Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The Music of Western Movies and our Vision of the American West.

The Music of Western Movies and our Vision of the American West.

Music of the American West is really a combination of styles and rhythms inherent to the place and culture of the people who occupied the West, whether Native American, European American or African American. The music represents the cultural heritage of the people who came to call the West home.

This music, however, is not the music that expresses the grandeur of the western environment or the image in the American mind of a place called The West.  The music that most of us western aficionados associate with Western America is the music composed to accompany the numerous TV and movie westerns of the 1950s and 1960s.  

The popularity of TV westerns in the late 1950s and 1960s convinced many in the film industry of the lucrative possibilities of the western genre; film executives outdid each other in their race to produce westerns of epic proportions. By so doing, they helped define the West as an expansive landscape where western characters fought and died on the advancing western frontier.  Even though I have seen more western movies than I care to admit, it is not always the movie that leaves a lasting impression, it is the   musical score that brings to mind a feeling and a longing for the many wonderful attributes we have come to associate with the American West.

A musical composition can relate many things to its listeners. A composer knows this and spends a lot of time incorporating the right instrument, chord, or phrase to express what he wishes to convey through his music. It really is not unlike an author who uses words to create his images; the composer uses music notation and orchestration. In the end, they both create a piece of art that tells us something about our world. Of the composers who have written musical scores to accompany western movies and TV shows, several stand out for their interpretation of the West-- Russian born Dimitri Tiomkin (1894-1979),   Jerome Morass (1913- 1983) Alfred Newman (1901-1970, and Elmer Bernstein (1922-    ). Of the four, Dimitri Tiomkin was probably the most influential in creating the western theme.

 Dimitri Tiomkin was born in Kremenchuk, Russia1894.  He studied piano and composition at St. Petersburg Conservatory of music. His first experience with music theatre was in St. Petersburg, where he played the piano accompaniment to Russian and French silent films. Tiomkin immigrated to New York in 1925, where he worked with different theatrical and ballet companies. His big break came in 1931 when Universal Studio hired him to score the Russian themed movie, Resurrection, his first non-musical film. Through his long tenure as a composer, he scored over 100 movies, which included Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, 1939), The Westerner, (1940), It’s a Wonderful Life, (1947), Red River, (1948), The Big Sky, (1952) and The High And The Mighty (1955).  And, he wrote the scores for such classic westerns as High Noon, (1952), Gunfight at the OK Corral, (1952) and the TV series, Rawhide, (1959-1966).

High Noon(1952) is what has been called a classic western in that the story has all the elements that we have come to associate with the western genre—good v. evil, or the advance of civilization and the conflict when civilization meets up with the savage West. And, the hero who has to choose between the fair haired schoolmarm from the East, or the dark haired woman who knows her man but is too indigenous to the West to get her man.   Just as popular as High Noon was in the 1950s, so to was the theme song that introduced the movie, “Do Not Forsake Me.”

 “Do Not Forsake Me,” was one of the most popular movie songs of the era and the winner of an Oscar in the category of the Best Original Music.  The producers of High Noon also saw the commercial possibilities of recording the song for the growing pop music market--the production company made a considerable amount of money from royalties.  High Noon set the trend and other film producers soon followed. Between 1950 and 1954 only thirteen percent of American feature films used theme songs in their openings. But by the 1960s, twenty-nine percent of movies opened with theme songs—and most of those were westerns. “Do Not Forsake Me” was popular with the listening public for two reasons—Dimitri Tiomkin’s musical score and Ned Washington’s lyrics.

When listening to “Do Not Forsake Me,” one cannot mistake the western flavor of the song. Tiomkin opened the composition with the constant rhythm provided by a percussion instrument, the Tom Tom.  After a couple of measures of the lone Tom Tom, the slow strum of guitar chords introduced the lyrics. Throughout the song the Tom Tom continued the rhythm in the background while the guitar, harpsichord, and harmonica played softly in accompaniment to the melody and the lyrics.

Ned Washington’s lyrics informed the listener of the struggle in the story of the main characters, who were forced to vet their difference in a street fight.   Added to this winning combination of music and lyrics was the performance of  “Do Not Forsake Me” by Tex Ritter. 

His western (Oklahoma) twang authenticated the “West” feeling of the song and added to its overall appeal.      

 Ned Washington wrote the lyrics to many of Dimitri Tiomkin’s musical scores. In 1952, Tiomkin wrote another classic western song for the theme to Gunfight at OK Corral starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas and Rhonda Fleming. 

