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

Chapter 6:
"Mesa Verde Has Wonderful Possibilities"

AN INVENTORY OF GOVERNMENT PROPERTY WAS REQUIRED after the removal of Hans Randolph as superintendent. It provided an unexpected look at the physical side of the park. Aside from the expected signs, canteens, and the like, the inventory disclosed enough farm equipment to plow a homestead and enough household goods to equip a comfortable home. Stored at Morefield Canyon were the road grader, plow, scrapers, and other equipment to keep the roads and trails open and passable. Kelly's Livery in town housed a team of bay horses, a Studebaker mountain buckboard, saddles, and harnesses. The Mancos office stored face towels and soap, two Underwood typewriters, a rolltop desk, and other office equipment, including maps of Colorado and of the United States. Balcony House and Cliff Palace also served as convenient storage space. Three rangers welcomed visitors in 1911, providing them with guide service and any necessary assistance. The Department of the Interior questioned the need for two temporary rangers and for the team of horses; dispensing with these extras, it claimed, would reduce the strain on a tight budget. Attempts to control expenditures led to lengthy correspondence and reminders that expense vouchers "be made out in duplicate."

Tightfisted Uncle Sam watchdogged both large and small items, including authorization for payment of up to twenty dollars for a suitable sign, MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK, SUPERINTENDENT'S OFFICE. Washington would not allow the purchase of two American flags until road construction bids came in, in order to determine whether the funds would be available. As 1911 drew to a close, Yellowstone Park's superintendent wrote to inquire if Mesa Verde would like some beavers in order to establish a colony. [1] The beavers were never given a chance, as Mesa Verde lacked adequate stream water for them. Instead of beavers, water shortages and tight finances characterized the rest of the decade at the park.

At the first national park conference—held at Yellowstone in September 1911—Mesa Verde unexpectedly found itself the subject of criticism. Chief Geographer Robert Bradford Marshall of the U.S. Geological Survey, who called himself a "national park enthusiast," displayed little enthusiasm for Mesa Verde, which he had visited the past July.

There is nothing in this park to make it of national importance save the cliff dwellings. There is no opportunity for camping; the scenery is common to many Western States and needs no protection. The inaccessibility of the park, the long distance, and the miserable railroad accommodations make it, I think, out of the question to make this park popular to any degree in comparison with the other parks. . . . My recommendation would be to create a national monument of small acreage around the ruins—say each canyon containing the cliff houses and have the area around all the canyons converted into a national forest. [2]

Mesa Verde's Acting Superintendent Richard Wright simply and effectively answered Marshall: "To my mind the Mesa Verde Park has wonderful possibilities for development. If properly provided for and effectively administered, it should rank among the most important of the national reservations." He went on to praise its "quaint and mystic contents, its natural beauty, and its historical value."

The discussion between the two men told more about the opposing concepts of what national parks should be than anything substantial about Mesa Verde. The philosophical debate would stretch far beyond that time and place. In Marshall's opinion, the national parks should provide the scenery and the outdoor recreation to counterbalance the "rush and jam and scramble" of modern urban life. At Mesa Verde, intended to be a cultural, not a scenic, park, those attributes were of only secondary importance. Thus Mesa Verde, inherently different from the other parks, drew attention to some of the issues that had to be resolved. Both Marshall and Wright accurately pinpointed them. Marshall's ideas came to nothing, as the park fortunately still had friends who were not about to let that happen.

Various problems caught the attention of the superintendents during the following years, as the United States moved confidently through the second decade of the twentieth century. The continuous need to stabilize and repair the ruins, build roads, make reports, and live within the budget presented no new challenges. Pressure on the superintendents to appoint some favored individual to a park job remained relentless. Virginia McClurg, for example, tried unsuccessfully to have her son appointed a park ranger in 1912.

