Rainbow Bridge
Administrative History
NPS Logo

Making It Work: Monument Development, 1910-1955

On May 30, 1910, President William Howard Taft issued a proclamation that designated the 160 acres surrounding the bridge as Rainbow Bridge National Monument (NM). Because the bridge was located on land administered by the General Land Office (GLO), the monument became the administrative responsibility of that agency. Before 1910, Rainbow Bridge enjoyed a quiet existence; after 1910, Rainbow Bridge was part of the federal system of land management and quickly became a contested space. This chapter focuses on elements of the monument's early development: administration, exploration, protection, and tourism. In the first few decades of the monument's official existence, there were numerous important scientific explorations of the region, various attempts to turn the monument into a national park, and organized efforts to promote the bridge's tourist potential. Between 1916 and 1955, Park Service employees as well as privately funded individuals spent more than thirty years trying to comprehend the vast resources of this relatively small monument.

Administering Rainbow Bridge NM between 1910 and 1916 was not a complex affair. Because of the its remote location, there was very little official activity at the monument. The administrative responsibility for the monument fell to John Wetherill in 1910. Wetherill was already the custodian for Navajo NM and in good position geographically to add the responsibility of Rainbow Bridge NM to his duties. Without question, Wetherill knew the region better than anyone, and his intimate local knowledge proved beneficial to many monument visitors.

In 1916, Congress passed the National Park System Organic Act, which authorized the creation of the National Park Service (NPS). After 1916, NPS was responsible for the administration of Rainbow Bridge NM. Based on the remote nature of the monument, as well as its positive relationship with John Wetherill, the Park Service maintained custodial management of the monument under Wetherill. NPS also continued the practice of making Rainbow Bridge part of the managerial purview of the custodian or superintendent of Navajo NM. This administrative structure remained in place until 1964, when control of Rainbow Bridge NM was transferred to the superintendent at Glen Canyon NRA (see chapter 6). The specific duty of managing Rainbow Bridge NM involved very little before 1964. Visitation was so limited until the late 1950s that visitor impact was minimal; this translated into very little demand for maintenance. Custodians and superintendents from Navajo NM, along with Park Service rangers, made semi-annual trips to Rainbow Bridge. Most of the time the trips were two or three days long, during which time they performed trail maintenance, signage repair, and replaced the visitor register at the bridge. [141]

Rainbow Bridge NM also fell under another management umbrella. In 1924, the Park Service formed the Southwestern National Monuments Office. Rainbow Bridge NM was part of a group of monuments under the administrative control of this office. The benefit to Rainbow Bridge was the Park Service's recognition of the need for more direct management control over remote locations such as Rainbow Bridge. As custodian, John Wetherill was made responsible to a local NPS administrator, Frank Pinkley, who had been Superintendent of Casa Grande NM since 1918. Pinkley was put in charge of fourteen national monuments throughout the Southwest region. Pinkley was a perfect choice, having worked his way up first with the General Land Office, and then NPS. The Park Service was not even ten years old at the time Pinkley began his administration of the Southwestern Monuments Group. In this capacity, "Boss" Pinkley (as he became known to his colleagues) fought an uphill battle for both recognition and adequate funding for his beloved national monuments. [142]

By 1927, Pinkley's monuments collectively attracted more visitors than Yellowstone on less than half of Yellowstone's budget. Pinkley often paid his own travel expenses and even went without salary at the end of the fiscal year to provide much needed repairs to various monuments. But Pinkley developed and grew as a park manager through good times and bad, always staying one step ahead of the new monuments being thrust under his care. At the time of his death in 1940, Pinkley administered 27 national monuments in four states. While Rainbow Bridge NM was part of this evolving rubric of regional control, local considerations and personalities continued to dominate the daily activity of the monument. The Southwestern National Monuments Group ceased administrative operation in 1957, just about the time that events at Rainbow Bridge became part of the national spotlight. But Pinkley watched over Rainbow Bridge with diligence during the sixteen years he administered it as part of the Southwest region. [143]

Despite the relative surety of NPS administration at Rainbow Bridge, the region that surrounded the monument was long contested in terms of ownership. Before Anglos came to the area in the middle of the 19th century, Rainbow Bridge and Navajo Mountain were claimed by Navajos, San Juan Southern Paiutes, and Hopis as part of their aboriginal homeland. The area was also on the fringe of territory claimed by numerous Native American tribes from southwestern Colorado. But with the Treaty of Bosque Redondo in 1868, the United States government was thrown into the mix of claimants on Rainbow Bridge. The status of the territory surrounding the bridge, an area referred to as the Paiute Strip, was in flux from the moment the Bosque Redondo treaty created the Navajo reservation. Even after the declaration of Rainbow Bridge NM, the status of the surrounding environs was not settled.

