‘A symbol of hope:’ Tradition of Red Mountain Cross kept alive by preservation association
Glenwood Springs' tradition has been passed down through the generations
In the pioneer days of the late 1800s, a Black man by the name of William Grandstaff found his way to Glenwood Springs after spending time raising cattle near Moab, Utah.
Once established in Glenwood, he married Rebecca Grandstaff, became the operator of the Grandstaff Landing Saloon and eventually tried his luck at mining in South Canyon.
After the death of his wife, he was known to live a solitary life in a small cabin on Red Mountain, though he frequently made his way down the hill to visit with friends and catch up with other businessmen in town.
Later, in 1901, after an extended absence, Grandstaff’s friends began to worry and a young boy was sent to his cabin where Grandstaff was found deceased; the manner of death was ruled as starvation.
Community members gathered to honor Grandstaff, and his body was buried under a cross-shaped tree near his cabin, which was subsequently destroyed for health reasons.
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Many years later, sometime before 1951, the decaying tree fell and a replacement cross was erected by the Glenwood Springs Electric Department. The new cross was wrapped in lights powered by the nearby Red Mountain Ski Area and was now visible to parts of the town.
Four decades later, in 1991, the American Civil Liberties Union objected to the establishment of a religious symbol on public property owned by a municipality, and the city elected to relinquish involvement and ownership.
Not long after that, a new, larger cross was placed at the top of Red Mountain on private property. It has since been maintained by the Red Mountain Cross Preservation Association, which banded together as a nonprofit after the permanent relocation.
“Even though it was disappointing and sad for a lot of us when the cross had to be turned off on the public property because of legal concerns, it was kind of a blessing in disguise because a new cross was put up in an even more prominent place and visible to so many more people,” Glenwood Springs native Dendy Heisel said of the cross.
The cross has been a part of Heisel’s life since childhood, despite the temporary removal and eventual relocation. Members of the preservation association recently approached Heisel asking if she would be interested in joining the board.
“They reached out to me and asked if I would be interested in joining the board and I said yes I would be honored to do that because I think the cross has been such a special part of our community for many, many years,” she said. “I would love to be part of helping to keep that going. It’s such a symbol of hope for so many in our community.”
In 2008, after completing treatment for breast cancer, Heisel’s mother, Carole, was honored with the opportunity to turn on the cross for the Easter holiday. With strong religious backgrounds, the chance to light the cross was especially meaningful for mother and daughter and the many church friends who made the trek up the hill.
“She’s always had really strong faith and so have I; that was what got her through her first bout with cancer,” Heisel said. “It was just a way to celebrate her getting through the treatment and being clear of cancer. It was a neat way to acknowledge our faith and Jesus and how he got us through that difficult time.”
Today, that beacon of hope shining on the hill above the town is a bright reminder of that special time with her mother and the strength she had during such a trying time.
All day adventure
Bruce Lewis has been an active member of the board since the mid-1990s and takes pride in being able to help keep that tradition going by occasionally being the one to make the trek up the hill to flip the switch each holiday.
Prior to there being a road to the top of Red Mountain, board members hiked or took snow machines on an unmaintained dirt road to access the cross.
“Before they had the subdivision up on the ridge it was a day’s adventure to go up there and turn on the cross, so my whole family would go,” Lewis said. “We’d walk up there thinking there wasn’t much snow in town. I’d go up there in jeans and tennis shoes and by the time we got two-thirds of the way up the snow started getting deeper and deeper; it was two or three feet deep at the top.”
In 1998, a few weeks before Thanksgiving, the cross was cut down with a hacksaw by vandals who were never caught. The board scrambled and decided to hold an emergency meeting that was open to the public.
“All these people from the town came to the meeting and said we’ll do whatever it takes to get it up,” Lewis said. “There were about 30 or 40 business people from the community who showed up and wanted to make sure we got it going. I was blown away.”
So, with the help of the community and donations supplied by local businesses the cross was rebuilt bigger, better and stronger, and just in time to be lit for the holiday season; a true testament of what the cross means to the residents of Glenwood Springs.
“We only wrote one check and it was for the tower,” Lewis said.
Keeping the traditions
In a town that is ever-changing, the presence of the cross has been one of the few constants for locals and a tradition that most look forward to, regardless of religious background.
“People love it. We get verbal requests to leave it on year-round,” Lewis said. “But that’s not what the board wanted. We wanted to keep the tradition.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Lewis would invite a group of 15-30 people for an unorganized hike up the hill to enjoy cookies and hot chocolate before counting down the lighting of the cross.
“Then we would all hike down in the dark,” Lewis said.
Lewis and other members of the board, including Lewis’s son BJ, are part of the preservation association to keep the tradition alive. Their commitment to making the trek up the mountain multiple times per year is not only done for the sake of their own values but for those of the community.
“It’s just an important way to serve God, for me,” Lewis said. “To have something I can provide for our community that is important … it just makes you feel good.”