followed him could aspire.

Gustav Nordenskiold
Gustav Nordenskiold, the scholarly young Swedish visitor and writer. (Courtesy: Mesa Verde National Park)

As the news of the discovery spread, it attracted the attention of a slender, twenty-two-year-old Swedish tourist, Gustaf Nordenskiold. The Wetherills would host no more important visitor than this young college graduate—a student of geology, botany, and chemistry who had already spent several summers doing field work when a strenuous 1890 expedition to Spitsbergen felled him with tuberculosis. In late May 1891, he arrived in New York; after a southern tour, he reached Denver. It is likely that his predilection for museums brought him into contact with the early Wetherill collection, and he had certainly talked with people who knew of Mesa Verde, including botanist Alice Eastwood, a friend of the Wetherills, who had been there in 1889. Nordenskiold, leaving Denver with a letter of introduction from Eastwood, wrote home:

I have now also a ticket down to Durango in south Colorado and back here again. I am going there to look at the cliff dwellers. [June 27]

I went by train to Durango and from there by coach to Mancos. There I stayed with a farmer named Wetherill, who drives his cattle in the tract where the cliff dwellings are, and thus knows them well. He, himself is old and stays at home while the boys drive the cattle down into the valley. I decided to go with them to a place where they camp, and then go with one of them to visit the ruins. My intention was to stay about a week at Mancos Canyon. Now the week has gone, and I have made up my mind to stay for one or two months. [July 11] [9]

That visit stretched into more than two months and produced a major impact on Mesa Verde and on Wetherill's sons, whom Nordenskiold described as cowboys, "but with a surprising degree of education."

Before he finally left in November for a tour to the Grand Canyon, Navajo country, and the Hopi villages, Nordenskiold excavated at what may be described as the "hall of fame" of Mesa Verde sites—Chapin Mesa and Wetherill Mesa. His day began at 6 a.m., when he climbed to the site with his workers and a Wetherill, quite often John:

There we dig, sketch, photograph, label finds and so on till the sun is high in the sky. Then we have dinner, a tin of corned beef and a loaf of bread is all we get, for we cannot have much with us, then we resume work again until the sun begins to sink in the west and the shadows on the side of the canyon grow long. [10]

Skunks—"horrid creatures"—threw confusion into one camp, but Nordenskiold overcame them. He also faced the continuing problem of dust, which lay so fine and deep in the inner rooms that you "couldn't dig in it for more than 15 or 20 minutes" before gasping for breath and needing fresh air, according to one of the crew, Roe Ethridge. Nothing thwarted Nordenskiold, and for the first time these ruins were examined by a trained scholar.

An easterner, William Birdsall, was another inquisitive physician who toured the Southwest as Dr. T. Mitchell Prudden had. Guided by Richard Wetherill, Birdsall reached Nordenskiold's camp and observed it for a few days. Before the year was out, he wrote an article about the experience.

Nordenskiold later in his own book hailed Birdsall's account as the best description "yet published." At the same time, he was somewhat aggrieved not to be given credit by Birdsall for the excavation that had been "instituted by me." [11] Sadly, omissions of that sort and professional jealousies crept early into the world of Mesa Verde archaeology.

Nordenskiold completed his field work by September 5 and returned to the Alamo Ranch to pack the artifacts into crates and barrels for shipment to Sweden. He took the loaded treasures to Durango; from there they were to be shipped by rail to the Swedish consul in New York. With that development, what had been a brilliant summer excursion suddenly turned cloudy and threatening, for when Nordenskiold reached Durango on September 8, he found himself facing objections from unnamed "authorities" to his shipping the artifacts out of the country. Believing he had satisfactorily answered their objections, he returned to the ranch late the same evening. More specimens needed to be packed, including at least one mummy. On the sixteenth, Nordenskiold sent the lot to Durango, only to have the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad refuse to handle them. The startled Swede learned that his actions had created much ado, and he was being slanderously condemned in the Durango and Denver papers. He could not believe the charges hurled at him—collecting relics illegally, damaging the cliff structures, and attempting to send a valuable collection out of the country, which was probably the core issue. He promptly and wisely retained a lawyer, who advised Nordenskiold that his accusers had little legal basis for their charges. No laws then on the books prohibited acquiring a collection or sending it out of the country; nevertheless, Nordenskiold suffered the embarrassment of arrest and interrogation on September 17, in accordance with a warrant issued at the request of Ute Indian Agent Chas A. Bartholomew. Nordenskiold was required to post a bond of $1,000.

