Historic Context Statements
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Chapter 1:

Craters of the Moon National Monument is located in the cradle of Idaho's Snake River Plain. Beginning 15,000 years ago, molten basalt erupted from fissures in the earth's crust creating this landscape of black and raw lava flows that undulates like a quiet sea. Cinder cones, craters, and myriad volcanic formations line the fissures, or Great Rift, for some sixty miles from north to south, and rise above a surface swirling with frozen eddies and cascading blocks of lava foam. It is a landscape of overwhelming desolation, one in which the collection of administrative buildings, campground, roads, and trails are otherwise dwarfed by the vast expanse of volcanic terrain stretching to the horizon.

With such a small presence on the land, human life would seem to warrant only a short story rather than the eight historic themes that make up this study. While Craters of the Moon has long been a place people avoided, it has a past worth telling. People have interacted with this strange yet beautiful volcanic landscape for several thousand years, according to the archaeological record, and for almost two hundred years, according to the historical record. That interaction was often brief, and unfortunately people did not always leave behind physical evidence of their experience with this charred country. Only a few buildings and scattered remains serve as visible reminders of their encounters. Fortunately, however, some documented their experiences in word and picture, and thus the modern history of Craters of the Moon focuses on those human experiences which, in the end, enrich our appreciation of the monument's natural wonders.

location map

The following themes reflect the monument's history and should instill a deeper understanding of Craters of the Moon: Native Inhabitants, the Fur Trade, Explorations and Surveys, Overland Travel, Settlement Patterns, Mining, Recreation and Tourism, National Park Service Management and Development. Transience and avoidance characterize the monument's history in the nineteenth century and link most of these themes together. The arid country proved useless to fur trappers, prevented farmers from gaining a foothold, and enabled ranchers to make only a marginal living. Explorers and surveyors traversed the heart of this volcanic territory, but their expeditions were temporary forays into an unknown country. Similarly, overland travelers came and went, crossing the northern margin of the monument on their way to distant farms or mines. Eventually, miners stopped long enough in Craters of the Moon to have some marginal success mining silver. But by the early twentieth century, Craters of the Moon came to be viewed in a more favorable light. Geologists studied its formations and proclaimed the region's significance. Ordinary Americans came to value it as a place for outdoor recreation and scenic tourism, in a time when the nation's last wild places seemed to be vanishing. All of this led to Craters of the Moon's establishment as a national monument in 1924, and its subsequent development from the late 1920s to the early 1940s for the enjoyment of the American public.

This study's purpose is to develop these themes in order to assist managers and interested readers in understanding the monument's history, and to aid in the management of cultural resources, planning, and interpretation. Ordinarily such a study may not have been justified given the small number of historic properties in the monument. For this reason, the study was written with an eye toward assisting Butte County in a future survey of its historic properties, since most of Craters of the Moon lies within the county. In this regard, I attempted to provide an overview of the larger historical setting, the Snake River Plain, before narrating the various themes of the monument's history. In addition, each chapter is followed by property type descriptions for the National Register and should aid in evaluating any existing properties and any new ones discovered in Craters of the Moon in the future. (The connection to the larger geographical area and the National Register determined that this study would be considered the monument's "historic context statements" rather than the more common "historic resource study.") This format could also provide a starting point for developing historic contexts and property type descriptions for the surrounding county. Finally, this multipurpose approach is modeled after Cultural Resource Management in Mammoth Cave National Park. [1] The guiding idea behind the Mammoth Cave study was to combine a historic resource study with a National Register multiple property nomination. In doing so, both the National Park Service and Kentucky's State Historic Preservation Office hoped to streamline the park's compliance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.

A final word on these historic themes. Craters of the Moon received its name because its lunar appearance resembled the moon when viewed through a telescope. As I scanned the horizon from the monument, I used the equivalent of a historical telescope to focus on whatever themes seemed to be relevant to the monument. By no means does this method make my document comprehensive. Furthermore, for each of these themes I have included dates which correspond to the historic period for the monument. Some readers may notice that cultural landscape issues are not addressed when discussing the significance of the monument's history; that is because a system-wide inventory of potential cultural landscapes, carried out by the National Park Service several years ago, determined that none existed in Craters of the Moon. In addition to cultural landscape questions, some might wonder whether or not the Shoshone and Bannock tribes were consulted for information on the potential for traditional cultural properties in the monument. They were not consulted for this study because consultations with those and other tribes with interests in the national parks of southern Idaho are currently underway as part of the Park Service's applied anthropology program. Some may wonder also about my geographical terms, such as the "Craters country" and the "Craters of the Moon region." These terms refer generally to what is today the national monument and to the region to the east and west of the monument, primarily in Butte County and the Big Lost River basin. I also refer to the Snake River Plain generally to broaden the perspective of the monument's themes. Even with all of these qualifications, generalizations, in some cases, were hard to come by because few detailed historical surveys have been written for the section of Idaho occupied by Craters of the Moon.

Physical Description and Geological Significance

Craters of the Moon National Monument embraces some 54,000 acres of lava country and a small portion of the Pioneer Mountains in southern Idaho. The climate here is semi-arid. Elevation ranges from 7,700 feet to 5,300 feet. The elevation at the monument's headquarters is nearly 6,000 feet. The weather is prone to extremes--hot, dry, and windy summers are followed by cold, dry, and windy winters. Most of the monument's precipitation, seventeen inches a year, falls as snow and drifts across the volcanic landscape. In the clear and rarified air of the high desert, sunlight seems to almost be absorbed by the dark flows and formations, casting all things in shadow. At other times, especially in the morning and evening, light glances off the chaos of twisted, broken, and billowed lava terrain in an array of captivating colors.

Running across the monument's northwestern corner, U.S. Highway 20-26-93 links Craters of the Moon to the population centers of Idaho Falls, Twin Falls, and Pocatello, all of which are some two hours away. The highway also routes tourists between Yellowstone National Park and Sun Valley, two popular destinations and the sources of many monument visitors.

Craters of the Moon occupies land in two counties. Some 13,300 acres lie within Blaine County, and some 40,200 acres lie within Butte County. Butte County, a rural area, contains the small community of Arco, the nearest town to the monument.

Arco, the county seat, is eighteen miles northeast of the monument, offers a full range of services, and is considered the gateway town to Craters of the Moon.

President Calvin Coolidge signed the proclamation establishing the monument on May 2, 1924. According to that proclamation, Craters of the Moon's purpose is to preserve an area of unusual scientific and educational value and interest

which contains a remarkable fissure eruption together with its associated volcanic cones, craters, rifts, lava flows, caves, natural bridges, and other phenomena characteristic of volcanic action; and...has a weird and scenic landscape peculiar to itself.

Craters of the Moon is considered geologically significant because it preserves some of the world's best, youngest, and most exposed examples of basaltic volcanism in a small geographic area. Lava welled up from fissures along the Great Rift, which was designated a national natural landmark in 1971. Thirteen miles of the Great Rift lie within the monument. The Rift is the source of the Craters of the Moon Lava Field, composed of more than sixty lava flows, twenty-five cinder cones, and eight eruptive vents. The monument's boundaries enclose the northern corner of this vast field. Hardly a lifeless volcanic region, the monument is home to some fifty mammals and 150 bird species. More than three hundred plant species are native to Craters of the Moon. Surface water, however, is scarce and is found in lava depressions scattered throughout the area. Ice and snow, insulated in lava cavities, can be found throughout the year.

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Last Updated: 27-Jul-1999