Zion’s earlier days: Interesting tales of contributors to Zion’s status as a national park

Tichnor Brothers postcard of Zion National Park, circa 1930-1945 | Public domain, St. George News

FEATURE — Renowned explorer and mapper John Wesley Powell originally gave Zion Canyon the name “Mukuntuweap.” It is believed to be a Paiute word meaning “straight canyon.” Its time under that moniker was short, however, as many felt Mukuntuweap was too hard to pronounce and spell. In 1918, the name was changed to Zion to reflect what the original settlers called the area, “Little Zion.” A Hebrew name which means “place of refuge,” or “sanctuary.”

There were a few people in the early 20th century that made a big impact on Zion National Park, but there are many who are unfamiliar with their contributions.

The tale of two Fredericks

Two men named Frederick had a lot to do with Zion gaining its notoriety.

Frederick Dellenbaugh, a member of Powell’s expeditions down the Green and Colorado Rivers in the late 1860s and early 1870s, became one of the significant figures in literally putting Zion on the map, reaching national monument status in 1909 and then national park status in 1919.

Dellenbaugh spent the summer of 1903 in Zion writing about and painting its splendor. His 17-page article in the January 1904 issue of ‘Scribner’s Magazine’ introduced hundreds of thousands of readers to the beauty, mystery and awe of Zion Canyon, and the paintings he created after visiting the canyon were some of the first full-color expressions of the place seen by thousands of visitors at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Zion National Park Forever Project Executive Director Lyman Hafen said. 

This historic photo shows the Great White Throne as it looked early last century, Zion National Park, Utah, early 20th century | Photo courtesy of Southern Utah University Special Collections, St. George News

At that time, Hafen said most people had not been introduced to the exquisite color of Zion Canyon because most mass media images of the time were black and white.

“Dellenbaugh’s words and images came together at a key time to help introduce the world to a place that would subsequently become a national monument and then a national park,” Hafen said.

In 2007, the Zion Natural History Association (now known as the Zion National Park Forever Project) became aware of a vintage Zion painting by Dellengaugh that was going on sale at an antique auction near Knoxville, Tennessee.

Thankfully, in a matter of days, Zion’s nonprofit partner was able to secure funding through the George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Foundation to make the winning bid and bring that 1904 painting back to Zion, more than a century later. The painting is believed to have been one of Dellenbaugh’s entries in the 1904 World’s Fair.

“People often assume that the Biblical names of so many of Zion’s iconic features were given by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Hafen said. “While it’s true that some of them do come from the Book of Mormon, and were obviously given by the Latter-day Saint settlers of the canyon in the last half of the 1800s, many of the familiar names were given by the Methodist minister Frederick Vining Fisher.”

In September 1916, two young Latter-day Saint boys accompanied Fisher, from Ogden, up Zion Canyon. The group named several of its most striking landmarks, monikers by which they are known still today. 

Zion Lead Interpretive Ranger Mike Large said the group, “kind of made a game out of naming them.”

Large noted that Fisher was a huge advocate of national parks, “had friends in high places,” and did lectures with slides around the country spreading the national park gospel. Given that, it was no surprise he was in Zion at the right time to make such an impact.

“When the reverend first encountered what he would name the Great White Throne, he said, ‘It is by all odds America’s masterpiece… I have looked for this mountain all my life but never expected to find it in this world,’” Hafen said.

Large explained that the Great White Throne name is in reference to the book of Revelation in the New Testament which talks about judgment day, saying that God would be seated on a throne when that time comes. 

Many give credit to one of the boys, Claud Hirschi, for naming the Three Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Fisher gets credit for naming The Great Organ (now just “The Organ”), The Sentinel and Altar of Sacrifice.

Fisher is credited with naming Angels Landing, which stands on the opposite side of the canyon from The Great White Throne. J.L. Crawford, in his book “Zion Album: A Nostalgic History of Zion Canyon,” wrote that Fisher felt that “the angels would never land on the Throne, but would reverently pause at the foot.”

Early on, several of the park’s most prominent features bore directional names, such as North Mountain, or names reflecting prominent early settlers who owned land nearby. For instance, Bridge Mountain, so named because of a natural arch on its face, was known as Crawford Mountain for the owner of the former farm at its base. Similarly, The Watchman (whose name is also attributed to Fisher) was known as Flanigan’s Peak for the family that owned the farm at its foot.