Durangoans were indignant over Nordenskiold's expedition, believing it to be one of looting and devastation. Denver newspapers picked up the inflammatory accusation. The Weekly Republican hoped that the arrest would "result in putting a stop to the looting of the cliff-dweller ruins," a sentiment echoed by the Rocky Mountain News. Nordenskiold, in desperation, got in touch with the Swedish minister to the United States, who approached the State Department, which then investigated the case. [12] A hornet's nest of emotion was stirred up in the process.

Two weeks later, Nordenskiold appeared in District Court, only to find the complaints had been dismissed. Local residents, to their chagrin, had discovered that no prohibitory statutes existed. The Ute agent, Bartholomew, did not attend the hearings, although he had created some of the trouble. He gave the excuse that Indians had lied to him about Nordenskiold's activities and that they were now satisfied that the "graves of their people are not desecrated."

Cliff Palace
Cliff Palace, as Nordenskiold photographed it in 1891. It is located on Chapin Mesa, which Nordenskiold named after another early visitor, Frederick Chapin. (Courtesy: Mesa Verde National Park)

A month of Nordenskiold's time in America had been lost, not to mention the money spent on legal fees, and this gentle man had suffered "much unpleasantness." The only benefit to emanate from this sordid affair was the two weeks' delay of Nordenskiold's departure, which allowed him to return to Mesa Verde to photograph (he was an outstanding photographer), take measurements, and draw plans of the ruins. And there his studies ended. [13] Understandably, Nordenskiold felt persecuted, but there was little to do but recover his specimens and ship them to New York. The Republican of October 8 launched one last blast, demanding a law (state or federal) to protect these ruins, lest "practically everything of historical value" be removed.

The issues raised by Nordenskiold's misadventures would not be resolved easily. Wealthy Americans were "looting" Europe in search of antiquities to collect and display, and the British had a worldwide empire from which to gather relics. Some of this gathering was done in the name of preservation, but much of it was designed to enhance private collections. Going beyond the issue of local and state chauvinism, Coloradans had focused on the question of what the best place was to display and preserve the Mesa Verde material. Would scholarship and visitation be better served by keeping the collection near its origin or in Europe? Ideally, the answer would have been the former; however, the lack of finances and, to a lesser degree, of professional museum staff put Colorado in second place. Neither the state nor the federal government seemed prepared to sponsor an expedition like Nordenskiold's or to undertake protection of the sites.

Nordenskiold's abrupt visit had raised all these questions. Coloradans and Americans in general would have to hear more and read more and feel their way cautiously to find the answers to them. Nordenskiold had underscored the urgency of the matter, but more time would be needed to attract popular concern and support.

The concern that had been shown by Durangoans was commendable, but the treatment of Nordenskiold had bordered on the contemptible. Two years later, Nordenskiold's monumental work, The Cliff Dwellers of the Mesa Verde, was published, forever solidifying his place in archaeology and in the park's history. The book was the first extensive examination and photographic record of Mesa Verde prehistory and until 1964 was the only description of the Wetherill Mesa ruins. His expedition, the first conscientious attempt to excavate and record Mesa Verde archaeology systematically, proved to be a milestone in American archaeology. As Robert and Florence Lister later wrote: "While these modern studies greatly augment and refine the record of the past, in no way do they detract from the solid achievements of the young man from Stockholm who came West to regain his health and left behind a permanent memorial to the American people." [14] Richard Wetherill appreciated what his friend had accomplished, as did the rest of the Wetherill family. Richard wrote on December 31, 1893, that everyone who had seen the volume "thinks it the finest thing of its kind." [15]