Again, Washington’s lyrics summarize the story line of the movie.  And in the musical score Tiomkin employs the same rhythmic techniques in the background as he did in High Noon. The beginning overture to the movie, however, is more intense than High Noon.  A full orchestra begins Gunfight at OK Corral with a strong forte’ crescendo that creates tension and energy but quickly fades out to a lone whistler beginning the melodic line. Accompanying the melody is the constant background rhythm that mocks horse huffs on dry clay earth.

The listener cannot help but imagine men on horses riding steadily toward town.  Added to this is what Tiomkin must have imagined to be a truly western attribute to the music, short musical bridges between different sections imitating Native American rhythms associated with warriors and the preparation for conflict. In the movie, these bridges serve as a transition in time and place.  Frankie Lane recorded the song.
Gunfight at OK corral--1952

Probably the most popular song for Frankie Lane was the theme to the TV series, Rawhide, another Dimitri Tiomkin musical successes.  
There is again a constant background rhythm played against Ned Washington’s lyrics, which sum up the gist of the program—the lonely cowboy tending to the herd. The listeners can almost see the cowboy’s rawhide whip snapping in the air as he yells, “move’em out.”

Tiomkin’s constant rhythm in the background of Rawhide however, is not instrumental but performed by backup singers who add the same western flavor to the song as Frankie Lane’s rendition of the lyrics.  


In 1958 Jerome Moross wrote the score to another successful western, (and one of my favorites) The Big Country staring Gregory Peck and Jean Simmons.

Moross was another accomplished musician who wrote musicals, ballets and concert pieces. He was born in New York City in 1913. As a child, he studied piano and graduated from the New York School of Music at age eighteen. As a senior he held the Julliard conducting fellowship and was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1947-48.  He is probably most known for his song, “Frankie and Johnny.”

 He started his career in Hollywood first as an orchestrator for films in the 30s and 40s and by 1948, as a composer. Of the western films he scored, Big Country is the best known. 
Biographers wrote that Moross’s western musical style was shaped from his experience in the Great Plains in 1936 while traveling by bus from Chicago to California.   Moross explained,  “as we hit the Plains, I got so excited that I stopped off in Albuquerque and the next day I got to the edge of town and walked out onto the flat land with a marvelous feeling of being alone in the vastness with the mountains cutting off the horizon. When it came to writing the main title of the film, I wrote the string figure and the opening theme almost automatically.” The main theme to Big Country reflected Moross’s wonder at the grandeur of the West.

The opening theme to Big Country starts with full orchestra, at double forte’, stings carrying the background rhythm. The music goes from forte’ to a quieter melody line   played by strings, but in the background bass instruments bring home the driving rhythm until the orchestra comes in again at full force, the bigness of the country expressed in the music can not be missed.  

Elmer Bernstein was another successful composer who has many movies to his credit; most recognizable is The Magnificent Seven.

Bernstein was born in New York City in 1922. As a young man, he performed as a dancer, actor and artist, winning several prizes for his paintings.  He also studied piano with a teacher from Julliard School of Music. In his long career, he was nominated fourteen times for an Academy Award and in 1967 won for his score of Thoroughly Modern Millie. His other nominations were The Man with the Golden Arm, Summer and Smoke, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Return of the Seven, Hawaii, True Grit, Walk on the Wild Side, just to name a few.

Like musical scores of other westerns, Bernstein opens the score to The Magnificent Seven with full orchestra, which quickly moves into a strong rhythmic background lead by percussion and brass. Bernstein introduces a variation to the western theme with his use of Latin rhythms in the percussion and guitar, which incorporated the Spanish flavor of the American Southwest. Throughout the theme, strings and woodwinds play the melody against the constant and strong background beat

The musical style used by Dimitri Tiomkin influenced others who followed Tiomkin with their own musical compositions written to accompany The Western. Most apparent in the different western movie themes was the constant beat in the background that imitated Native American rhythms.  Also, the use of percussion instruments to give special effects like galloping horses, and incorporating such folk instruments as the guitar, the harmonica, and the whistle into the score produced a unique sound that became associated in the American mind with the music of the American West.  

There is one other song that is almost synonymous with westward immigration and has been incorporated in many western scores—“Shenandoah.”  The song has been around since early America, but there seems to be quite a bit of debate about the origins of the song. One popularly accepted explanation, taken from a 1931 book on sea and river chanteys by David Bone, has the songs origins in Virginia. Bone maintained that, “Oh Shenandoah” originated as a river shanty song and became popular with crews on sea faring vessels in the 1800s, basically a boatman’s song.  Another more feasible explanation is that it originated with Scot-Irish settlers and the lyrics referred to their term of confinement as indentured servants.  “The seven (long) years since I last saw you” was the common term of indenture servitude in early America. Over the years, the song has been known by different titles including, “Shennydore”, “The Wide Missouri”, “Across The Wide Missouri”, “The Wild Missourye”, “The World of Misery”, “Solid Fas”, “Rolling River” and “Oh Shenandoah.”