The dispute with the neighboring Utes over hunting rights continued to fester. Depending on one's point of view, hunting could be described as either poaching deer in the park or legally hunting them on the reservation. Superintendents and agents fired correspondence back and forth with little effect. They did manage to resolve another Ute issue; in 1911, the government and the tribe agreed on a land exchange that officially placed within the park all the ruins contained in the amended five-mile zone in the 1906 act. This plan had been discussed off and on since 1907. In what amounted to almost a two-acres-for-on swap, the Utes received land elsewhere that bordered their reservation, most of it near Ute Mountain. The U.S. Geological Survey then ran one last survey; much to everyone's embarrassment, it revealed that Balcony House had been left out. The agreement had to be amended in 1913 to include the ruin. [3] The Utes had held out against the land exchange in hopes of achieving a government settlement of a number of grievances. One Ute, Tawa, expressed the sentiment of many of his fellow tribal members when he angrily charged:

You want these houses so that the white men can come in and rob them. What does the government want [of] those old houses they will do them no good. Let them alone. . . . Some people told me there was gold mines and coal mines and coal oil there. I guess that is why you want them. . . . They ought to treat us right and nice then it would be alright. [4]

The Ute Mountain Utes, as the neighboring group came to be known, harbored strong feelings about the transactions that led them to cede the land in the first place and then to accept the subsequent territorial adjustments. Their last hereditary chief, Jack House, pulled no punches when he was interviewed in 1967. The Utes objected to the taking of the land because, he charged, "the commissioner stole that land from the Ute. . . . They [Utes] wanted to keep it . . . because it was theirs, their own land, and they were living there." [5] Since that time, House complained, the federal government had moved and expanded the line, continually encroaching upon tribal lands.

The Ute issue faded quickly for everybody but the tribe. More critical to park operations was the aggravating shortage of funds. Thomas Rickner, appointed as Mesa Verde superintendent in 1913, complained to Congressman Edward Taylor during 1914, "As you are aware, we have put off and put off from year to year until the improvement of the park has become a joke and people here are skeptical about anything being done to make the Park what it should be." [6] Just starting a long and distinguished House career, Democrat Taylor would eventually exercise a great deal of power, but for the moment he could do very little; neither Colorado nor Mesa Verde wielded enough political clout to force open the federal coffers. This educator and lawyer from Glenwood Springs, whose congressional district included Mesa Verde, was fascinated by the park and, like John Shafroth, was an advocate of "good roads." Taylor wanted to unlock the Western Slope to the automobile.

Rickner, a genial Mancos Valley pioneer, rancher, Indian trader, and superintendent through most of the decade, had to make do with what he had. His appointment by the Wilson administration typified accepted policy at the time; he was a local Democratic wheelhorse, and park superintendencies were part of the political spoils system that attached to the winning party. [7] One of Rickner's first statements firmly put to rest any idea of moving the headquarters. He would keep it at Mancos, where he could be politically involved on the local scene. Mancos residents breathed a collective sigh of relief with that announcement. An acting superintendent and a short-term superintendent who had followed Randolph had recommended moving headquarters to Mesa Verde.

The number of visitors increased steadily until 1917­1918, when wartime demands cut travel, and funding cuts completely stopped excavation. Rickner was forced to spend most of his time handling a host of tourist-related issues. His diligence resulted in a growing number of rules and regulations related to visitor conduct within the park. The guidelines of 1906 were steadily expanded to cover visitors and whatever they might bring with them to Mesa Verde.

Thomas Rickner
Superintendent Thomas Rickner greets park guests at the eating house. (Courtesy: Mesa Verde National Park)

Dogs came under the jurisdiction of park rules in 1913: Canines must not chase animals or birds or annoy "passersby." If brought into the park, dogs must be carried in wagons or leashed behind them while traveling; pets were not allowed to roam beyond camp limits. A dire warning accompanied the rules: Any dog who dared to "disregard these instructions" would be killed. The dogs' arch rivals, cats, received even shorter shrift—they were not allowed in the park at all!

Campers, too, had their instructions about timber cutting, fires, and camping. Warnings to all visitors dealt with such things as "disorderly conduct or bad behavior"; disturbing wild animals and birds; disposal of lighted matches, cigars, and cigarettes; gambling; and the posting or displaying of private notices or advertisements (they were prohibited). Fortunately, the penalties for humans who disobeyed ordinances were less final than those for dogs. [8 ]To enforce all the regulations and carry out his myriad duties, the superintendent received a salary of fifteen hundred dollars in 1913 and had to provide his own residence and one horse.

Two factors were critical to visitors' fuller enjoyment of the Mesa Verde experience: The ordeal of getting there had to be eased and the attractions in the park enhanced. Superintendents and park personnel, well aware of both needs, worked diligently for the next generation to improve roads, park interpretation, and visitor accommodations, with varied success.

