Peak Past: A Love Story Involving Mount Of The Holy Cross

September 23, 2021
A photograph of Mount of the Holy Cross, taken in 1887 by photographer William Henry Jackson.A photograph of Mount of the Holy Cross, taken in 1887 by photographer William Henry Jackson.Wikimedia Commons
A photograph of Mount of the Holy Cross, taken in 1887 by photographer William Henry Jackson.

The following is part of KRCC's 'Peak Past' essay series.

Size isn’t everything, even with Fourteeners.

One of the most iconic of the gigantic peaks may well be the Mount of the Holy Cross, so-named for the clear cross it forms when the conditions are right.

It barely earns Fourteener status, breaking the tape at 14,009 feet, near the bottom of the height-rankings. But the story of how it was mapped and photographed — well, that’s top shelf stuff.

According to author Jeri Nordgren, the earliest written mention of the peak was in a letter penned by botanist William H. Brewer on August 29th, 1869: It reads, “The Mount of the Holy Cross was forty miles away, with its cross of pure white, a mile high, suspended against its side.”

Budding superstar-photographer William Henry Jackson saw the peak as the perfect kind of challenge.

A Civil War veteran, Jackson had already earned acclaim by taking photos of Yellowstone that helped persuade Congress to declare Yellowstone the world’s first national park in 1872.

Wikimedia Commons
William Henry Jackson, pioneer photographer, in his youth.

The next year, explorer Ferdinand Hayden invited Jackson to Colorado, for Jackson to lead a team and take photos on a mapping expedition. Before departing, Jackson promised his fiancée Emilie he would find and photograph the “Snowy Cross” mountain. 

By July, 1873, the group had reached Twin Lakes, near what is now Leadville. Expedition-leader Hayden directed they would “wind up the season getting that Holy Cross Mountain once and for all.”

But that proved more difficult than they expected.

In a chance encounter near Tennessee Pass, the group met a friendly band of Utes led by Chief Ouray, who gave Hayden and Jackson directions to the elusive peak.

On a Sunday, August 24, 1873, Jackson took eight photos of the cross on the mountain, one of which became world-famous. 

But most importantly for those of you with a soft spot for romance, Jackson secured his wedding present for his fiancée Emilie. And they lived happily ever after.

Thanks for listening to this mountainside chat—be good, be well, and no matter what, climb on.

Peak Past (formerly Peak Perspectives) is a weekly segment written and voiced by Matt Cavanaugh, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and a resident of Manitou Springs where he lives with his wife and two young children. Through his writing, Cavanuagh explores life in the Pikes Peak region, including the gradients and subtleties of our lives in the shadow of America's Mountain. 

You can find more work by Cavanaugh here.

KRCC's Abigail Beckman manages the "Peak Past" series. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of KRCC or Colorado Public Radio.

Peak Past is sponsored by Gold Hill Mesa.

Editor's Note: This post has been updated to correct a date.

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