The monument at 100: What to call a monolith (besides big)


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This is the third in a series of weekly columns about Colorado National Monument in honor of the park’s centennial anniversary on May 24.

Curious visitors to Colorado National Monument often ask me, “Like, where’s the monument?”

As a park ranger expected to answer this question, I am often tempted to say, “You’re, like, looking at it.” That would be true.

That would leave many visitors scratching their heads. No, not from the gnats. People from as near as Denver and as far as Denmark get confused upon arrival. They expect to find a shiny bronze plaque bolted to a big chunk of hand-carved stone, something resembling Webster’s definition of monument: a tablet, statue, pillar, building.

But Colorado National Monument is a 20,000-acre park. And within that park rises a 450-foot sandstone monolith named Independence Monument. No wonder visitors scratch their heads.

If neither the park nor the monolith fits our conventional image of “monument,” that’s OK because there is nothing conventional about this extraordinary place. It is exceedingly unconventional, like John Otto, the monument’s first custodian. That was his job title, a name we associate today with “janitor.” Otto actually had the enormous responsibilities of a park superintendent, however.

This rugged conservationist in his cowboy hat and droopy mustache labored alone among the geological wonders that became Colorado National Monument in 1911. This special place not only changed his life, he changed it, too. Otto carved trails with iron tools, erected barbed wire fences, and chiseled hand holds for climbing Wingate sandstone walls.

He also took it upon himself to name many monoliths. He probably considered these familiar towers of rock as children in need of identities. Needle’s Eye, King Apple’s Castle and Temple Rock were all his doing.

He christened Monument Canyon’s iconic spire Independence. He called a distinctive beehive-shaped formation Haystacks. That name, however, didn’t last long. It later was renamed Coke Ovens, possibly by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

Otto honored Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, McKinley and Wilson by naming monoliths after them.

“Pieces of Otto’s personality came out in those names,” said Michelle Wheatley, chief of interpretation and visitor services for the monument. “They are symbolic of his patriotism.”

Most formations bear names that others, following in Otto’s bootprints, have bestowed on them. Upper Monument Canyon has Grand View Spire, Squaw Fingers and Kissing Couple. Lower Monument and Wedding canyons share Praying Hands, Sentinel Spire, Pipe Organ and Mushroom Rock.

Marching alongside Rim Rock Drive are Balanced Rock, Saddlehorn and the exotically named Cleopatra’s Couch. Rock climbers made contributions, including Clueless and Rainbow towers, both of which cast their shadows in Upper Monument Canyon.

These names serve an important purpose, making geological features distinctive points of reference for hikers. Otherwise, they might easily get lost in the canyons. (That some hikers get lost anyway is not something for which we rangers hold Otto responsible.)

Some names are a century old. Others are more recent. Take Wedding Canyon, for instance. Situated at the western end of the monument, this doglegged-shaped canyon has provided the backdrop for untold numbers of weddings over the years. A former park ranger deserves credit for the name, if not the weddings.

During his 17-year tenure as chief park ranger, Hank Schoch did everything from rescuing stranded climbers from perilous perches to reintroducing desert bighorn sheep.

Schoch, who retired in 1994, officially named certain places, too. He memorialized Otto’s wedding ceremony (which occurred at the base of Independence Monument) as Wedding Canyon. Otto married a Boston artist named Beatrice Farnham on June 20, 1911. He apparently proved to be an unconventional husband, however. Two months after their wedding, the new Mrs. Otto left him and got a divorce.

Some names have withstood the test of time, while others have disappeared from the lexicon. What Otto called King’s Apple Castle became Devils Kitchen.

One of the monument’s most distinctive symbols of erosion — a gigantic hole through sandstone overlooking Fruita, lies at the end of a mile-long trail near the visitor center.

Otto named this popular spot, Needle’s Eye. Today, it is Window Rock.

Nearly a million visitors pass through the monument every year. From panoramic views higher than a mile above sea level they become explorers of this ancient landscape that, thanks to people like Otto, have populated it with unforgettable names.

Eric Sandstrom teaches at Mesa State College and is a seasonal park ranger at Colorado National Monument.


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