Not until 1913 were the roads good enough to permit this first wagon, appropriately flag bedecked, to come into the park. (Courtesy: Mesa Verde National Park)

Americans' love affair with the automobile by now had come to full bloom, thanks to Henry Ford's low-priced Model T, and transportation took on new meaning. The need for good roads for cars constituted a two-part problem for Mesa Verde—the roads outside the park as well as those within it. The superintendent's direct responsibility began at the entrance and extended from there throughout the park. Who was to build the roads to bring the tourist to the park entrance? Was it the responsibility of the federal government, the state, or the county? The superintendent's pleas were frustrated by the inexperience, the procrastination, and the bureaucracy that crippled road-building projects outside the park.

The first breakthrough for Mesa Verde came in 1913. After years of road construction, flag-bedecked wagons rolled all the way from Mancos to Spruce Tree House. The triumph of horse and wagon lasted only a year; in June 1914, the road was ready for cars (some had actually made it through before then despite the road). And none too soon for some locals, who had complained to Congressman Edward Taylor earlier that they could not drive their autos into the park. Liverymen had the proverbial snowball's chance in hell to stem progress, but fearing that the improvements threatened them with a loss of business, they had also complained to their congressman. Taylor, caught in the middle, replied politely to each group. At this juncture, when optimists were already forecasting that before long more people would be coming by car than by train, the question of the feeder routes to the park became all the more critical.

The coming of the first automobiles on May 28, 1914, heralded a new era—including new problems—for the park. (Courtesy: Mesa Verde National Park)

The state was no more ready than the counties for the job that faced them. Not until 1889 had the state legislature begun to designate state roads and appropriate money for them. La Plata and Montezuma counties were poor country cousins that attracted little of that money. It was twenty more years before Colorado got around to appointing a highway commission following lobbying by the Colorado Good Roads Association. Of the towns near Mesa Verde, Durango had the most to gain from any appropriations, since two designated state roads passed through there, one an east-west route, the other a north-south. Gravel-surfaced, they were sometimes hard to distinguish from the intersecting county lanes that disappeared into the rural hinterlands.

No matter on what type of road, the Colorado traveler had to traverse the mountains to reach Mesa Verde. Thus, accessibility was limited to nonwinter months for many years to come. East of Durango, no direct route gave access to southwest Colorado until 1916, when the single-lane road over Wolf Creek Pass (over the Continental Divide) was finally opened. At its dedication, State Highway Commissioner Thomas Ehrhart waxed eloquent when he described the road all the way from Julesburg, Colorado (near the Colorado-Nebraska border), to Durango: "I doubt if there is another highway on the earth's surface so replete with scenic grandeur and climatic variance as this great diagonal road." [9]

Some drivers never saw the wonders the Wolf Creek Pass road offered; panic-stricken, they stared straight ahead at the narrow road, wondering what they had done to deserve such a fate. So-called flatlanders had gained a new appreciation of mountain driving by the time they reached Wolf Creek Pass. Drivers had to look ahead to judge the distance between oncoming cars and the next turnout. If either driver failed to anticipate correctly, the driver of the descending car had to be prepared to back up to the narrow pockets. Although Durangoans hailed this breakthrough that ended their isolation, frightened tourists sighed with relief when the ride ended and wondered if there were a better way out. Wolf Creek Pass seemed to have been born with a treacherous reputation. Superintendent Rickner complained in October 1919 that more visitors would come if there were some other way into and out of this section, "without going over that high pass where snows have already blocked the road." [10]

The state did not have the financial resources to meet all the cries for better roads; money flowed to political power and population, leaving underpopulated and politically impotent southwestern Colorado very much out in the cold. With or without Mesa Verde, not much help would be forthcoming.

As a result, local newspapers found a new crusade. With the car chugging down Main Street and over dusty country lanes, scaring Dobbin and Spot in the process, "good roads" seemed to be the panacea for everything. One editor ranked them right behind the church and the school in "upbuilding" man, woman, and civilization! Durango launched the crusade in the Weekly Herald, July 24, 1913, announcing that "Durango will be the pivotal point" from which potential roads would radiate in all directions. Such enthusiasm far outran available resources to turn that dream into surveys and gravel.

