True Tales From the National Parks: Get Me Off Devils Tower!

George Hopkins was lucky to survive his stunt of parachuting onto the top of Devils Tower in 1941 shortly before the United States entered World War II. NPS photo.

Editor's note: Down through the decades the national parks have made the headlines of the country's papers more than a few times. Devils Tower National Monument received its 15 minutes of fame in 1941 when a daredevil parachuted onto the rock monolith, only to find his planned descent derailed. National Park Service historian Ray H. Mattison recounted George Hopkins' encounter with the tower in 1955 with the following report.

In the fall of 1941 the Tower made the headlines of the Nation's leading newspapers. This was brought about through the fool-hardy stunt of a professional parachutist named George Hopkins. Without the consent or knowledge of National Park Service officials, Hopkins, who held a number of United States and world's records for spectacular jumps, on October 1 parachuted from an airplane to the top of the Tower. His plan was to make his descent by means of a one-half inch 1,000-foot rope which was dropped from the plane.

Unfortunately, this rope landed on the side of the Tower and Hopkins was unable to get it. The Park Service was confronted with a serious problem, and newspapers throughout the country made the most of the predicament. Telegrams and letters offering advice on how to rescue Hopkins came from all over the United States. Meanwhile, food and blankets were dropped to him while Service officials considered how to get the man down from the giant formation.

After weighing carefully various methods, the Service, on October 3, decided to accept the offer of Jack Durrance, a student at Dartmouth College, skier and mountain climber who had led the second mountain-climbing ascent of the Tower in 1938, to lead the rescue party. More food, water, and blankets were dropped to Hopkins and assurances were given him that help was coming. Advice and offers of assistance continued.

The Goodyear Company offered to loan the use of a blimp to effect the rescue. The Navy offered the use of a helicopter. Bad weather, meanwhile, grounded Durrance's plane, so the mountain climber had to travel to Denver by train. On October 5, Durrance and his party arrived at the monument. Working closely with Service officials, they laid out a safe climbing route for rescue operations. On the following day, Durrance led seven other climbers to the summit of the tower where they found Hopkins who, in spite of his ordeal, was in excellent physical condition and in good spirits. The descent was made with little difficulty. The stranded stunt man and the rescue operations which received wide publicity attracted many spectators from all parts of the Nation. During the six-day period, some 7,000 visitors came to the monument to see him and witness rescue operations.

Within a few months following the Hopkins episode, the United States entered World War II. Travel to the National Park Service areas, except by members of the Armed Forces, was not encouraged. Personnel, as well as appropriations, needed to maintain the areas, were reduced to a minimum. Gas and tire rationing, together with reduced vacation time resulting from the War effort, was soon to be reflected in reduced travel figures. In 1942 the visitors at the monument numbered 20,874 in 1943, 5,114; 1944, 6,024; 1945, 7,315.

Comments

I had no idea that climbing Devil's Tower was a rock climbing expedition. That means they must have flown everything to the top by helicopter to film "Close Encounter of the 3rd kind".

Actually, rock climbing is fairly big at Devils Tower. It, too, is on my to-do list...

Maybe it's just too simple an idea, but if they were able to drop food and blankets, why wouldn't they also be able to drop another rope like his original plan?

I wonder what was the 1941 equivalent of today's "D'oh!"?

I thought the same, ypw. Or even more simple and possibly wrong...if the Navy offered used of a helicopter, why wasn't he immediately offered an evacuation that way?

I spent the summer working at a maritime museum here on Lake Superior, and one of the tidbits I picked up was that the first helo rescue on the Lakes wasn't till the early 50's, so perhaps their helicopter wasn't the same as helicopters today, and those evacuations weren't possible.

Seems the story is a little off. According to the 10/13/41 Time magazine the rope was recovered by Hopkins but he lost his nerve:

While a crowd held its breath and stared, Hopkins tried to lower himself on a length of rope which had been dropped to him from an airplane. When his foot slipped, he clambered fearfully back. The rope was too short, anyhow.

Read more: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,766204,00.html#ixzz0WNAp5oPo

The second rope that was dropped to Mr Hopkins was severely knotted & because of the very bad weather, became part frozen. He definitely needed a guiding hand to climb down as the longer he was up there, the weaker he became. I don't think in the end it was worth the $50 he earn't from making a bet that he would parachute onto The Devils Tower...