West Temple, the park’s highest point, was named by Clarence Dutton, another member of John Wesley Powell’s river exploring parties. However, to old-timers, it will always be “Steamboat Mountain.”

Isadora “Dora” Montague dangles off the side of a cliff to sketch the landscape before her in Zion Canyon National Park, Southern Utah, May 1920 | Photo courtesy of Melissa Clark, provided by SUU Outdoor Education Series, St. George News

Six college girls “open” Zion National Park

President Woodrow Wilson signed the legislation creating Zion National Park on Nov. 19, 1919, but the new park was closed to the public at the time after a year in which only 1,814 visitors saw the park. 

The Union Pacific Railroad could foresee this new park as a major tourist draw and wanted to be on the ground floor when it came to tourist development within its boundaries. As such, the company wanted to make the park’s opening after achieving national park status a media event.

One initial idea was to stage a theatrical pageant, but later, Eyre Powell, with the blessing of railroad official Dan Spencer, thought of transporting a group of tourists for the opening of the 1920 season and publicizing it far and wide.

To help select the lucky tourists for the all-expense-paid excursion into the new national park, Powell enlisted Chauncey Parry, who, with his brother, ran the auto stage to and from Zion at the time.

“Who better to sell beautiful scenery than a pretty young face,” John and Melissa Clark wrote in their book “Opening Zion: A Scrapbook of the National Park’s First Official Tourists.” Powell and Parry decided that a group of college-age girls plucked from the University of Utah would be wonderful choice to go on the excursion, they wrote. 

One of the lucky girls chosen was Anna Widstoe, daughter of University of Utah President John Widstoe, who would later become an apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The young Widstoe was enthusiastic about the proposition, writing in her journal that it would be, “oodles of fun, free for just the privilege of taking pictures,” as quoted in the Clarks’ book.

The other girls from the university were members of the Chi Omega sorority, including: “Melba Dunyon, a skilled musician . . . and Mildred Gerrard, who wasn’t considered the adventurous type,” the Clarks wrote. Also chosen was Isadora “Dora” Montague, who was the adventurous type and served in the Navy as well as Nell Creer. Montague was chosen to replace a girl who was originally chosen but landed a leading role in a play and decided to forego the trip.

The last girl chosen was not college-aged: 14-year-0ld Catherine Levering, who was from Salt Lake City but had been living in Los Angeles to study as a musician and a dancer. 

The five girls boarded the train on May 8 with what Widstoe called their “canyon togs,” which consisted of army pants, golf stockings rolled to just below the knee, high boots, university sweaters and caps. After they boarded the train on May 8, 1920, the girls met their chaperone, Stella Peterson, the wife of railroad agent Alfred Peterson. Apparently, Peterson’s marching orders were to nip any beginnings of romance in the bud. Not surprisingly, Widstoe called Peterson the “nipper,” the Clarks wrote. Powell, the publicist, led the excursion.

The train stopped at Lund, Utah (33.5 miles northwest of Cedar City) where the “exploresses,” as Powell called them, boarded automobiles that would take them first to Cedar City for lunch, and then to Zion via what was then known as the Arrowhead Trail, the main highway between Salt Lake and Los Angeles referred to as the “Zion Park Highway” on locally-produced maps.

When they entered the park, the girls were in awe.

“Zion Park is a beautiful world of its own,” Montague recorded of her first glimpse of its scenery. “It has its own wonderfully constructed temples and castles; its own altars and crowned kings . . . it makes one wonder if anything vile or criminal could ever happen in its surroundings. One can think only beautiful thoughts amid such splendor.”

The group lodged in what was known as Camp Wylie, the precursor to Zion Lodge. It was here that the girls took most of their meals, all paid in full by the railroad.

This historic photo shows the arch on Bridge Mountain, for which it is named. The six college girls explored this area on their excursion for the Union Pacific in 1920, Zion National Park, Utah, early 20th century | Photo courtesy of Southern Utah University Special Collections, St. George News

Their trip would have been a dream for today’s visitors. Since they were there before the park’s official opening, they had it practically to themselves aside from a few visiting dignitaries and artists. They explored a variety of places, including locales well-trafficked by today’s visitors such as Weeping Rock and Emerald Pools. However, they also ventured to more difficult-to-reach places that are no longer accessible to the public such as the Native American ruins in Parunuweap Canyon, 200 feet above the canyon floor. 