At any rate, by the 1950s and 60s, “Shenandoah” was solidly anchored in the American music culture. The Kingston Trio wrote their popular version of the song and included it in their albums and concerts.  But, probably the person to reintroduce the song into American music culture was Alfred Newman, who incorporated the song into his score of the epic western, How the West Was Won. 
The listener cannot help but feel the arduous journey westward with such lyrics as, “Away, Bound Away, A Cross the Wide Missouri.” 

 In 2006, Bruce Springsteen released yet another version of Shenandoah on his album, “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.” Springsteen’s arrangement of the song, and the instrumentation, gives the song the “feel” of western migration.  The song opens with the slow and soft chords of the guitar and fiddle.  Gradually the music builds as the accordion and banjo take over. As the introduction continues to build, the banjo player plucks slow distinct chords that give the listener the feel for the rhythm of the river. The music begins to build as Springsteen sings the familiar lyrics. The listener cannot help but feel the energy of the song as Springsteen brings the song to climax and the music begins its fade to the soft chords at the end. What ever the origins of the song may be, Springsteen’s interpretation gives the listener the distinct feeling of pioneer moving west. 

Music is timeless and how one interprets music is an individual experience.  For me, whenever I hear a theme from one of the many westerns of the 1950s and 1960s, I imagine the large landscape and beautiful mountain vistas of Western America. But, the music also relates the conflicts inherent in settling the land. Just as it was all played out on the “big screen,” it was also played out in the musical score that accompanied the action.   


Friday, February 20, 2015

The Transcontinental Railroad's Most Famous and Forgotten Steam Engines by Robert L. Foster

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Robert L. Foster
After the arduous challenge of building a railroad west from Omaha across Wyoming’s vast expanse, the Union Pacific (UP) reached Promontory, Utah Territory, in May 1869. There they met the Chinese workers of the Central Pacific Railroad (CP) who had constructed a rail bed up over the rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains. 
 Reenactment of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific meeting at Promontory Utah.

It was finally time for a huge gala celebration as the two rail lines met each other, completing America’s transcontinental railroad, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. However, that would require UP and CP’s two top officials to be in Promontory to drive the golden spike at rails end as the entire nation anxiously awaited the good news.
Both men, UP’s Thomas C. Durant and CP’s Leland Stanford, were anxious to get to Promontory, taking along with them key members of their construction teams. In Cheyenne Durant hopped aboard the Durant Special and it headed west, and all was well—until typical Wyoming weather swept in and stopped the Durant Special in its tracks at Devil’s Gate where a swollen river had washed away some of the supports of the bridge spanning the river. Durant’s engineer refused to take the Special’s heavy engine across the bridge—but he did consent to nudge the lighter passenger cars across the bridge.  The bridge held, the cars made it across, but Durant and his entourage were left in that desolate Wyoming spot without an engine!  

Durant’s plight was solved when UP Engine 119 was dispatched from Ogden to Devil’s Gate to bring the Durant Special to Promontory. That engine won fame in the national press and in the history books!
The citizens of Cheyenne turned out to see Durant Special off, realizing how very special the railroad was to the growth and development of Wyoming—and remembering that in July, 1868, the UP finally reached a desolate spot in eastern Wyoming. On July 4, John A. Rawlins gave a well-received speech. The next day, a band on Indians sprang on the grading crew and killed three men. Rawlins was astonished to see the Indians attack when there were four companies of U.S. troops camped in the area.
Grenville Dodge heading up the UP had the dead men buried on the site where his new town would be built—and Cheyenne had its first cemetery! 
Cheyenne is where the mountains meet the plains, on the southeastern edge of Wyoming, at an elevation of 6062 feet. It is a natural crossing place. From Cheyenne today, one train track leads west across the state and on to California, another north to Montana and south to Denver; so too the interstate, with I-80 going east-west and I-25 north-south.   There in Cheyenne the last steam engines purchased by the UP are housed. They were made during World War ll and used well into the 1950’s.  The old train depot has been turned into a railroad museum.  Grenville Dodge’s first tent site, from which he decided to build a town, and name it after the dominant tribe, Cheyenne, has a marker on it.
On May 6, 1869, 1150 miles west of Cheyenne, in Sacramento CP’s Leland Stanford and his entourage, aboard the Stanford Special headed east from Sacramento toward Promontory. Stanford’s train was carrying the golden spike which would be used as the final spike on the transcontinental railroad, so it was imperative that the train arrive on time. But fate or destiny again stepped in, as it had at Devil’s Gate, Wyoming, and stopped the Stanford Special in its tracks at Sierra Tunnel #114! The CP section crew had no idea that the Special was coming and they felled a tree right across the tracks! As the Special came around a bend the engineer had barely enough time to apply the brakes. The engine struck the log and was damaged. While Stanford waited impatiently, another engine was sent to pull the Special on to Promontory.  

