Thomas Moran, The Mountain of the Holy Cross, 1875 7’x5′ Oil
There is a mountain in the distant West
That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
— Longfellow, “The Cross of Snow”
The Mountain of the Holy Cross began as a myth and became a rumor. Then it became a report, a photograph, and a painting. In time it became a destination for pilgrims and tourists. Shortly after that, it ceased to exist…
In the beginning, Americans who had heard of, traveled to, and documented the Mountain of the Holy Cross believed in omens, signs, and symbols. By the time the sign collapsed and disappeared, those beliefs were also eroded although not lost. We still have the expedition records, the memoirs, the photographs, and the paintings and can sense, distantly, what our ancestors felt when first glimpsing this strange vision that could only be seen from the east covering a mountainside in the far west.
The sign/vision/illusion (choose which one makes sense to you) is easy to explain. On the stone face of a certain mountain deep in the Colorado Rockies over eons of time a pattern of cracks and crevasses held against the melting snow — under ideal conditions and from a certain point of view for 2 to 3 months a year — a large white cross below its summit. It was one of those natural coincidences where happenstance runs into the human mind in search of meaning. It was seen because it was there on the mountain but its meaning bloomed in the minds of the faithful. To them, the sign on the side of the mountain said, among other things, “In hoc signo vinces” (“With this sign, you shall conquer.”). It was, after all, the era of Manifest Destiny.
Although it was a persistent whisper from the mountain men and others who had pushed deep into the Rockies, the Mountain of the Holy Cross was first written about by Samuel Bowles in his 1869 book, The Switzerland of America. He saw the mountain from Gray’s Peak at a distance of about 40 miles:
“…Over one of the largest and finest, the snow fields lay in the form of an immense cross, and by this it is known in all the mountain views of the territory. It is as if God has set His sign, His seal, His promise there–a beacon upon the very center and height of the Continent to all its people and all its generations…”
Much of the Colorado Rockies were terra incognita to “the land vaguely realizing westward” in the 1860s, and a report of something strange or miraculous was often followed by an expedition. At the time the exact location of The Mountain of the Holy Cross was not known and was mismarked on the few maps that existed. In 1869 an expedition headed by Ferdinand Hayden under the auspices of the U.S. Geological Service set out to find and record the elusive mountain. A photographer William Henry Jackson was a member of the team. He made the first photograph of the Holy Cross from the summit of Notch Mountain to the east.
Getting into position to take the photograph wasn’t a walk in the National Park or an easy shot. Nothing was in the days long before planes, trains, automobiles, cell phones, GPS, and digital cameras. W. H. Holmes, a member of “the Hayden Survey of the Territories, 1873” wrote up his memoir about the conditions of “The First Ascent of the Mountain of the Holy Cross” at a later date:
“This was to be the field of our labors, and we set about the task of identifying such great landmarks as would be necessary to guide us in our future wanderings. An indefinite number of high, ragged ranges could be traced by their lines of lofty summits as far away to the north and south as the eye could reach. But one among all these summits caught the eye and fixed the attention. Far away to the westward, rose a lofty peak that bore aloft upon its dark face a great white cross, so perfect, so grand in proportions, that at a distance of sixty miles, it was plainly seen even with the naked eye.”
Plainly seen but not so quickly gotten to. It took the expedition two months to advance to the mountain’s more immediate neighborhood. Once there they faced more days of trying to find a vantage point from which could make his exposures. What resulted was, for the time, proof in a picture that the Mountain of the Holy Cross existed.
A black and white photograph from the far west only whetted the public’s appetite for a work that would evoke the spell of the place as well as the look of it. For that, it would take the painter Thomas Moran of the Hudson River School. He accompanied the next Hayden expedition to the mountain in 1873. Upon his return to the studio, he created a large oil landscape from memory, a few coarse sketches made on location, and a desire to communicate the feeling of seeing the mountain rather than the mountain itself. He called this kind of painting the making of a “true impression.”
In an attempt to capture the “true impression” of the scene rather than a topographical view, Moran freely invented the foreground waterfall in his painting. Forthright about his approach, Moran declared, “I place no value upon literal transcripts from Nature. My general scope is not realistic; all my tendencies are toward idealization…. Topography in art is valueless.”
The resulting “impression” was the 7 by 5-foot painting seen reproduced at the beginning of this essay. It was an impression that impressed hundreds of thousands with the indelible image of a “Sign from God” blessing America in the heart of the West.