By the time the boys sailed "over there" in 1917, Mancos had caught the highway fever and envisioned itself as the hub. The local newspaper editor recommended joining the National Old Trails Association, one of many groups popular at the time that generally promoted a highway from a starting point to almost anywhere. Joining would bring needed promotion and place Mancos on every road map issued by the association, in this case along a route from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles. A year later, organizers of the Santa Fe Trail Association came to town to enlist members for the great "transcontinental highway" coming out of Kansas City. Remembering their history, a local group organized the Spanish Trails Association, which eventually stretched from eastern Colorado to Mesa Verde. They did succeed in naming the east-west highway into Durango and Mancos the Spanish Trail. Boosters attended conventions, praised good roads, exchanged ideas, and waited for the millennium. [11] It did not dawn.

Beers' auto "stage" line. One of these cars lost its brakes and took a wild drive down the Point Lookout grade, coming to a stop several miles out into the valley. (Courtesy: Mesa Verde National Park)

Durango and La Plata County gained a step on their rivals, Mancos and Montezuma, by more actively promoting themselves; they also had a broader-based economy and a stronger tax base. Colorado, in fact, in 1918 named La Plata County as one of the leaders in "construction of good roads." Few travelers would have concurred in that assessment after bumping over dusty dirt and gravel roads, which sometimes seemed more like well-rutted Spanish trails than highways. As the 1920s neared, adventuresome tourists came by car; comfort and convenience still rode with the train.

But the people did come, by whatever means, arriving at park headquarters in Mancos and inquiring about the route to Mesa Verde. At this point, visitors could elect to go into the park with one of Kelly's tours, or they could travel on their own. Regardless, they were in for a thrill, as the 1915 Mesa Verde pamphlet frankly warned:

The trip over the Government road should be taken only by parties who are experienced in the handling and controlling of horses and should not be attempted in seasons when rainfall in quantity occurs. The road is very narrow in places and makes sharp turns. . . . The road is frequently weakened by washes which render passage in some places very dangerous. All strangers traversing this route should be accompanied by an experienced guide.

Rickner, well aware of the problem, had told the Mancos Commercial Club back in January 1914 that the one need that overshadowed all others was "the completion of an adequate highway into the Park." [12] Recognition did not produce a remedy during this decade. Travelers continued to undertake the thrilling trip to the mesa top over steep dirt roads. The future arrived with the first automobile caravan to enter Mesa Verde, a year after the wagons had done so. Those Studebakers, Hupmobiles, Reos, and Fords took an unrecorded length of time, which encompassed numerous stops for pictures, to reach Spruce Tree camp on May 28, 1914. They raced out in only three hours. Most important, all this activity took place in one day! The trip was made in relative ease and comfort and with unprecedented speed.

As fast as they went (twenty miles per hour or better under the right conditions), the cars moved more slowly than did the implementation of government rules to regulate them. Only two weeks before that first trip, a single-trip fee of one dollar and a five-dollar season pass had already been set, along with a six-miles-per-hour speed limit for the ascent and a maximum of fifteen for the straight stretches on top. The horse retained the right of way, and drivers were required to honk their horns at every bend of the road. If a team of horses approached, motor vehicles (these rules also applied to cycles) had to take the outer edge of the roadway, regardless of the direction in which they were moving, and turn off their engines. [13] Old Dobbin would reign as king for a short time longer.

Cortez wanted to have a greater role in Mesa Verde's development, but that destiny was years away in this photo, c. 19101912. (Courtesy William Winkler)

With the car came careless drivers and inevitable accidents; the first fatality occurred in September 1917. Even with their problems, the noisy, underpowered cars heralded a new day for the park. In 1916, the number of visitors more than doubled, to 1,385, and the next year the figure topped 2,200. Those numbers, for just two years, included over half of all the people who had visited Mesa Verde since it opened. Rickner pointed out the obvious: In 1916, 364 automobiles had traveled into the park, 180 more than in the previous season. [14] The opening of Wolf Creek Pass, despite its fearsome reputation, had provided the necessary access from the populated east slope and beyond.

A park survey in 1918 indicated where Mesa Verde's 371 auto-driving tourists had come from. Seventy-six percent were from Colorado; another 10 percent drove from the three neighboring states of Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. Of all the remaining states, only Kansas had more than ten cars in the park. Road conditions and car limitations pretty much prohibited travelers' coming from great distances.