The engine was called Jupiter and it won national fame and a place in the history books, just as did UP’s Number 119.
 UP’s steam engine, 119 and CP’s Jupiter, which went nose to nose at Promontory, Utah, May 10, 1869, to celebrate the completion of the transcontinental railroad, were very unique pieces of machinery.

            UP’s No. 119 was of the American or eight-wheel type, built by the Rogers Locomotive Works at Paterson, New Jersey, and turned out on November 19, 1868. It headed west, carried as dead freight on another train.  Arriving at Council Bluffs, the engine was ferried across the river by mid-December, and was quickly set up at the Omaha roundhouse, as it was fully assembled.  The engine had small driving wheels of 54-inch diameter, 16x24-inch cylinders, and weighed 68,400 pounds. It was considered a freight engine (whereas the CP Jupiter was considered a passenger engine).  The engineer said “the 119 handles superbly!”  It was a wood and coal burner, equipped with an extended smoke box in which there was an adjustable cinder screen controlled by the fireman by means of a lever extending from the cab. The smokestack was Hudson’s patent straight stack, with a large brass cap on top.  The No. 119 presented a distinct contrast to the CP’s “Jupiter” which seemed larger due to its huge bonnet stack and 60 inch driving wheels.  
            The 119 was selected by sheer happenstance for the historic journey to Promontory—it just happened to be handy!  The crew spent considerable time cleaning and polishing the engine. The brass cap on the smokestack and the brass steam dome casing gleamed in the sunlight in pictures made on that great day at Promontory. 
             CP’s locomotives bore names and numbers from the beginning of construction until 1872. Their names covered the range from towns and cities through which the CP was to run, to such things as animals, birds, constellations and planets in the heavens, famous Americans, and even Greek deities.

The Jupiter, No. 60, was of the American type, with four driving wheels and a four-wheeled pony truck supporting the front end of the locomotive, built by the Schenectady Locomotive Works in September 1868. It was a passenger engine, had driving wheels of 60-inch diameter, cylinders of 16-inch bore and 24-inch stroke, and weighed in at 65,450 pounds, without tender. It burned wood, and the engine was equipped with a huge bonnet smokestack equipped with screens to prevent sparks from setting fire to the countryside. 
            It was shipped from the makers in knocked-down form; such items as the boilers, smokestacks, headlights, cabs, bells, cowcatchers, and other parts were crated to facilitate stowing in the hold of the ship which carried it around the Horn to California. The Jupiter left the factory with its three mates, “Storm No. 61;”  “Whirlwind No. 62”; and “Leviathan No. 63”—but in New York the Jupiter became separated from the others and was loaded on a different ship. The engine arrived in San Francisco the last week of February 1869 after a voyage of 140 days, was transferred at a special dock in San Francisco to a Sacramento River schooner, “The Golden Gate” and arrived in Sacramento on February 26, 1869. The crated locomotive parts were hauled on wagons through the streets to the new 29-stall roundhouse of the CP, where the Jupiter was assembled. 
            On Saturday, March 20, 1869, the Jupiter was put under steam and run up and down a test track on Front Street.  It ran perfectly, and the mechanics responsible for setting up the engine turned it over to the operating department. 
            It seems a shame that Engines 119 and Jupiter were forgotten after their big day at Promontory. It would have been wonderful if they could have been preserved in a covered museum someplace so railroad buffs could see them up close, walk around and marvel at their fascinating history. 
            However, to the presidents of the UP and CP they were just ordinary pieces of machinery, no more important than any other piece of machinery in their systems. After the Promontory ceremony the two locomotives returned to their regular duties and worked for many years before being retired. UP’s No. 119 was renumbered 343 in July 1885 and was rebuilt with larger driving wheels and various other changes and improvements. In April 1903 it was dropped from equipment rolls and scrapped.  At that time President E.H. Harriman was busy consolidating all his railroads into one system and obviously gave no thought to No. 119’s fate; Union Pacific’s motive power officials probably cared even less.
            The CP’s Jupiter soon became just plain old Nr. 60, and the fact the owners had no sentiment whatsoever about the locomotive is seen in its later history.  It was renumbered No. 1195 in 1891 and received a new boiler at Sacramento in 1893, and was immediately sold to the Gila Valley, Globe & Northern Railroad, then under construction north from Bowie, Arizona, on the Southern Pacific, to Globe and Miami. As G.V.G.&N  No. 1, the old Jupiter worked out its days and was scrapped unceremoniously at Globe in 1901.
Tired and worn out, the two old engines UP’s No. 119 and CP’s Jupiter “died” within two years of each other, in the scrap heap, and were forgotten.
            It should be pointed out, in all fairness to the Southern Pacific, that they did preserve an engine similar to the Jupiter, the “Governor Stanford” No. 1, by presenting it to Leland Stanford, Jr., University in 1899, insuring its preservation to this day.  The CP’s third locomotive, the “C.P. Huntington,” was sold to the Southern Pacific in 1871 and became their No. 1 and remains on display at the Railroad Museum in Sacramento.
Locomotive engines UP No. 119 and CP Jupiter, which first met each other 146 years ago when they nosed their cowcatchers together at Promontory, enjoyed their brief moment of fame. Only in recent years have historians brought the two forgotten engines into the prominence they deserve.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Natural Environment and Southwest Architecture: Mary Elizabeth Colter and the Grand Canyon

