Rock of Ages: How We Reinvent TraditionsTraditions are an important part of who we are. They can be small acts that bind people together into tight familial groups, or they might be large public displays creating a sense of unity on a national level. We carry on traditions and pass them down through time because they create continuity and belonging.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park has several traditions going back generations. One of the most beloved of these is the “Rock of Ages” ceremony. Several different versions of how this program began and continued have been passed on to the current staff. It is believed that decades ago, a visitor, renowned baritone Cameron McClean, was touring the cave. The longer this man walked and admired the cave, the more inspired he became. His rapture finally couldn’t be contained. At the high point in the Big Room he burst into the hymn Rock of Ages. The large column there has been called “Rock of Ages” ever since.
The first “Rock of Ages” ceremony took place July 27, 1928. Not much was recorded after that date. Little did those park rangers know they were starting a tradition that the entire Carlsbad community would hold dear. The ceremony morphed over time. The first park superintendent, Thomas Boles, embraced the idea to make the “Rock of Ages” ceremony memorable for visitors—the highlight of their trip and the trademark of any visit to the caverns. There are several reports of Boles leading tours through the Big Room and extinguishing the lights at the Rock of Ages hill. As he talked about the cave—its beauty, mystery, importance as a national site—rangers would appear carrying candles and signing the hymn. It was a grand finale that visitors spoke of for years after that iteration of the program ceased.
Eventually, National Park Service (NPS) administration made policy that programs needed to be based on NPS values, and the Rock of Ages event was not considered to do so. After so many years as a staple, the ceremony ended. The local community wasn’t pleased as they considered it one of the events that gave color to their hometown. Boles soon left to supervise another park.
In 2000, Carlsbad Caverns decided to get back in touch with some of our historic programs. As an annual special event, rangers began presenting a living history “Rock of Ages” program. It proved so popular that it’s now presented four nights in December. Currently the program is based on historic happenings in the park. This year the program focused on 1930s people and happenings. Every year we invite you to join us in the retelling of one of our favorite time periods here at the cave. It’s a tradition we hope to pass on to the next generation of Carlsbad Caverns park rangers.