From land and from the air, the outline of Devils Tower can be seen from a long way off.
In the early 1980s, I owned a newspaper in Spearfish, S. D., and flew a private plane across Wyoming taking care of business there.
Even though it was slightly off course, I always tried to fly directly over Devils Tower. It is tucked away in the Black Hills of Wyoming in northeast part of the Cowboy State.
What a strange sight.
And a great many other people from across the country share my thoughts about this unusual edifice. Back in 1906 it was officially named the country’s first national monument.
Thus, it joined Yellowstone as the country’s first national park and the Shoshone as the country’s first national forest.
Early residents of the area (thousands of years before white men arrived) were also baffled by this strange gigantic stone “tree stump.” Some folks think the Tower is 200 million years old. Man has only occupied North America for about 12,000 years.
One of the most common names for this giant hunk of rock is Bear Lodge and Mateo Tipi. Some early Indians thought the vertical lines up and down its sides were caused by a giant bear. One legend says two girls were chased by a bear and climbed to the top of the Tower. They asked the Great Spirit to intervene and thus the giant bear was prevented from climbing to the top, but he left lots of scratches on all sides.
Former Wyoming Travel Commission Director Gene Bryan wrote about the tower in my recent book. He says the Tower and Black Hills regions of Wyoming have played integral roles in Native American history and spirituality, especially the Kiowa, Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne, Crow, Shoshone and Arapaho.
“It is assumed that some of the early fur trappers probably visited the area, but the first documented visitors were several members of the Captain W.F. Raynolds’ 1859 Yellowstone Expedition. (Col. Raynolds is an ancestor of the ubiquitous Dave Raynolds of Lander). About 16 years later an expedition led by Col. Richard I. Dodge came to the Tower to study the geology, and during the visit the expedition’s interpreter misinterpreted the Native American’s name to Bad God’s Lodge, later shortened to Devils Tower.”
The monument has been a haven for rock climbers for years. Paul Petzoldt, the founder of the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander, was instrumental is helping one intrepid daredevil get saved.
Bryan says: “In 1941, a publicity seeker, George Hopkins, parachuted (without permission) onto the Tower. Bad weather moved in quickly, and he was stranded for six days before a climbing party plucked him off the Tower.”
Two area ranchers, William Rogers and Willard Ripley, are credited with the first ascent. On July 4, 1893, the duo used a ladder of wooden pegs wedged into the rock faces to scamper to the top. Remnants of their ladder are visible from the hiking trail that encircles the monolith.
Indians, particularly the Sioux, Kiowa and Cheyenne, consider the Tower sacred ground and have objected to the hundreds of climbers who flock to the Tower. After negotiation in the late 1990s, a compromise was reached that leaves the Tower climber-free during June when tribes conduct their religious ceremonies.
Bryan continues: “Like most Wyomingites, during my early years with the Wyoming Travel Commission I had a stronger affinity toward Yellowstone and Grand Teton rather than with Devils Tower. That changed when I made my first extended trip to Devils Tower in the early 1970s with the Commission’s Jim Simon.
“I had the good fortune, as Information Director, to accompany Simon on a four-day field trip to Crook County. We criss-crossed virtually every inch of that history-rich, geology-endowed, wildlife-teeming county from Devils Tower, Missouri Buttes, Sundance, Hulett, Belle Fourche River, Sand Creek and Ranch A. the mining ghost town of Welcome, Vore Buffalo Jump, Aladdin with its mercantile and nearby mining tipple, Beulah and all points in-between. Amazing.”
Biggest publicity splash for Devils Tower occurred in 1977 when moviemaker Stephen Spielberg picked it as the landing site for aliens in the classic movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Tourists still flock to the area because of that exposure.
Although I do not pilot airplanes any more, those vivid mages of the Tower from far away and then from immediately above will always be with me.
Northeastern Wyoming is truly one of the most wondrous parts of America and Devils Tower is its epicenter.
Check out Bill Sniffin’s columns at www.billsniffin.com. He is a longtime Wyoming journalist from Lander who has written four books. His most recent book is “Wyoming’s 7 Greatest Natural Wonders” which is available at www.wyomingwonders.com.