Mount of the Holy Cross proves national monument status can be fleeting honor
EAGLE COUNTY — Having a place designated as a national monument isn’t necessarily as permanent as it sounds.
Mount of the Holy Cross in Eagle County is a historical case in point.
Earlier this year, President Donald Trump signed an executive order for a review of two dozen national monuments. While the scope of his proposed review was hailed as unprecedented, national monuments have been decommissioned in the past. For Mount of the Holy Cross, national monument status was brief — it only lasted for 17 years.
A sight of inspiration
Mount of the Holy Cross was declared a national monument in 1933, but the site’s fame stretched back decades. According to a 2010 article by Bob Janiskee published at http://www.nationalparktraveler.org, the mountain’s remote location generally kept it hidden from view.
“The mountain with the great white cross remained the stuff of rumor until after the Civil War,” notes Janiskee.
But the existence of Mount of the Holy Cross was nationally publicized in 1870 after U.S. Geological Survey teams made the first recorded summit of the site. Under the leadership of F. V. Hayden, a team also climbed Notch Mountain, located directly across from Mount of the Holy Cross, and that is where western photographer William Henry Jackson took the first-ever photo of the “Cross of Snow.”
The following year, artist Thomas Moran accompanied Hayden’s follow-up expedition to the mountain. Moran viewed Mount of the Holy Cross for himself and later created a large oil painting of the mountain. Moran took some liberties with the actual scenery, inventing a forest scene and waterfall at the foreground of the mountain.
Moran was forthright about his approach, however. “I place no value upon literal transcripts from nature. My general scope is not realistic; all my tendencies are toward idealization. … Topography in art is valueless,” Moran declared. This well-known painting is now exhibited in the Museum of the American West, a component of the Autry National Center in Los Angeles.
The mountain also inspired one of America’s most famous poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In 1879, he penned his work “The Cross of Snow,” a remembrance of his beloved wife who had died 18 years earlier.
“There is a mountain in the distant West
That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
Displays a cross of snow upon its side.”
Monument to manifest destiny
“With promotion from journalists, religious leaders and others, including tourism promoters and regional business interests like the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, many Christians throughout the U.S. came to believe that the huge cross was actually a holy cross that God placed there on the mountainside as a sign to endorse Christianity, American power, Western settlement and related values,” Janiskee noted.
Locally, Eagle dentist O.W. Randall was one of the mountain’s promoters. In 1927, he organized the first Mount of the Holy Cross Pilgrimage, which consisted of leading a group of local Camp Fire Girls up Notch Mountain to view the cross of snow.
By 1928, Randall and The Rev. John P. Carigan, of Glenwood Springs, had attracted the interest of The Denver Post. The Denver newspaper started promoting the annual pilgrimages, and by 1932, more than 600 people participated.
As the mountain’s fame grew, faith healers began to flock to the site. “Handkerchief healing” was born — a program introduced by a Denver pastor. Ill people would mail in handkerchiefs that were then carried up Notch Mountain. Mountaintop prayers were offered over the hankies, and then they were carried back down the hillside and returned to their owners. In 1932, 2,000 handkerchiefs were carried up the mountain and two rangers had to assist the pastor to carry the load.
On May 29, 1929, President Herbert Hoover signed a proclamation establishing the Mount of the Holy Cross National Monument.
“It wasn’t long before the Holy Cross was brought into the embrace of the National Park System,” Janiskee said. Holy Cross National Monument was one of 11 “scientific” national monuments transferred from the U.S. Forest Service to the National Park Service by a reorganizaiton order approved in 1933.
But during the Great Depression, followed by the launch of World War II, the new national monument languished. Then in 1942, Camp Hale Army Base was created and the area was declared off limits to the public.
In 1950, the Mount of the Holy Cross national monument was decommissioned.
Under a headline reading “Move to abandon Holy Cross national,” the Aug. 3, 1950 edition of the Eagle Valley Enterprise states, “A bill is on the President’s desk awaiting his signature which would do away with Holy Cross National Monument, according to news released this week.
“The bill has already received an OK from the House and Senate and will do away with two famous national monuments familiar to this part of Colorado — Wheeler Monument and the world-famous Holy Cross.
“The reason for the move was not given, but there has been no maintenance cost to either, and the move, on the face of it, seems unjustified,” the Enterprise concluded
The ruling did, actually, provide a reason for the action.
“The National Park Service has never found it practical to station personnel on the Monument grounds, and no funds have been appropriated for development or administrative purposes,” stated the ruling.
“Both the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture agree that the National Monument should be abolished and its administration turned back to the Forest Service.”
That’s what happened, but a final bit of irony closed out the story. In 1951, a commemorative stamp was issued to honor Colorado’s 75th Statehood Anniversary. It features a collage of three state icons — the Colorado Capitol building, a columbine and the no-longer-a-national-monument Mount of the Holy Cross.
While the Mount of the Holy Cross lost its national monument status, it eventually became the centerpiece of the Holy Cross Wilderness Area. Congress added the 120,000-acre area to the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1980. Today, Mount of the Holy Cross is one of the state’s most popular 14ers.
The pilgrimages have also been reborn. In 1976, as a bicentennial event, The Rev. Don Simonton, of Vail, suggested a revival of the annual hike. He led expeditions up Notch Mountain for decades and his namesake congregation — Mount of the Holy Cross Lutheran — has continued the tradition.