The car's impact on national parks proved immediate, from creating demands for more road repair to the greater need for a telephone line. By the end of World War I, automobile travel superseded all other forms, not just in Mesa Verde but throughout all the parks. Change was inevitable. The day visit came into vogue, there were more campers (the 1919 report of the National Park Service stated that over half of the motorists carried camping equipment), and smaller numbers of tourists came by rail. [15] With the completion of the telephone line from Mancos to Spruce Tree camp in 1915, Rickner could proudly boast that a tourist no longer had to travel beyond the reach of the long-distance telephone. Of more immediate practical service were the five call boxes along the road, which allowed immediate access to help and information.

By the turn of the century, smoke from Durango's smelter hovered over the town, which hoped to become the region's tourist center. (Courtesy: Durango Herald)

To meet new demands, improvements had to be made in the park. In 1911, Washington had approved the employment of a temporary ranger whose wife would be hired as a cook for guests. She was authorized to charge seventy-five cents per meal. This innovation evolved into the granting of concessionaire privileges in 1913. C. B. Kelly quickly secured the transportation concession, which by 1915 included "auto livery" at a cost of twenty-five dollars for two passengers (five dollars for each additional person) for a one-day trip.

Oddie Jeep, Superintendent Rickner's daughter and the wife of ranger Fred Jeep, had the campground concession and operated the campground from 1914 until 1929. Steady improvements soon eradicated traces of Kelly's primitive cabins and tents. The permanent camp across the canyon from Spruce Tree House was enlarged, and electric lights were installed; the park supplied its own power plant. A public campground was added later.

auto stuck in mud
Today's drivers cannot appreciate the good old days! The Kelly-French "Stage" is shown mired in a mud hole in Morefield Canyon. (Courtesy: Mesa Verde National Park)

Another addition was a museum. An old log cabin, at one time a ranger station, served to house the artifacts and exhibits that were being collected. As far back as 1908, superintendents had encouraged the plan for a museum, because "it has been a matter of wonder to tourists, and a disappointment to them, that there was no collection for that place." [16] In the spring of 1918, with new wall and floor cases and twelve framed enlargements of photographs of Mesa Verde scenes and ruins in place, the museum opened, the first one in a national park.

The honor was a logical one—more than any of the other parks, Mesa Verde needed interpretation to facilitate understanding and appreciation of its uniqueness. The scenic attractions that predominated in Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks could be appreciated without much explanation, but to savor the substance of Mesa Verde, one had to know something about the Anasazi and their world. Interpretive campfire programs gained instant popularity, and no one performed better than Jesse Fewkes, when he told the story of the cliff dwellers. Even the grand old man of Mesa Verde was taken aback, however, when a young woman asked in all seriousness, "Why in the world did the cliff dwellers build their homes so far from the railroads?" This inquiry has evolved over the years into one of the classic examples of a "tourist question."

campfire talk
Among Jesse Fewkes's contributions were the popular campfire talks. He sits fifth from the left in this 1915 group. (Courtesy: Mesa Verde National Park)

One of the changes the average visitor was not likely to notice (nor fully appreciate if he or she did) was the creation of the National Park Service in 1916. Up to that time, each of the twelve national parks had still operated as a separate unit under the secretary of the interior, an obviously inefficient, unwieldy system without central control and coordination. Pressure had been building for years within Congress and without to create a national parks office or bureau. The National Parks Act was finally passed and signed by President Woodrow Wilson. [17] Mesa Verde had at last found a home in government, for better or for worse.

There would be no immediate relief from some of the pressing problems. It would take a while for the National Park Service and its director, Stephen Mather—an amazingly energetic and successful miner/businessman, who loved the outdoors and the park concept—to organize and operate. All of the national parks, in varying degrees, shared Mesa Verde's problems and the need for improved park facilities and park management, better promotion, and a better-trained ranger staff. Mather and his coworkers had a major job before them.

Jesse Fewkes conducted the excavation of Far View House in 1916. He also took this photo. (Courtesy: Mesa Verde National Park)

When inspector John Hill visited Mesa Verde in September 1917, he was unimpressed with Oddie Jeep's operation: "The camp outfit is very crude. . . . The grounds of the camp are littered with logs, brush, road making tools, etc." Assistant Park Service Director Horace Albright also toured Mesa Verde that September and made some recommendations to Mrs. Jeep that shed light on what the service expected of its concessionaires. The tent furnishings, which then included a bed, a dresser, a straight chair, a wash bowl, and pitchers, needed to be supplemented with a rocking chair, a slop jar, a large rug, and a kerosene lamp. If these were added, Mrs. Jeep would be allowed to increase rates to four dollars per day. "I want you to know that I feel a deep personal interest in the success of your enterprise, as I fully appreciate the amount of thought and energy that you have put into your park business," Albright tactfully wrote in May 1918. Everything apparently worked out to his satisfaction, because Park Service inspectors, the next August, glowingly praised the Spruce Tree camp, including the meals: "Meals served at this camp are worthy of special mention. The idea of the general quality of service may be gained from the fact that fresh cream was served with the fruit and cereals. Fresh fruit was served as well." [18]