For the Wetherills, too, the time of active work at Mesa Verde was drawing to a close. That Nordenskiold's painstaking field methods had not been lost upon them was evident in their later expeditions. They and their friend had pioneered in excavation work at Mesa Verde and had brought the ancient dwellings to the world's attention. Although their methods were unquestionably crude by contemporary standards, they cannot be faulted for them. Al spoke for all when he wrote about those years:

The cliff-dwelling work was much more exciting than hunting gold (and I have done both), because we never knew what we might find next. We had started in as just ordinary pothunters, but, as work progressed along that sort of questionable business, we developed quite a bit of scientific knowledge by careful work and comparisons.

Alamo Ranch
Gustav Nordenskiold took this photograph of the Alamo Ranch, where he, and many later visitors, started their Mesa Verde trips. (Courtesy: Mesa Verde National Park)

A fair evaluation of their efforts was made by William Birdsall in 1891: "Although not professed archaeologists, they have amassed a very large collection of the remains of the cliff dwellers and are in possession of a vast number of observations and facts concerning them." [16]

For the rest of the 1890s, the Wetherills turned to making a profit from their discoveries, not unusual for Americans of the nineteenth century. The Alamo Ranch became, in a manner of speaking, a Mancos Valley dude ranch, to which a tourist could come and, for two-dollars-a-day board and room, rest or take a day's guided trip to the ruins for five dollars. The three-day trip to visit a large number of ruins evoked the reassurance that those "unaccustomed to such mode of living need have no fear of danger or discomfort." The "hardy, resourceful, well-informed" Wetherills, as T. Mitchell Prudden described them, would handle all problems. Richard also acquired a partner during this time, photographer Charles B. Lang, and went into the business of selling photographs at the ranch. He still sold relics, on at least one occasion on consignment for a friend. Some of his brothers moved away; marriage had added to their responsibilities, and the ranch and guide business did not provide enough income for all.

During the Mancos gold excitement in 1893, guests reclining leisurely in hammocks strung between cottonwood trees could watch the boys operating a sluice box (with what success, no one can say). More breathtaking for the people the Wetherills guided into Mesa Verde was the Crinkley Edge Trail, with its narrow ledge precariously carved between cliffs above and cliffs below and angled toward the valley floor. [17]

Visitors kept coming, more each year. They delighted in the adventures they found at Mesa Verde. Walter Jakway went there in 1899 or 1900 as a small boy, and over eighty years later, he still remembered the experience vividly.

We took many artifacts like corn grinders out with us. I recall climbing a long steep ladder to the main veranda. The boys would put a stick of dynamite with a cap and fuse and throw it in to rout out the rattle snakes which were thick. Then we went in to explore the old buildings. A large stone slab was removed from one small room and four skeletons were standing there. [18]

Alice Palmer Henderson complained that bathing turned out to be a luxury. Just as well, she decided, because of the dreadful alkali water, which "takes off what little skin the pinons leave." The ride over fearsome trails was one she never forgot.

Meanwhile, a group of Mancos young people had found something unexpected on an excursion to Cliff Palace. They heard "strange, uncanny sounds. So weird and unearthly were these noises that they did not tarry long, but hied them quickly home." Richard Wetherill uncovered the source—a nest of young "buzzards"! His brother Al encountered one of the first bored tourists, who was unimpressed by either the scenery or the cliff dwellings: "Oh, it's all right. But say, did you ever see the great cornfields of Iowa and Kansas?" [19]

Visitors to the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 walked through this replica of McElmo Canyon's Battle Rock to see the Mesa Verde exhibit. (Courtesy: Chicago Public Library Special Collections Division)

People were enticed to come west to Mesa Verde by the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, despite its separation in distance and its disparity in epic from the Mancos Valley. At the Exposition—surrounded by the Palace of Fine Arts, the world's tallest Ferris wheel, the exotic "Streets of Cairo" that featured belly dancers, and the new taste treat called cotton candy—the twelve million visitors could see on the midway a reconstructed canyon of the cliff dwellers' country. Those who could tear themselves away from the fair's hedonist attractions saw Square Tower House, Balcony House, and Cliff Palace, recreated a tenth of their size. At the end of the canyon sat a museum that included mummies, placed "so as not to offend those who did not care to look at such things." Several pamphlets tempted further study. A much smaller collection of relics had also been included in Colorado's 1893 exhibit.

