For ages, Walnut Canyon has served as a time capsule into the past, revealing the life story of inhabitants ranging from prehistoric marine creatures to more modern cliff-dwelling humans. In 2015, today’s stewards of the site celebrate this geological, archaeological and historic heritage with a number of activities. These are highlighted by two different centennial celebrations that involve rededicating a weathered plaque and bringing President Woodrow Wilson back from the past to commemorate his designation of Walnut Canyon as a national monument. At the same time, officials will be designing new exhibits that tell the stories of not only the people who lived here, but later generations who toured and marveled at the steep cliffs and treasures they contained.
On July 14, Walnut Canyon officials will join with members of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) to rededicate a plaque originally installed near Walnut Canyon on that date in 1915. The original placement was a result of efforts by the DAR, a group formed in 1890 to celebrate historic preservation, education and patriotism.
Susan Olberding, a DAR member and local historian, explained, “In 1915 there was a movement within the DAR to celebrate pioneer women and also celebrate the building of national roads.” The DAR sponsored the development of the National Old Trails Road, a transcontinental highway that would allow travelers in private automobiles to easily drive across the country. Part of this sponsorship included erection of one monument in each state through which the road passed.
The DAR, spurred on by Flagstaff priest Cyprian Vabre, advocated for the road to pass through Flagstaff, rather than a more southern route through Phoenix, because the area featured remarkable historic and cultural resources for travelers to see.
These efforts paid off and in 1913, the National Old Trails Road Association decided on the northern route and built the road that would later pave the way for Route 66 and Interstate 40. In celebration, the DAR decided to place Arizona’s plaque not only in Northern Arizona, but adjacent to where it passed by Walnut Canyon. On July 14, 1915, the DAR hosted a ceremony and unveiled a bronze plaque that celebrated both the road and the spirit of pioneering women. Governor Hunt and other government officials joined several hundred local residents in the event.
For the ceremony on July 14, 2015, the plaque will be moved back to its original location near the historic Ranger Cabin. According to Gwenn Gallenstein, museum curator for the Flagstaff Area National Monuments (Sunset Crater Volcano, Walnut Canyon and Wupatki National Monuments), “We plan to have a tent set up with chairs and a podium oriented to where we place the DAR plaque. We’ll have a program of speakers from the park and DAR to talk about the National Old Trails Highway and the plaque itself.”
The DAR plaque placement next to Walnut Canyon in 1915 had given the site credibility as an attraction and brought added focus to its need for proper preservation. Shortly after the DAR ceremony, officials began devising a plan to preserve Walnut Canyon by making it a national monument. On July 21, 1915, Assistant District Forester Frank Pooler proposed the “Cliffs National Monument” to Coconino National Forest Supervisor John Guthrie. Guthrie supported the idea but changed the name to Walnut Canyon to avoid confusion with a nearby, short-lived community called Cliffs.
On Nov. 30, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson issued Proclamation 1318, creating Walnut Canyon National Monument. The site would be managed by the U.S. Forest Service until 1934, when it was turned over to the National Park Service.
On Nov. 30, 2015, President Wilson may be on hand to relive this designation event. This and other Walnut Canyon centennial events will help gear up for 2016, when the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary.
In addition to hosting these centennial celebrations, Walnut Canyon officials are also planning eight new outdoor exhibits that highlight the history of the site from the early days of tourism and on. Some of the topics may include prominent visitors to Walnut Canyon and early history of looting and attempts to control it.
The development of these exhibits was made possible by $27,000 in left over from a boundary fence rehabilitation project. Gallenstein said, “We quickly pulled together a group of people to figure out what kind of interpretive element we could create with that money. Some of our team members included Michael Kelly from Northern Arizona University, our interpretive specialist Cecilia Shields and Lisa Baldwin, our archaeology program manager.”
This group then invited local historians to a two-day meeting that included a facility tour and round-table discussions. Mike Amundson, history professor at NAU, attended this gathering. “One of the interesting things that came out of this meeting is that it used to be about preserving the ruin and making the ruin accessible. Now, like the Grand Canyon, the site is almost 100 years old as a tourist site, [and] they’re starting to preserve the tourist experience,” he said.
A product of that gathering was the decision to consider opening the historic Ranger Cabin, which for years, marked the entrance to Walnut Canyon. Constructed in 1904, this structure has largely stood unused for decades and is not accessible to the public except by guided tour.
Recent rehabilitation efforts are nearly complete, making additional public access more plausible. Officials plan to create internal exhibits and also devise a strategy that would allow public access but in a way that minimizes negative impact on the structure.
Opening the Ranger Cabin and new exhibits could happen as early as 2016, in time for the National Park Service’s centennial celebration. Whenever the exact timing, these efforts will no doubt help the longstanding effort of celebrating and preserving what author Willa Cather described in her 1915 book, “The Song of the Lark,” as “an abrupt fissure” highlighted by “perpendicular cliffs striped with even-running strata of rock.” FBN
By Kevin Schindler, FBN