When President Theodore Roosevelt stood at the rim of the Grand Canyon in 1903, he remarked, “ The ages have been at work upon it, and man can only mar it.” Roosevelt understood that nothing could add to the grandeur of God’s creation, certainly not man or his structures. But it was inevitable as more and more people made their way to the rim of the canyon that enterprising entrepreneurs would alter, or “mar” the pristine canyon environment. Fred Harvey of the Fred Harvey Company was one of the entrepreneurs. His El Tovar Hotel, finished in 1905 at the south rim of the Canyon, is a large European style Swiss Chalet; an architectural style that seems out of place with the background of the colorful canyon.

El Tovar Hotel

Perhaps Harvey realized the European architecture did not represent the Southwestern arid environment that marks the Grand Canyon. When contemplating another structure to attract tourist dollars, he hired Mary Elizabeth Colter to design a gift shop along the rim of the canyon next to the El Tovar. Colter was just beginning her career as an architect; she eventually became known for the way in which she incorporated the historic and natural environment into her designs.

Mary Elizabeth Colter (1869-1958)

Colter, who attended the California School of Design in San Francisco in 1886, was a student of the popular Arts and Crafts Movement, which started in England in the mid-nineteenth century and swept America around the turn of the twentieth century. Adherents of the Arts and Crafts Movement placed more emphasis on traditional craftsmanship than the blandness of industrial manufacturing. Use of materials from the natural environment in their craft was an important element of the movement; Architects followed suit with structures that had a wilderness or natural look and conformed to local and historical culture. Popular with architects was Spanish Mission style, and two of its variants—Mission-Spanish Revival and Pueblo-Spanish Revival. Colter used both these styles in the structures she designed at the rim of the Grand Canyon.

An example of Mission-Spanish Revival: The Alvarado Hotel. Colter designed the interiors.

Fred Harvey was not the first entrepreneur to invest in local tourism. Curious adventurers started to travel to the Grand Canyon in 1880. From then on, a steady flow of individuals arrived at the rim of the canyon after a two-day lurching stagecoach ride from Flagstaff, Arizona.
Tourist on their way to the Grand Canyon

Accommodations were primitive; an old prospector, John Hance, who abandoned mining for what appeared to be a more lucrative business, tourism, offered tent lodging, camp food, and an exciting mule ride down a crude 6000 foot trail he constructed to the bottom of the canyon.
Hance’s Tourist Camp.

John Hance’s Trail to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.(today known as the Red Canyon Trail)

Tourist relaxing along the Colorado River, perhaps rejoicing, that they made it to the bottom of the Canyon on Hance’s crude trail.

By 1901, the first tourists arrived on the Grand Canyon Railroad from Williams, Arizona. The railroad from Williams was a branch line of the Santa Fe.
The 1st passenger train to arrive at the Grand Canyon

In 1901, the officials of the Santa Fe Railroad could see the possibilities of increased tourism and revenues if they built a line from Williams, Arizona to the rim of the Grand Canyon. And, along with increased tourism there was a need for increased services and who better to offer such service than Fred Harvey. Harvey had contracted with the Santa Fe to built “Harvey Houses” along Santa Fe line from Chicago to California. With the new line to the Grand Canyon, Harvey invested in what he did best; build railroad restaurants and hotels that offered upscale food and service to railroad passengers.

When Harvey decided to build gift shops along the rim of the canyon, he hired Mary Colter to design them. The entrepreneur envisioned selling the culture of the Southwest, in particular hand made Native American crafts, and Colter was perfect for the job; he first hired her to design the interior of the Indian room in his newly finished Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque in 1901. With the contract to design structures along the canyon rim, Colter moved from interior designer to architect.

Interior of the Indian Room of the El Alvarado Hotel

The first building Colter designed for Fred Harvey at the Canyon rim was Hopi House; her design had the appearance of an historic housing structure patterned after the ancient native village she visited at Oraibi, Arizona.

