Like many of you, I know the words to “America, the Beautiful” by heart, and have since I was a kid.
Like “This Land is Your Land” and “America: My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” it’s one of those songs taught in elementary school music classes throughout the country. Or at least in the ‘70s.
This American anthem has its roots right here in the Pikes Peak region.
Katharine Lee Bates, a Massachusetts native, spent the summer of 1893 teaching Geoffrey Chaucer and English drama at Colorado Summer School of Science, a program of Colorado College. She arrived in the young city of Colorado Springs from Boston by train on July 4, 1893, and stayed in the then-decade-old original Antlers Hotel.
The 24-year-old Wellesley professor was so affected by an outing to the summit of Pikes Peak (at that time a daylong affair) that she was inspired to pen a poem that would become “America the Beautiful.”
It was not the easy drive or Cog Railway trip we know today, and the region was not yet populated with avid climbers of fourteeners.
Bates drew one of 26 lucky straws to go on that fated trip. To get to the summit, Bates and her group of faculty friends took a train to Cascade, then boarded a horse-drawn “prairie wagon” up the mountain, and at some point more sure-footed mules were swapped for the horses.
Her group was led by an astronomy professor who fainted once they got to the snow-capped 14,115-foot summit. The remaining members of the group who were still standing had only about half an hour to admire the view before embarking downward.
“It was then and there that the opening lines of ‘America the Beautiful’ sprang into being,” she later wrote.
In those few minutes of thin air, Bates was moved by the view, she envisioned the words of her poem all around her.
The view she took in atop the mountain, she later said, “in ‘one ecstatic gaze’: below, a bedspread of green pine; in the distance, peaks capped with white; above, a sky the blue of a robin’s egg,” states a 2020 National Geographic article “How ‘America the Beautiful’ was born.”
“She wrote one line more in her diary that day: ‘Most glorious scenery I ever beheld.’ That night, in her room at The Antlers, she began to put her words down on paper.
The first stanza is the one we all know by heart:
“O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain
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.”
Here in the Pikes Peak region, we were likely drawn by the beauty of “America’s Mountain” and are acquainted with the expansive views of purple mountain majesties and the fruited plain that Bates breathtakingly drew in that day.
“That summer in Colorado Springs completely empowered (Bates),” said author and Bates scholar Melinda M. Ponder, who wrote “Katharine Lee Bates: From Sea to Shining Sea.”
Colorado Springs at the time was town of just 13,000, a “work in progress,” Ponder said.
“I think Bates really found her voice as a poet when she came out to Colorado Springs that summer. It was a very dramatic change she saw going on around her,” Ponder said. “When she went up on Pikes Peak, I think she saw the landscape as unifying. She could look out there and see there were no boundaries, and she wanted to bring people together into a national community with her poem.”
Ponder said by the time Bates left the city, “she had penciled the four stanzas in her notebook, but little did she realize their significance.”
Bates went on to write and edit 30 books, but her lasting legacy is this majestic poem, which I still remember by heart.
I try not to take for granted the beauty of this place I (we) call home.
Editor of this publication and the other three Pikes Peak Newspapers weeklies, Michelle Karas has called the Pikes Peak region home for six years. Contact her at email@example.com.