The quiet evolution of the concessionaire policy in Mesa Verde and the selection of individuals to provide services stand in marked contrast to some other national parks. Yellowstone and Yosemite had a long history of concession troubles that ranged from dishonest, unscrupulous concessionaires to the establishment of saloons and the fencing of park lands. Mesa Verde National Park may have profited from their experiences; more likely, its isolation and its seemingly limited potential subdued interest in it for all but a handful of locals who were willing to work within the economic constraints. For years, the theory that competition would keep prices down and the quality of services up had brought a swarm of concessionaires to Yellowstone and Yosemite. Few made much money. Through sheer luck or business acumen, Mesa Verde avoided this particular headache. Director Mather did not, however, escape concession controversies. They engaged his attention from the first and continued to nettle the National Park Service. [19]

Meanwhile, the rangers inspected ruins, enforced rules, and provided service, information, and help for visitors. Saddle horses were available for those who wanted to ride to the ruins in that fashion. Some enterprising children of park employees offered guide service, for a small fee, to those who wished to tour the sites by car. Archaeologist Jesse Nusbaum was not happy with their efforts: "The interpretive story these kids (5 to 12 or 13 years of age) told the visitors was out of this world." He also accused Jeep and Rickner of purposely omitting signs from roads and trails in order to force visitors to hire guides, most of whom were their children or their relatives.

These accusations would later come back to haunt Rickner, but for the moment he had other things besides visitors to worry about. One was the question of private holdings within park boundaries. This was a minor issue at Mesa Verde, as the amount in question was only about 400 acres of patented land. Over the years it was gradually reduced. Another problem for the superintendent was the question of private development of Mesa Verde's natural resources: grazing and coal mining. This caused more concern. As the Wetherills had demonstrated, the canyons and the mesa had long been used for open range. This practice continued unrestricted during the first years of the park; then, in 1910, the secretary of the interior established a permit system based upon a fee per head of cattle. None of the leases allowed grazing on or by the ruins, nor did they prohibit "free or convenient access" by the public. Washington's position was that "unless you know of some good reason to the contrary, permits will not be granted for grazing of sheep on lands within the park." Nevertheless, sheep did graze in Waters Canyon in 1911 under provisions of an earlier lease. The superintendent informed the secretary that the owner moved them every three days to prevent sod from being destroyed or damaged. The sheepman persisted, however, in overstocking his leased ground and soon found his permit suspended, thus ending that phase of grazing.

In the years following, it was exclusively cattle that munched on park grass; during the peak year of 1918, the over two thousand head nearly equaled the number of visitors. Wartime patriotic fervor had put increased demands on all national parks to allow more grazing, timber cutting, and even the slaughtering of buffalo and elk in Yellowstone to provide meat for the "boys." Mesa Verde complied, though it was not pressured as much as some other parks.

Superintendent Rickner retained his popularity with the local ranchers because of his generous granting of permits; however, he was not blind to the benefits for the park—extra help in maintaining order and additional fire watches. Protests against political favoritism and overgrazing (Nusbaum as early as 1907 had observed the effects of uncontrolled grazing) surfaced by the end of the decade, along with questions about whether this was the proper use for a national park. Rickner persisted in his practices. He managed to find a tourist attraction in the fact that cattle bunched near water places: "More photographs have been attempted of cattle seen along the drive than almost any other feature of the park." [20]

Coal mining in Mesa Verde was another issue. It had long been known that coal existed in the region, and in the period from 1906 to 1910 pressure was brought to bear by the Colorado congressional delegation to permit mining within the park. The argument ran that isolated Montezuma County residents needed the mines in order to lower the price of coal, which otherwise had to be shipped in, first by train and then by wagon. To make the idea more palatable to conservationists, who were a vocal group on the national scene at the time it was suggested that royalties be used for park improvement. Several congressional attempts to allow mining failed, including one that was vetoed by President William Howard Taft on the grounds that the bill would impede park management. Not until 1910 was the secretary of the interior authorized to grant leases and permits for the use of land and park resources. Action was delayed to allow a mineral survey to determine exactly what the park contained. As early as 1907, Hans Randolph had undertaken an inspection tour with that very purpose in mind.