The group enjoyed their time riding through the river on horses, which they called “four-legged ferries,” the Clarks noted. The trip also featured several shenanigans, such as short sheeting beds and stealing Powell’s cigar, among others. 

Though the bulk of the trip was tranquil, there were some close calls such as when Creer, who grew up on a ranch, rescued a guide who had fallen in the raging river. Another rescue took place when Levering was stuck on a “lonely crag” while exploring a cliff dwelling, the Clark’s wrote.

On May 15, 1920, their last full day in the park, the girls had the privilege of opening the plain wooden gate at the park’s entrance, signalling the beginning of its first tourist season as a national park.

“No tight skirts hindered them as they clambered for they were in knickerbockers of the most practical outing cut and they wore stout little hobnailed boots that they kicked against the boards as they gazed at the spectacle about them,” a Salt Lake Herald story about the event reported. 

When the girls arrived home, the Deseret Evening News asked them how they enjoyed the trip to which they replied that they had the time of their lives, the Clarks wrote.

For the Union Pacific, the publicity stunt worked. Stories about the girls’ exploits appeared far and wide, most prominently in Salt Lake and Los Angeles newspapers, as well as the New York Times and even as far away as London.

For a photo gallery of these six girls’ excursion, visit the following link.

This historic photo shows early Zion tourists exploring the Weeping Rock area, Zion National Park, Utah, early 20th century | Photo courtesy of Southern Utah University Special Collections, St. George News

Zion National Park dedication ceremony 

Though it had been a national park for almost ten months, Zion’s dedication ceremony did not take place until Sept. 15, 1920. Stephen Mather, who Large said became a staunch advocate of Zion, presided at the event.

Andrew Karl Larson, author of “I Was Called to Dixie” described his experience at the event as a member of the Dixie College Band in an article originally published in the Utah State Historical Quarterly at Zion’s 50th anniversary reprinted in the compilation book “A Zion Canyon Reader.”

Larson recalled riding from St. George to Zion with his fellow band members in a crowded Model T Ford. The trip took four hours because they regularly had to stop to pour water in the “steaming radiator and to clean fouled spark plugs.” After the grueling ride, Larson remarked that their navy blue coats “were well covered with dust” and they had to dust themselves off and tune their instruments when they arrived.

Larson was in awe at the number of “bigwigs” at the ceremony, including Mather, U.S. Senator Reed Smoot, Salt Lake City Mayor C. Clarence Neslen and Heber J. Grant, President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, among other Union Pacific representatives and cameramen there to record the event.

“Altogether it was a gathering of official brass – religious, civic and business – the like of which had never been assembled in Washington County,” Larson remarked, saying it was the biggest event in Utah’s Dixie since the dedication of the St. George Temple in 1877.

There were ten speakers at the event, “most of them stressing the theme of good roads,” with musical numbers in between, Larson noted. 

Mather’s words of dedication are those that were most remembered.

“This day we shall long remember,” Mather said at the dedication. “Today is the christening day of a most wondrous child born of God and Nature – a child of such ethereal beauty that man stands enthralled in her presence. . . . It yet remains for man this day to be thy godfather, to keep and cherish thee forever as one of the beauteous things of the earth and christen thee – Zion National Park.”

“They spoke of Zion’s past, pledged support for its development, and foretold its future, perhaps unaware of just how quickly interest in the new national park would grow,” the Clarks noted of the orators at the ceremony.

In the 1920 season, 3,692 visitors entered the park. A decade later, more than 55,000 visited and in 1940 the visitorship reached 160,000. In 2018, over 4.3 million visited the park.

A view of Zion’s monoliths near Canyon Junction is shrouded by clouds, Zion National Park, March 23, 2018 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

About the series “Days”

“Days” is a series of stories about people and places, industry and history in and surrounding the region of southwestern Utah.

“I write stories to help residents of southwestern Utah enjoy the region’s history as much as its scenery,” St. George News contributor Reuben Wadsworth said.

To keep up on Wadsworth’s adventures, “like” his author Facebook page or follow his Instagram account.

Wadsworth has also released a book compilation of many of the historical features written about Washington County as well as a second volume containing stories about other places in Southern Utah, Northern Arizona and Southern Nevada.

Read more: See all of the features in the “Days” series

Click on photo to enlarge it, then use your left-right arrow keys to cycle through the gallery.

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