Though Native Americans have been gathering at Rainbow Bridge for at least 10,000 years, it's only been a century since the stone bridge along the Utah-Arizona border has been recognized as a national monument.
On Sunday, May 30, the centennial of the monument will be marked by the National Park Service. The occasion of the commemoration affords an opportunity to examine the rich heritage and cultural and natural history of this iconic image of the American
Precisely when the first human being stood in awe of Rainbow Bridge might never be known, but it is likely that the peoples of the Southwest have been interacting with the bridge for at least 10,000 years, according to Chuck Smith, the district ranger assigned to the monument. Five contemporary tribes or nations claim Rainbow Bridge as a site that is integral to their heritage and cultural identity, and the lineage of these groups tracks back through time to this distant point, notes Ranger Smith.
Here, as told by Ranger Smith, is a look at the "recent" history of the monument:
What has been established is a clear story of the Anglo discovery of Rainbow Bridge. The story begins in 1907 with word from a local Navajo man of a colossal natural bridge near the Colorado River below Navajo Mountain. This information eventually reached and intrigued Byron Cummings, a University of Utah dean and professor who was even then petitioning for the establishment of Utah’s first national monument, Natural Bridges, in 1908.
Collaborating with federal surveyor William Douglass, Cummings organized an exploration party that included himself, Douglass, a local trader and guide named John Wetherill, a Paiute guide named Nasja Begay, and a Ute Mountain Ute guide named Jim Mike. Eight other men from both the University of Utah and Douglass’ group took part in the expedition.
What lay ahead for these men, who possessed remarkable grit and determination, was a four-and-a-half day pack train sojourn through the rugged, hot wilderness of Arizona and Utah en route to the purported bridge. Their search was not in vain, for shortly before noon, August 14, 1909, Cummings rounded a bend in Bridge Canyon and blurted out: “Eureka, there she is.”
The struggles and challenges the Douglas/Cummings discovery party would endure assured the proclamation of Rainbow Bridge National Monument 8 ½ months later. Although their lofty goal was to have this colossal bridge set aside as a national monument, if it did indeed exist, their saga doesn’t come close to telling the whole story of how Rainbow Bridge in far southern Utah received protected status.
The early 20th century marked a period of excitement for people concerned about preservation of the nation’s cultural and natural resources. In that conservation conscious environment, the idea of sustained support for preserving our national treasures resonated well with public opinion. In 1906, Congress passed the Antiquities Act. The Act’s creators saw to it that the Act went beyond saving Antiquities from plunder but further gave the President the authority to proclaim historic landmarks, prehistoric structures, and objects of scientific interest as national monuments.
Several bureaus or agencies collaborated, compromised, bickered, and fought over not only what would qualify sites for protected status but then further, who would preside over these newly established National Monuments. The word scientific was carefully selected then fought for and provided greater latitude for the pen of the President.
The first national monument, Devils Tower in Wyoming, was proclaimed by Theodore Roosevelt on September 24, 1906. Byron Cummings and William Douglas new well the value of the Antiquities Act having surveyed the area of Natural Bridges in 1907 which subsequently, due to their efforts, received National Monument status the following year; Utah’s first national monument. By the end of 1908, Roosevelt had declared another sixteen monuments, including Gila Cliff Dwellings and Grand Canyon.
On May 30, 1910, due to its value as a “scientific example of eccentric stream erosion” President William Howard Taft signed the Proclamation which designated the 160-acre Rainbow Bridge National Monument. The presidential authority granted by the Antiquities Act does not come easy or without controversy, however almost every president since, has found reason to invoke the Antiquities Act to protect important cultural and natural resources.
Perhaps no other unit of the National Park System was once so remote and inaccessible, only to become so very easily reached via the waters of Lake Powell. This accessibility, although welcome, magnifies the importance of preserving Rainbow Bridge and its many stories for future generations of visitors.
National Park Service staff and partners are hosting a series of events to commemorate the bridge’s 100th anniversary. The centennial provides an opportunity to tell the stories of some of the early explorers, many of whom left eloquent descriptions of their encounter with Rainbow Bridge and of life along the trail. It is also a time to explore the spiritual and cultural significance of Rainbow Bridge.
For a list of upcoming events and activities, periodically check the Rainbow Bridge website, www.nps.gov/rabr, for updates.