Originally the Navajo reservation was bifurcated by the Arizona-New Mexico state line. Its northern border was the Four Corners intersection and its southern border was only a few miles north of present day Window Rock, Arizona. From 1878 to 1934, the Navajo reservation was expanded by executive order ten times and by congressional act three times. Modifications to the reservation between 1878 and 1886 included the creation of the Hopi reservation in December of 1882, a section nearly as large as the original Navajo treaty reservation. The Hopi reservation was bounded on all four sides by the Navajo reservation. An executive order of May 17, 1884, by President Chester A. Arthur, added the portion of land known as the Paiute Strip. [144]

Figure 20 Rainbow Bridge National Monument and vicinity (From 1950 NPS brochure. Courtesy of Intermountain Support Office) (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

The history of the Paiute Strip is an interesting odyssey. The Paiute Strip is the home of Rainbow Bridge. Its southern boundary is the Utah/Arizona border and its eastern border is the Utah/Colorado border, moving from Four Corners north to the point where the San Juan River crosses into the Colorado. The northern and western borders are created by the westerly flowing San Juan River, as it moves from the Utah/Colorado border north, then west, until it turns south and joins the Colorado River. Originally part of the 1884 addition to the Navajo reservation, President Benjamin Harrison returned 431,160 acres of the Paiute Strip to the public domain in November 1892. Historian Bill Acrey contends that prospectors had long desired to explore the region for its potential mineral wealth and in turn pressured the President to make the Paiute Strip available to mining survey. [145] However, in 1908, the expanding Navajo population of both people and sheep motivated Congress to withdraw the Strip for use by multiple Native American groups. During this period, the area was known as the Paiute Strip San Juan Reservation, although much of the prime grazing land was overrun by Navajo flocks. The San Juan Southern Paiute had long considered this area part of their ancestral homeland. But Navajo pressure for competing use was too great for the small band of Southern Paiute who made Navajo Mountain their home. The Paiute Strip reservation remained under the administration of the Western Navajo Agency until 1922. [146]

Unfortunately for the San Juan Southern Paiute, the reservation designation did not last. The San Juan Southern Paiute were hit hard by an influenza epidemic in 1918. Over the next two decades their numbers were cut by seventy percent, from three hundred people to fewer than eighty. Cultural historian Stephen Trimble contends that a poorly informed agent from the Bureau of Indian Affairs visited the Paiute Strip in 1922. Seeing few Paiutes in the area, the agent informed his superiors of the situation. Within weeks, Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall bowed to Monticello, Utah mineral interests and returned the Strip to the public domain once again in 1922. Owing to pressure from local residents as well as the lack of any significant mineral discoveries, Congress returned the Paiute Strip (less the one hundred and sixty acres that comprised Rainbow Bridge NM) permanently to the Navajo reservation in 1933. [147]

With the monument established, exploration of its environs began in earnest. Despite the fact that Native Americans knew about the bridge for centuries, the rest of the country knew very little about Rainbow Bridge or its surrounding ecosystem. The Cummings/Douglass expedition revealed only the most rudimentary data about Rainbow Bridge and even less about the northwestern slope of Navajo Mountain. Before 1910, most of the exploration in the region focused on Tsegi Canyon and the many ancient Puebloan structures it contained. What waited for Anglos at Rainbow Bridge was a topography as diverse as any encountered previously, as well as evidence of early human habitation.