Hopi Village at Oraibi Arizona circa 1910

Hopi House was built of local stone and wood, and included terraces, ladders and upper doors as if the building housed the “ancient ones.”

Hopi House 2011

Colter also tried to be as authentic as possible in the interior of Hopi House.
This picture shows the style and authenticity Colter sought in her designs.

Inside Hopi House when finished in design in 1905

Inside Hopi house 2011

Inside Hopi House in 2011. It is not clear if Colter would have included the Native American looking mannequin in her interior design of Hopi House. Today, it is part of the “seeing” of Native American culture. The hand woven rugs in this display are for sale in other areas of gift shop.

Interior of Hopi House. Authentic adobe fireplace next to a showcase of Native American turquoise jewelry.

In keeping with selling the Native American culture to the canyon tourist, members of the Hopi-Pueblo people perform their version of native dances outside Hopi House. On this particular afternoon, a member of the troupe narrated to those watching the dances the significance of the ceremony in Native culture.

In all, from 1904 to 1935, Mary Colter designed five structures on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, and Phantom Ranch, a rustic lodge along the Colorado River at the bottom of the Canyon.

Hermit’s Rest, in 1914:

Colter built Hermit’s Rest at the end of a new road, which extended eight miles west of the El Tovar Hotel. Fred Harvey built the road between 1910 and 1912. When the extension was finished, Harvey wanted a viewing and rest station for those who hiked the trail along the rim. He asked Colter to design the building. In planning her design, Colter had to decide if she would continue the Swiss Chalet style to match the El Tovar or the Pueblo Indian style of her recently completed Hopi house. She decided on something more daring—a structure honoring Louis D. Boucher, a reclusive Canadian, who built a tourist camp in 1890 for those who traveled by horseback to the Grand Canyon.

Lookout Studio 1914:
Also in 1914, Colter designed Lookout Studio, which included a gift shop and a vista for gazing out over the Canyon. Colter used the horizontal rock formation of the cliff on which the studio would be built, and the rock formation of the cliff behind the studio as her inspiration. The studio was constructed from rough-cut Kaibab limestone that matched the upper canyon wall. For viewing, visitors traveled down a series of criss-cross staircases and terraces that descended the perpendicular canyon wall. Colter’s design had a rough look; to make a larger statement, she brought stones or boulders and placed them in several locations around the outside walls, which further gave the appearance of the outside walls blending into the stone cliff. She also brought in native plants and planted them next to the boulders; the same look as visitors would see walking down one of the canyon trails.

Any one walking the canyon rim trail in front of El Tovar would not at first notice the studio it blends in so well with the natural environment.

Lookout studio as seen from in front of El Tovar on the rim trail.

Stone walls also accent the inside of the studio, timber frames the ceiling, an arched stone fireplace decorates an alcove, and a Native American rug decorates the floor.

Phantom Ranch 1922:

In 1922, Harvey asked Colter to design a lodge at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, which she called Phantom Ranch. Colter did not make a historical statement with her design of the “ranch.” The cabin type structure was more utilitarian; it served as a rest stop and overnight stay for those who traveled to the bottom of the canyon on one of several trails. The rest stop is on Bright Angel Creek. One-quarter mile from where the creek flows into the Colorado River.

Phantom Ranch as Colter built it in 1922
Phantom ranch today, several additions since 1922.

Probably one of the most interesting structures that Colter designed is Desert View Watchtower, which she designed in 1932. Colter’s inspiration for the tower came from her visit to Mesa Verde, just northeast of the Grand Canyon in the Four Corners area where Colorado, Utah. Arizona and New Mexico meet. (see preceding blog on Mesa Verde.)

Desert View Watchtower 2011
When Colter visited Mesa Verde in the 1930s, she found a relatively new discovery of cliff dwellings of Native people who vacated the area in around 1300 a.d. Today, many of the ruins have been restored and accessible to visitors. Cliff Palace is probably one of the most spectacular.

Cliff Palace in 2011. In order to see the ruins up close, it is a strenuous hike down and in some area a climb of several 100 ft ladders. What Colter saw that interest her in design was the towers that the “ancient ones” built in Cliff Palace and another cliff dwelling community called Spruce House.

Cliff Palace Tower in the middle resembles Colter’s design of Desert View Watchtower.

Inside the tower visitors can climb stairs to four different levels, each with a view of the Canyon out the widows provided for just such viewing.

Also, at the landing between each floor, Colter continues the Native American theme with furniture and artwork that gives the visitor the feel of the ancient cliff dwellings.
Inside Tower at one of the landing before ascending to the next tower level.