All "offensive" concerns aside, the exhibit proved to be a crowd pleaser, as did Richard Wetherill, who left Mancos in mid-September to act "as a ruin sharp." In Chicago he first saw the photographs that William Henry Jackson had recently taken, which the Mancos Times believed would be good advertising for the Mancos Valley. After a trip to Niagara Falls, Saratoga, and Brooklyn, Richard returned home in early November. [20]

The Mesa Verde exhibit in Chicago had been sponsored by the H. Jay Smith Exploring Company, which had built a similar one the year before at the Sixth Annual Minneapolis Industrial Exposition. A Smith Company exploring party had spent six months at Mesa Verde in 1892 to collect relics and take photographs. They also brought an artist into the field to make sketches for the canvas backgrounds. Their efforts paid off. As one enthusiastic visitor to the Minneapolis exhibit proclaimed, "I've about decided to take my next outing in the region of their ruins. . . . I'd like nothing better than to do a little exploring on my own hook." [21] Others agreed with him, and on some days Mesa Verde tourists (the Mancos Times, June 25, 1897, called them "knights of the grip") nearly overcrowded the board sidewalks of Durango and Mancos.

Tourism's impact on nearby communities thus emerged, long before there was a park, as one of the recurring themes that would dominate the story of Mesa Verde. The economic and publicity potential was not lost on local people. Dominance would bring a tremendous boost over other urban rivals, an opportunity to overcome the region's isolation, and perhaps population and business growth. These unexpected windfalls could not be allowed to slip away without a fight, and each town's merchants and boosters hastened to see that they would not.

Mancos and Durango stood ready for the onslaught and boldly vied for the larger share of the business. Durango started out with several advantages. It was larger (an 1890 census count of 2,726 versus Mancos's 635), offered better hotels and railroad connections, and had more newspapers. Its greatest asset lay in the fact that almost all visitors to Mancos had to travel through Durango to get there. Durango had been promoting tourism almost from the moment of its birth. The Southwest, back on April 14, 1883, crowed that "Durango is a great resort for pleasure and recreation generally." Durangoans considered their Animas Valley ruins to be the best available, as Frederick Chapin had discovered when he arrived in town in 1889:

It seemed difficult to obtain much information in regard to the now not far distant Mancos country. In fact, if we had not been well informed in regard to the literature of the cliff dwellings and ruined pueblos, we should have been led to turn aside and visit ruins of minor importance which exist in the lower valley of the Animas [present Aztec ruins].

Chapin doggedly persisted in his quest and finally attained the Wetherills' ranch.

Needless to say, Mancos residents resented the nature of the competition from their larger neighbor, but in the cutthroat, no-holds-barred, urban world of that era such deviousness was not without precedent. Durangoans also championed a railroad to the west, giving as one of the more progressive reasons the tapping of the Mesa Verde trade ("bound years to come to attract the curious"). The answer to their prayers was the Rio Grande Southern, constructed in 1890­1891; the rails started in Durango and reached Mancos in the spring of 1891, then turned northwest toward Dolores.

Durango promptly proclaimed itself as the headquarters for visitors going on to tributary Mancos and the cliff dwellings. Durangoans once again, though, missed the opportunity to buy a Mesa Verde collection, when the Durango Archaeological and Historical Society failed in 1893 to raise the needed funds. [22] The crash of 1893, which had already gripped the community and the state, would last for five years of bitter depression.

