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What is Wheeler National Monument?

Some years ago, while perusing Butcher's old Exploring our National Parks and Monuments, my eye was drawn to a small spot on the map of Colorado. Closer inspection revealed that this spot corresponded to Wheeler National Monument, in Mineral County (on the border with Saguache County), not far north of the Rio Grande. Butcher offers a photograph of an erosion landscape (a little reminiscent of Cedar Breaks, or Bryce Canyon). I quote Butcher (143-146):

Wheeler National Monument, located in the La Garita Mountains of southern Colorado, comprises a half square mile of volcanic remains and unusual erosion. It was established in 1908 and named in honor of Captain George Wheeler, U.S. Engineers, who in 1874 explored this part of Colorado under the direction of the War Department. The area contains fantastic pinnacles and is cut with a mass of gorges. Its eroded mass of gray, brown, and black basalt overlying a stratum of volcanic ash presents spectacular scenic beauty enhanced by dense forests of Engelmann spruce mixed with alpine fir. At 11,000 feet above sea level, near the crest of the mountains, the reservation is surrounded by the Rio Grande National Forest. . . .

The monument is under the care of the regional director, Region Three, National Park Service, Santa Fe, New Mexico. There is no road to the monument. . . . The monument is open in summer, but opening and closing dates depend on snow conditions.

The "Old and Sold" website has this blurb ("Originally published early 1900's"):

High under the Continental Divide in southwestern Colorado near Creede, a valley of high altitude, grotesquely eroded in tufa, rhyolite, and other volcanic rock, is named the Wheeler National Monument in honor of Captain George Montague Wheeler, who conducted geographical explorations between 1869 and 1879. Its deep canyons are bordered by lofty pinnacles of rock. It is believed that General John C. Fremont here met the disaster which drove back his exploring-party of 1848, fragments of harness and camp equipment and skeletons of mules having been found.

The mystery of Wheeler.

At the time, I was visiting all the National Parks and Monuments I could get to, and curiously, Wheeler was not listed in any of my recent literature and guidebooks, nor will you find it in (e.g.) AAA atlases of the last 15 years or so. I found it in the Colorado map of the early 1940s Rand McNally World Atlas (I infer that its maps of the US were drawn up in or before 1941 from internal evidence), but strangely, it is not to be found in Yard's National Parks Portfolio of 1931--not even in the systemwide map. (Yard worked for the National Park Service, while Butcher worked for the National Parks Association)

What had happened to Wheeler? It was clearly not run under the auspices of the National Park Service anymore. Did it revert to being merely a part of the Rio Grande National Forest? Was it too inaccessible for the average traveler to make Park Service upkeep worthwhile? Was it abandoned as a cost-cutting move?

Mystery solved!

Now, at last, more than 15 years later, I've found the answers on the web, at the GORP site. Wheeler was declared a National Monument on December 7, 1908 by Theodore Roosevelt. Plans to develop the monument fell through because of the difficulty of building roads. The number of visitors was estimated at a paltry 100 per year. Because the monument was on National Forest land, the Forest Service maintained the area, which only came under the National Park Service under Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 (hence the monument's absence in Yard's otherwise authoritative book).

The National Park Service apparently did not do much to keep the place clean, and by the 1940s it was attracting official censure. The Regional Superintendant visited and was moved to take measures to return Wheeler to the Rio Grande National Forest; this was done on August 3, 1950. The 1960s brought logging activity to the area with unsystematic and unpremeditated--but still chronic--damage to the landscape and site. The former monument was put off limits to wheeled travel and then designated a Geological Area in 1969. A later move to transfer Wheeler to the nearby La Garita Wilderness Area was stillborn.

 


Bibliography.

Butcher, Devereux. 1947. Exploring our National Parks and Monuments. Oxford University Press, New York.
Editors of the Rand McNally Company. 1946. Rand McNally World Atlas. Readers Edition. Rand McNally, New York.
GORP website: http://gorp.away.com/gorp/resource/us_national_forest/co/see_rio1.htm (the detailed history of Wheeler is heavily indebted to this discussion).
GORP map: http://gorp.away.com/gorp/resource/us_national_forest/co/map_rio.htm.
Old and Sold Antiques Auction and Marketplace: http://www.oldandsold.com/articles14/national-parks-94.shtml.
Maps, history, and photos: www.trails.com/FreeEtrails/BGR041-030.pdf.
Roosevelt, Theodore. 1908. Public proclamation page 1 and page 2
Yard, Robert Sterling. 1931. The National Parks Portfolio. 6th ed., rev. Isabelle F. Story. US GPO, Washington.

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