Mary Colter left a legacy in her designs at the rim of the Grand Canyon. Her interest in blending her designs to incorporate the history and environment of a particular area became a standard for National Park structures starting in the New Deal area of the 1930s. A new type of architecture was born that today is called Parkitecture; a visitor to anyone of the National Parks will see buildings made of native stone, lumber and well blended into the environment.

Mary Colter continued her career as an architect, but outside the Grand Canyon. She Worked for Fred Harvey designing interiors and hotels along the Santa Fe line. She continued her Southwestern look in all her designs; The El Navajo in Gallup New Mexico, The Franciscan Hotel in Albuquerque and she designed and decorated shops in Union Station in Chicago, continuing her theme of Native American culture.

Mary Colter was one of the first women architects in American, she died in 1958.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Ancestral Puebloan People of MesaVerde

On a cold wintry December day in 1888, Richard Wetherill and his brother-in-law, Charlie Mason, cowboys from the Alamo ranch in Southwestern Colorado, spent most of their afternoon rounding up strays on the high mesas and steep canyons above their winter camp on the Mancos River. The going was tough and blowing snow made hard work of finding their cattle. As they rested their horses on the edge of a mesa, they saw at the far side of the canyon a complex of stone buildings built under a large outcropping of rock. Under this protective rock overhang was a village of houses, towers, and kivas, all strung together like a huge apartment complex. The cowboys named the location Cliff Palace. Years later, Charlie Mason described their discovery, “From the rim of the canon we had our first view of Cliff Palace…. To me this is the grandest view of all among the ancient ruins of the Southwest. We rode around the head of the canon and found a way down over the cliffs to the level of the building. We spent several hours going from room to room and picked up several articles of interest, among them a stone axe with the handle still on it.”

Cliff Palace as seen by Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason in 1888.

Debris field around structures.

Cliff Palace 2011

Diagram of structures at Cliff Palace

No one knows for sure who constructed, with such skill, a community of buildings high up on the side of a canyon wall; buildings that have survived the harsh elements of the mesa country for over a 1000 years. Anthropologists and historians refer to the people as hunters gathers, basket makers, cliff dwellers, Anasazi, (Navajo for “ancient ones) or more formally, or Ancestral Puebloan People. All that is known about them is found in the ruins of their cliff dwellings. (The Anasazi occupied a large area of mesa and canyon lands known today as the four corners, where Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico meet.)

After the Cowboys discovered Cliff Palace, they used their winter camp in the Mancos Valley as a base from which to explore the canyon close to their initial discovery (later to be called Cliff Canyon).

The mesa above Cliff Canyon. From this vantage point, the cowboys looked across to the ancient ruins.

Over the next two months, Wetherill, Mason and cowboys from the Alamo ranch dug through the ruins collecting artifacts, some of which they sold to a museum in Denver for $3000.00. (The artifacts helped launch the newly established Denver Historical Society museum) Other artifacts were kept in a barn on the Alamo ranch.

Below are some of the artifacts found by the cowboys from the Alamo Ranch.

Baskets made from the fiber of the yucca plant. The Yucca plant served many purposes in the Ancestral Puebloan culture.

Clay bowls with a distinctive design.

Regardless of the monetary value of the artifacts in the ruins, the Wetherills, owners of the Alamo Ranch, understood the archaeological and historical value the ruins had to Colorado and to the nation. Richard Wetherill wrote to the directors of the Smithsonian and Harvard’s Peabody Museum requesting that these institutions sponsor him and his brothers or at least send their own specialists to work with them to excavate the cliff dwellings. Neither museum offered financial assistance or a team of professionals to help in excavating the ruins. Without outside help, the ruins would continue their march into obscurity; the Wetherills could not take the time away from ranching to explore further the ruins of Cliff Canyon. Not until Gustaf Nordenskiold from Sweden, an adventurer of sorts, heard about the cliff dwellings in the American Southwest, did Cliff Canyon and the Anasazi people get attention from the scientific community. In 1891, Nordenskiold made the long journey to America, crossed the continent on the newly established Santa Fe line to Durango, and forty miles by buggy to the Alamo ranch to meet with the Wetherill family. The family introduced Nordenskiold to the Cliff Dwellings, all of which were which named by the Wetherill family. The most impressive of the dwelling complex being Cliff Palace, Spruce Tree House, Square Tower House, Mug House and Sandal House. In all, the Wetherills counted 182 cliff dwellings. Today, the count is 600. After spending several years exploring the cliff dwellings and its artifacts, Nordenskiold wrote The Cliff Dwellers of the Mesa Verde, where he detailed each dwelling and the artifacts found at the different locations.
Spruce Tree House

Inside ruin of Spruce Tree House as discovered by the Witherills and Gustaf Nordenskiold

Spruce tree house 2011

Spruce Tree House 2011

Typically, in each of the complexes, small rooms were built around a kiva; some rooms had access to the kiva by tunnels. They also constructed a small opening adjunct to the kiva called a sipapu, which symbolized the entrance to the underworld or mother earth. In most kivas there are stone benches, and an area that appears to be a fire pit. There are different theories on the use of the kiva. The most popular thought is that the round recessed circular room was used for religious purposes, and most likely as a place for social gatherings. At Cliff House complex, there are 23 kivas.
There are also areas in the dwelling complex, where grain was ground in order to make flour that they used for multiple food preparations.