Mancos boomers gave as good as they got and began by disputing Durango's claim to being the "livest of live towns" in southwestern Colorado. When the Mancos Times was opened in 1893, it gave the town a long-needed voice and instantly joined the battle. Mancos, the editor emphatically insisted on May 12, would attract a population of 3,000 before "60 days roll around." Durango would awake to that fact by finding its streets deserted and many business houses closed. "Mancos will never rival her. She will outstrip her."

Durango's press returned the barbs in kind, the ink and press paladins giving no quarter and taking no prisoners. The Mancos Times railed on August 18, "not one single citizen has a good or kind word to say of their neighbor denizens of the 'Smelter City' as they are pleased to term their five-cent-beer burg." Mancos gave more than lip service to the campaign for supremacy. The Hotel Lemmon offered free bus rides to and from all trains, as well as guides, animals, bedding, food, and camp equipage to tourists to the Mancos Cliff Dwellings and the gold mines. Confidence was spurred by more than just Mesa Verde—Mancos was going through a gold excitement that it hoped would equal that of Cripple Creek, the current mining wonder on the Colorado and the national scene. There would be no such luck: the nearby La Plata Mountains promised much, delivered little.

But Mancos did not need to hang its community head in shame; it held aces in the Mesa Verde game. It was nearer to the cliff dwellings, and the best trails left from its front door. The renowned Wetherill clan lived and worked nearby, bringing publicity and fame to the Mancos Valley. Even so, when Louise Switzgable desired to visit the ruins, she found no literature or pamphlets available to explain how to reach the area. She finally wrote the Mancos station master to receive information; he put her in touch with a guide. Louise ultimately reached Mancos safely. Departing for Mesa Verde, she found that "quite a crowd from this little village surrounded our going to see us off." [23]

As the 1890s drew to a close, the Times prolonged the battle, attacking both Durango and a new threat from the west—Cortez. Much more than just visitors to Mesa Verde raised the ante. Some tourists, the editor believed, would also invest in land, stock, and businesses, bringing a needed bonus for the Mancos Valley. Neighboring Cortez attempted to join the fray in 1899, but that town suffered from a major handicap—no railroad connections. Its only slim hopes for transportation rested with a stage line to link the village with the railroad at Dolores. Even so, Sterl Thomas promoted his guide service, good water, and "everything comfortable" for the fifteen-mile trip to the ruins, "the nearest and most picturesque route." [24] The youngest, smallest (population 332), and most isolated of the three competitors, Cortez gave no serious challenge for monopoly of the Mesa Verde business.

In the more bitter Durango-Mancos rivalry, Mancos had more at stake, since it had only Mesa Verde to distinguish it from a score of similar southwestern Colorado villages. Al Wetherill remembered it as a "cow town." With the Wetherills and its nearer location, Mancos could hold its own for the moment against a larger, more aggressive rival, but it never came near to reaching the Times's overly optimistic forecasts.

As these two fought on, the Rio Grande Southern and its parent company, the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG), promoted. Railroads furnished the fastest, most comfortable means to reach the ruins, and they provided the only continuing regional and national promotion. Advertisements and pamphlets boasted of the "wonderful homes of the cliff dweller," the magnificent scenery, and the wonders of this great agricultural region and added glowing praises for Mancos and Durango. All the bombast, of course, profited the railroad coffers. The D&RG also tied itself to the Wetherills, stressing to readers that not only the railroad but also the pioneer family would gladly furnish information and promptly make necessary arrangements. [25] To make the cliff dwellings a popular attraction, railroad support was essential, and it came readily.

The end result of all this promotion produced more "knights of the grip"—and more vandalism of ruins throughout the whole area. Americans craved souvenirs to take home; damage, intentional or not, followed in their wake at the ruins. The accelerating rate of visitation created fears that soon a priceless heritage would disappear. Did anyone care about Mesa Verde, or was this to be considered solely as a matter of business and profit? Was this only a short-term means to the ultimate end of helping to settle southwestern Colorado?


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

smith1/chap2.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.