Kayenta Trading Post
Figure 21 Kayenta Trading Post, 1912 (Stuart M. Young Collection, NAU.PH., Cline Library, Northern Arizona University)

The official life of the monument started slowly. In addition to the few scholarly articles published after the 1909 expedition, the early visits of notable men like Theodore Roosevelt and Zane Grey helped spread the word of the monument's stunning topography. Roosevelt and Grey both visited the bridge in 1913. In May of that year, Grey employed John Wetherill and Nasja Begay to guide him to the bridge. Grey was awed by the rugged state of nature that surrounded him. When Grey reached the bridge, he was dumbfounded. In his 1922 autobiographical collection of essays, Tales of Lonely Trails, Grey described Rainbow Bridge saying ". . . this thing was glorious. It absolutely silenced me." [148] Grey returned to Rainbow Bridge several times, his last trip occurring in 1922. He went on to include scenes from those excursions in many of his most famous books. The Rainbow Trail was Grey's fictionalized tribute to Rainbow Bridge. These accounts helped popularize the bridge with literate America at a time when visual mass media was still a futuristic concept.

Theodore Roosevelt was no less impressed by Rainbow Bridge. In August 1913, Roosevelt was in the Southwest doing the things he loved most: hunting and exploring. As one of the founders of the Boone and Crockett Club, Roosevelt thought of the Southwest as the last vestige of America's untamed wilderness. Roosevelt employed Wetherill as a guide and set out for the bridge around August 9, 1913. When he reached the bridge three days later (the trip to Rainbow Bridge was now a matter of following the trail for guides like Wetherill) Roosevelt felt the intense emotion of early explorers. In his published description of the experience, authored only a month after the trip, Roosevelt said that Rainbow Bridge ". . . is a triumphal arch rather than a bridge, and spans the torrent bed in a majesty never shared by any arch ever reared by the mightiest conquerors among the nations of mankind." [49] Despite the flowery prose, Roosevelt's impression of Rainbow Bridge inspired further exploration of the region. Roosevelt and Grey can be credited with popularizing what was then one of the most remote national monuments in the country. They certainly contributed to the reality of increased visitation at Rainbow Bridge, which doubled between 1913 and 1922 to over eighty visitors per year. But the immature fiscal and administrative structure of the National Park Service could not accommodate structural improvements to the monument, at least not by 1922. The early priorities of the Park Service involved the development of more popular destinations such as Yellowstone National Park. The extremely remote location of Rainbow Bridge limited its annual visitation, which hindered making the monument a budgetary priority.

John Wetherill also played a large role in the early popularization of Rainbow Bridge and its surrounding monument. After leading the first publicized expedition to the bridge in 1909, Wetherill's notoriety grew as the best man to guide people to the bridge. As the monument's first custodian, working under the supervision of the General Land Office, Wetherill was responsible for trail maintenance and bridge integrity (in addition to his own guide service). The role of custodian at monuments in the 1910s and 1920s was largely volunteeristic in nature. Called "dollar-a-year" men (based on the rate of pay extended by the federal government), custodians generally pursued their duties out of a personal love for the immediate surroundings and the desire to contribute to the monument's preservation. Usually custodians, like Wetherill, were chosen based on their strong ties to the local area and their inordinate knowledge of the monument's surroundings. This was definitely the criteria used in choosing John Wetherill to watch over Rainbow Bridge. Any conflict of interest that might have existed between Wetherill's position as custodian and his ownership of a private guide service was too small for the government to worry about. Wetherill was an excellent custodian and an even better guide. In 1909, barely two weeks after the August 14 discovery party, he guided the first woman, Helen Townsend, to the bridge, along with her brother Arthur. [150] For all the historical debate over his role in the history of the bridge, one fact remains incontrovertible: Wetherill brought hundreds of people to the bridge and helped spread the word of the Park Service's commitment to preserving the structure for future generations. This was the mission of the Park Service after it became the monument's managing agency in 1916, and Wetherill pursued that mission admirably.

John and Louisa Wetherill stayed at Oljeto until late 1910. In 1911, they moved south of Oljeto to Todanestya, Arizona, which Wetherill renamed as Kayenta. From here they operated a guide service and trading post operation until 1924. During the Kayenta years, the Wetherills continued to increase the popularity of Rainbow Bridge. It was during the Kayenta phase that John Wetherill came into contact with Theodore Roosevelt, Zane Grey, and eventually Charles L. Bernheimer. From the Kayenta location, trips to the bridge could include stops in Tsegi Canyon and camps at Keet Seel and Betat' akin. The only drawback to operating out of Kayenta was its seventy-mile distance from the bridge. But, as the Wetherills were the only guide service for over a decade, this was little more than an inconvenience.

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 07-Feb-2003