Several leases were ultimately issued; George Todd, the most active miner, had been one of those who forced the mining issue. Todd had opened a mine on Ute land barely west of the park, actually operating on a small scale before the park was established; eventually, he dug under the boundary. Along with other lessees, Todd paid a ten-cent-per-ton royalty; he found the mine to be of limited potential: "I am having to figure awful close to make the proposition pay its way." He also complained of arduous mining conditions, a poor grade of bituminous coal, and a limited market. Fortunately, his operations never became large (for instance, production was 661 tons in 1912 and 474 tons in 1915) and inflicted only minimal environmental damage that was far from the visited ruins. Coal mining intensified the conflict about the basic purpose of parks; no solution came forth in the 1910s. [21]

Publicity for Mesa Verde increased during that decade, a reflection of Americans' growing interest in parks. Newspapers and magazines carried feature stories about the cliff dwellings and encouraged visitation. An article on Mesa Verde in the Marfa, Texas, New Era in 1916 explained the government's philosophy: "Uncle Sam wants the people of the United States to use their national parks and become acquainted with their splendors. Why have great national playgrounds unless the people play in them."

Horace Albright's 1917 visit gave the park a publicity shot that came all too rarely. Newspapers picked up his remarks that Mesa Verde was "in the front rank of the world's most magnificent scenic wonders." He went on to say that "it has a distinction all its own," and he predicted no limit to the numbers of visitors in future years. [22] The park would now receive, the Denver press hoped, the government attention it had long deserved.

The Denver & Rio Grande expanded its promotion efforts, even as the automobile doomed the railroad's tourist future. Its leaders wholeheartedly agreed with the statement by Great Northern president Louis Hill at the 1911 National Park Conference: "Every passenger that goes to the national parks, wherever he may be, represents practically a net earning." [23]

Before the train became a fleeting memory, Willa Cather, just entering the peak years of her illustrious career as a novelist, penned this poignant account of a 1915 train ride from Denver to Mancos:

You leave Denver in the evening, over the Denver & Rio Grande. From the time when your train crawls out of La Veta pass at about 4 in the morning, until you reach Durango at nightfall, there is not a dull moment. All day you are among high mountains, swinging back and forth between Colorado and New Mexico, with the Sangre de Cristo and the Culebra ranges always in sight until you cross the continental divide at Cumbres and begin the wild scurry down the westward slope.

That particular branch of the Denver & Rio Grande is called the Whiplash, and most of the way you can signal to the engineers from the rear car. You stay all night at Durango. In the morning you take another train for Mancos; a friendly train with invariably friendly passengers and a conductor who has been on that run for fourteen years and who can give you all sorts of helpful information.

Within a generation, railroad tourism would be gone, as would Cather's beloved world of Mancos; Cather stayed there six days, instead of the one she intended. She was exhilarated by the ride, the town, and its people.

The streets are lined with trees, the yards are a riot of giant sage and Indian paint brush, shaded with cedars; the wheat fields are veritable cloth of gold and the whole town is buried in sweet clover. . . . Not once while I was in Mancos, indoors or out, was there a moment when I could not smell the sweet clover. [24]

And although the Model T, the "war to end all wars," and the "roaring twenties" bespoke the end of this era, which faded ever so quietly into a gentle afterglow of nostalgia, the national park that so impressed Cather would go on to a prosperous future. The Department of the Interior began to publish pamphlets, giving the tourists all the information they could possibly want. To meet the changing times, it also published eagerly sought after automobile maps.

