Katherine Lee Bates' century-old souvenir from Pikes Peak: 'America the Beautiful'

July 04, 1993|By Patrick Soran and Dan Klinglesmith | Patrick Soran and Dan Klinglesmith,Contributing Writers

Surely, it's the most remarkable excursion to Pikes Peak since Zebulon Pike himself spotted the snow-draped massif in 1807. On July 22, 1893 -- 100 years ago this month -- Katherine Lee Bates, a Massachusetts English teacher, boarded a covered wagon for a sightseeing trip up the 14,110-foot mountain. She came back with two lines of poetry spinning in her head: O beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain. It's a Colorado souvenir the entire nation now enjoys.

Poetry was her passion. She wanted to write an unforgettable hymn, and, ironically, Americans carry her verses around in their hearts but know little of the author.

Bates was born in 1859, the daughter of a Congregationalist minister. Her love for words urged her to an English degree at Wellesley College. After graduation, she taught in two schools -- before returning to her alma mater. Eventually, she would oversee its English department.

Her other love, travel, brought her to Colorado Springs, Colo., in 1893. She joined other professors -- including future president Woodrow Wilson -- to teach a summer session at Colorado College. Bates and several companions celebrated the term's end with an expedition to the landmark's summit in a wooden wagon emblazoned "Pikes Peak or Bust."

The visit didn't last long.

Two in the party experienced altitude sickness, and the driver insisted they descend. Bates later wrote, "The Peak remains in memory hardly more than one ecstatic gaze." But people now know what she saw there.

Later that night, in her room at the Antlers Hotel, she completed her thought:

For purple mountain majesties

Above the fruited plain!

America! America!

God shed His grace on thee

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

On July 4, 1895, her lines first appeared in the Congregationalis magazine. Soon, Bates was a celebrity. Her mailbox brimmed with fan mail. One admirer requested 10 copies for his 10 grandchildren, and Bates carefully wrote out 10 duplicates.

Sixty composers volunteered tunes to match her meter. Bates dutifully sang each, but none quite fit. Searching hymnals, she discovered S. A. Ward's "O Mother Dear, Jerusalem." It harmonized perfectly. Together, words and melody seemed to express the abundance and lofty sentiments of the burgeoning nation.

This year, Colorado Springs will celebrate the anniversary of Bates' jaunt with four days of festivities beginning July 22.

"The events will provide us each with a chance to pay special attention to ourselves," says Suzanne Phipps, director of the America the Beautiful Centennial Celebration. "We are all Americans, no matter what our backgrounds or beliefs."

Activities will include the opening of the National Living Tribute Memorial. The museum, overlooking the peak, will hang art each year dedicated to capturing America's changing essence. The project's volunteers are also coordinating a multicultural fair, children's parade, musical celebration and other events spotlighting the nation's diversity. For the final day, representatives of more than 400 denominations have been asked to gather atop the peak to bless the nation and its people -- each in their own way.

Katherine Lee Bates died in 1929, but her dream came true. Her song, "America the Beautiful," does indeed reverberate from sea to shining sea.

IF YOU GO . . .

For information about the America the Beautiful Centennial Celebration in Colorado Springs, Colo., call (719) 473-5600, Ext. 203. To find out more about Colorado Springs, call the visitors' bureau at (719) 635-7506.

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