The painting was first exhibited in New York to high praise from the public and the critics. It then spent years touring the major cities of the United States and Europe before being purchased by a wealthy Irish/Canadian doctor who hung it in his Manitou Springs, Colorado mansion. The mansion caught fire in 1886 but the painting was saved by being cut from its frame, rolled up, and passed out of the burning building through a window. From there the painting passed through a number of hands until today it resides in the collection of the Museum of the American West, part of the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, California.
Moran’s masterpiece was the height of an artist encountering the Mountain of the Holy Cross. From that level, Moran’s painting images of the mountain quickly descended to prints, posters, and postcards. As it did the vision of the Mountain in the popular imagination went from the marvelous to the mundane:
Postcard from the early 20th century with the following on the back:
“Colorado Mountain Scenery. Published by W. G. Chamberlain.–Cor. Larimer & 15th Streets,–Denver. The Holy Cross. No. 601. The form of the Cross near the summit of the Peak, is caused by immense seams in the rocky formation which cut one another on their face at nearly right angles. The perpendicular arm of the cross is 1200 feet in length and fully fifty in breadth, the snow lying in the crevice from fifty to one hundred feet in depth. The horizontal arm varies with the seasons, but average 700 feet. The mountain is not precisely in the main range, but striking off to the north west forms the most northern spur of the Sawatch range. Altitude of the peak 17614 feet.–Distance from Denver about 175 miles.”
As the country and Colorado grew, however, the Mountain of the Holy Cross still remained a pilgrimage for those that wanted to see for themselves. In the normal course of events, travelers became, for a time, pilgrims some of whom reported they were being cured of ailments by proximity to the mountain. The Denver Post reported in 1930 that:
“There is an unusual number of persons this year who are afflicted with serious maladies that have defied the best efforts of medical science: they hope that a sight of the Holy Cross, coupled with firm faith in divine power, will accomplish cures. Certainly such cures have resulted from the pilgrimages of the last two years…”
President Herbert Hoover finally designated the site the Mountain of the Holy Cross National Monument in 1929. This lasted as long as the Holy Cross on the mountain itself. Over the years both visitations to the Mountain and the right arm of the cross fell off and the Federal designation was revoked in 1950.
Today the mountain is still a destination for hikers and climbers in the Notch Mountains but the feeling of any sort of sign, symbol or sanctity has long departed with the collapse of the cross:
The Mountain of the Holy Cross today:
Then, behind Moe, about 50 yards away, the craziest and coolest thing I’ve seen yet on a 14er happened. Two girls, maybe in their early twenties, were standing there on Mountain of the Holy Cross, BUTT NAKED, with their arms in the air and their rear ends shining on the crowd as they flashed the Bowl of Tears Basin. Another lady was taking their picture, and a couple other people with cameras got in on the action. WHY OH WHY did I not bring a camera this day?!!! It was hilarious.
Why wouldn’t it be “hilarious”? It’s the way of the world and the country these days. What would the two girls know about the landscape that once led their ancestors across a raw and demanding continent? To them, the visit was a day-trip to yet another beautiful but non-descript location. They might text about it or get a couple shots of their mooning emailed to their phones for their Facebook page.
The Holy Cross of the Mountain of the Holy Cross was gone now. All that remained were a series of photographs and a large painting from a long-dead school of landscape painters.
Long gone too was that moment of first coming into the country; that moment when the land was new:
We stood on the ocean divide, from which the waters to the east are carried by the Arkansas down to the Gulf, while those to the west sink away and are lost in the mysterious gorges of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. On the one side a narrow valley stretched away to the southeast in a seemingly endless vista, while on the other, the streams and valleys are almost immediately obscured by a mass of irregular mountains. The course chosen would lead us, first, down the Pacific slope into a deep and rugged canyon which we must descend for 20 miles or more, thence by means of one of the great creek valleys, that come down from the range to the west, we hoped to be able to reach the base of the peak.
They did reach the base of The Mountain of the Holy Cross and brought back proof of its existence from which millions of Americans once divined a deep purpose. Along with the right arm of that cross, that awareness of a deep purpose to the nation has seemingly dissolved. But then, of course, the Holy Cross of the Mountain of the Holy Cross was never the Cross itself but the Mountain itself. It still abides in myth, in art, and in a hard to reach part of the Colorado Rockies. In time we will know it again as it once was. Maybe next year. Maybe next year in Jerusalem.
Thomas Moran, The Mountain of the Holy Cross, 1874, watercolor