Willa Cather thoroughly enjoyed her visit to the park. (Courtesy Helen Cather Southwick)

In 1915, Mesa Verde acquired a companion national park in Colorado. After more than a decade of discussions and five years of intensive lobbying, Rocky Mountain National Park came into being. Attempts to preserve this mountainous wonderland had faced less opposition than that encountered by Virginia McClurg and her backers. After local obstacles had been overcome, the biggest one arose in the form of the U.S. Forest Service, which resisted the surrender of its control over the region. Park advocates decried what they saw as a lack of protection given to nature and the granting of too-lenient rights by the Forest Service for grazing, mining, and timber cutting. The park proponents finally prevailed, and President Woodrow Wilson signed the park bill into law on January 26. [25]

Mesa Verde's impact on the establishment of Rocky Mountain National Park appears to have been minimal at most. Although this has not been clearly established, the supporters of Rocky Mountain may have learned something of determination, lobbying, and other persuasive methods from the women of Mesa Verde. Rocky Mountain's backers, in support of their cause, could point to the economic impact of tourism locally on La Plata and Montezuma counties, but Yellowstone, older and more popular, provided a much better example of that. And in fact, before 1915 many times more people had already visited Estes Park and hiked the surrounding mountains that would be included in Rocky Mountain National Park than had ever braved the canyons of Mesa Verde.

The obvious ties that connected the two Colorado parks came from politicians. Congressman Edward Taylor, as early as 1910, had prepared a park bill and had skillfully presented the case for Rocky Mountain National Park in the years that followed, besides guiding the final bill through the House. Former representative and governor John Shafroth testified on behalf of the bill.

Mesa Verde was both hindered and helped by the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park in 1915. The father of that project, Enos Mills, boosted both parks and wrote Rickner after a visit to Mesa Verde: "I have commended your work highly to the 'powers that be.' I gave both the Associated Press and the Denver Post an interview which will call attention to this park." [26] Colorado had now doubled its national park attractions, but Mesa Verde's isolation and the difficulty of travel quickly put it behind its younger rival in popularity and in visitor totals. Travelers tended to head for well-known Denver first; the beautiful drive from there to Estes Park and thence to Rocky Mountain National Park could be accomplished in less than a day. Mesa Verde could not compete with convenience.

Coloradans exuded pride in 1917 when the young Rocky Mountain National Park enticed more visitors than any other national park. With Mesa Verde and Rocky Mountain national parks and Wheeler and Colorado national monuments, Colorado had become the "center of the tourist industry in the United States," crowed the Rocky Mountain News. The same article analyzed why the older of the two parks trailed the newcomer so badly. It was perplexing, the writer stated, that Mesa Verde had acquired a reputation for not being easily accessible, with no satisfactory visitor accommodations and with an unattractive location in mountain-desert country. "Only ruins" were there to entice the traveler. How such a "completely mistaken impression" could "seize the mind of man," he did not know. [27]

Virginia McClurg's "The Marriage of the Dawn and the Moon," the first of Mesa Verde's pageants. (Courtesy: Colorado Historical Society)

Movies came to play a significant role in attracting tourists to Mesa Verde. This new wonder, which rivaled the car in popularity, held great potential for publicity, an advantage the Department of Interior quickly recognized. But the new phenomenon brought problems with it. The department finally advised Rickner in December 1915 that motion picture permits had to come from Washington. Some unspecified complication precipitated the correspondence: "This whole moving picture business last summer lacked definite organization, and I am now trying to straighten out the tangle." [28]

A later filming took place in early September 1917 when Virginia McClurg and her Cliff Dwellings Association raised their last hurrah with a pageant, "The Marriage of the Dawn and the Moon." McClurg wrote, costumed, and directed the play, which was based on an old Hopi legend. Once again, she held center stage. Set in Spruce Tree House, with most of the cast from Mancos, the entire performance was filmed to be "shown in thousands" of theaters all over the country. Following the most "pretentious pageant" ever undertaken in Colorado, the guests sat down to a banquet of roast calf, roast sheep, baked ears of maize, and trays of peaches. Virginia's idea was to reproduce the Indian "staples" of the region. [29] Whether the movie actually proved to be a great advertisement for Mesa Verde, as hoped, has been lost to history. One of the movie "directors" remarked that, with a "little more time devoted to practice," the pageant would make a great success. Wartime limitations and changing public attitudes, however, doomed "Marriage" to the dustbin of history.

When the 1920s opened, Mesa Verde was entering a new era. Gone, along with McClurg and her Association, were the Wetherills and the days of horses and wagons. Ahead lay the domain of the automobile, the tourist, the flapper, and postwar America. Specifically for Mesa Verde, this era meant its evolution into a professionally operated park and the emergence of Jesse Nusbaum as the man who dominated its development and shaped it in his image more than any other individual.


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

smith1/chap6.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.