Also found on the mesa above Cliff Canyon were the ruins of villages, perhaps occupied by the ancestors of those who built the cliff dwellings. Archaeologists believe that the first people to occupy Mesa Verde did so around 2000 years ago. Anthropologists call these early people the basket weavers. These people lived in caves, but eventually by 750 A.D. moved into pithouses, a below ground system of housing around a kiva. The mesa environment was ideal for farming and there was enough moisture at the higher elevation of 8000 ft. to sustain agriculture. The Basket weavers mastered farming to where they had an expanded food supply and an increase in population. The people also began making crude pottery and developed the technique of crafting bows and arrows. By 1000 A.D. the basket weavers moved out of the below ground pithouses to above ground constructions made of pole and adobe. In this era, anthropologists refer to the above ground builders as the Anasazi, who improved building techniques by taking advantage of the natural environment that had an abundance of sandstone rock, which was easily cut into stone to build houses. The Anasazi became skilled masons, crafting each stone to an equal size to construct walls of their structures. They experimented with natural resources to develop mortar made out of sand, small gravel and ash. (This strong mortar can be seen in the ruins of Mesa Verde today.)

Far View Site, above ground village ruins at Far View site, Mesa Verde National Park

Far View Site.

The Kiva was important in the construction of the below ground pithouse. When they move to above ground living, the kiva became the only below ground element of their culture that transferred to Ancestral Puebloan culture.


Drying racks line the walls of the kiva at the Far View Site, which indicates multiple uses of this kiva.

Agriculture land was on the top of the mesas. Archeologists are still trying to determine the canal system that ran from the reservoir in the picture below to the farming fields.

The National Park Service designation this reservoir, along with four others in Mesa Verde as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. The water management system developed by the Anasazi people is one of the oldest engineered public works in the United States.

The Anasazi people grew three staple crops--corn, beans and squash all in the same field. The tall corn became a pole or sorts for the beans and the shade from the tall corn stalks protected the squash. They over produced, storing grain for the years of drought when rain or snow was not plentiful enough to sustain a crop.

The golden age of the Anasazi was between 1100-1300 AD. During this period they constructed houses with larger rooms, more complex attached buildings that could accommodate 1000 people. Their villages were spread out over many miles stretching across the mesas. During this era, the Anasazi demonstrated improved craftsmanship in masonry, pottery, weaving and jewelry. The evidence seems to indicate that all was well with the people who thrived on the mesa tops, but then they abandoned their above ground life to return to the caves and started engineering buildings along the cliffs. They used the same techniques that they mastered on the mesa tops; stone masonry buildings that fit under the rock umbrella perturbing out from the canyon walls.

Archaeologists and historians do not know why the Anasazi people left their prosperous villages and sought shelter along the canyon walls. One plausible explanation is that the canyons offered a defensible and secure location. Climate may also have been a reason for the move. Winter could be harsh on the mesa tops; the cliff dwellings offered a warmer environment.

Note the black soot on the back wall of the canyon. They constructed most of the structures with at least 3 to 4 ft. clearance from the wall. Evidence shows that they built their fires behind these structures. With small openings at the back of their rooms, the heat from the fires would penetrate their living quarters giving them a warmer environment.

The cliff dwellers still farmed on the mesas above and near some of their dwelling under the rock outcropping. At Spruce House complex, there is also a spring at the bottom of the canyon, which offered a water supply.

The inhabitants of the cliff dwellings only stayed under the protective rock for a couple of generations. By 1300, they were gone from the mesa. It is not known where the people migrated to, but most recent scholarship indicates that they are the ancestors of the Pueblo people. The most logical reason for their migration south would be climate change. A drought settled over the mesa region from 1272 to 1299, a long time to go with out a reliable food source. Also, years of farming on the mesa would have depleted the soil of nutrients to successfully grow crops and deforesting the land would cause erosion; the people had to move on to new fresh land where there was ample moisture to sustain life and agriculture. It is most probable that the hunter gathers, the Basket weavers, the Cliff Dwellers and the Anasazi people are the ancestors of the Pueblo people, who today live in the American Southwest.