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Bicentennial Celebration of Asa Gray, 1810-2010

Gray's Peak

 

"Gloriously tipped with gold are the crest-ridges, and steadily the luster crawls down the steep rock-faces, until at last the glowing day is everywhere, save in those profound coverts where the cold, clear springs are hidden under tufted mosses and closely-twined arms of Fryads, and in the subterranean recesses of shaft, or tunnel, or stope, where the swart miner swings the sledge in perpetual midnight."

From Camp and cabin: sketches of life and travel in the West by Rossiter Worthington Raymond from the chapter "The Ascent of Gray's Peak".

 

     
Postcards advertising a railroad through Gray's Peak. Archives of the Gray Herbarium

"One can ride to the summit of Gray's Peak in a carriage, but we preferred to go on horseback. The morning was breezy and cloudless, the ascent gradual, and as we mounted higher and higher toward the clouds, the green valley with its shady nooks and silvery streams was as charming as glimpses of fairy land."

From Alice Polk Hill's 1915 book Colorado pioneers in picture and story.


View of Gray's Peak from the wagon road down the western slope to the head of Snake River.
Archives of the Gray Herbarium

Gray's Peak is located in the Colorado region of the Rocky Mountains, standing approximately 14,350 feet high. It is beside Torrey's Peak, named for Gray's close friend and colleague, John Torrey. Both peaks were named by botanist Charles C. Parry. Dr. Parry wrote: "In my first botanical exploration of the Rocky Mountain region of Colorado, in 1861, I applied the name of 'Torrey and Gray' to twin peaks which, from a distant view, had often attracted my attention."

Charles Christopher Parry was born in Gloucestershire, England in 1823. Nine years later his family relocated to Washington County, New York. Parry studied medical botany and later obtained the degree of Doctor of Medicine from Columbia College. His earliest botanical collecting was done near his home in New York. For nearly thirty years his time was spent observing and collecting in the field.

It is a common practice among botanists to name newly discovered plants after one another. It is a sign of respect and distinguishment to bestow the name of a colleague or friend upon a newly described specimen. Charles Parry went a step further when he named mountain peaks after his friends and colleagues Asa Gray and John Torrey.

On the fourteenth of August, 1872, Parry again visited Gray's Peak, along with Asa Gray, his wife Mrs. Jane Loring Gray, and others, for its proper dedication. Hunter Dupree, biographer of Asa Gray, wrote:

"With Parry as a host and a whole party of local citizens in attendance, both Dr. and Mrs. Gray ascended Gray's Peak to take possession of one of the loftiest spots in Colorado. It was, of course, an easy climb, but "such a sea of peaks, north, south, east & west, - patches of snow, little green vallies, mountain sides, the South Park a long stretch of green far away to the S.E., below us a blue-green little lake in a mass of snow, close around us the sharp base mt. ridges, & far away on the horizon, the misty plains, reaching away to the East. What greater honor could come to a man than to have his name attached to such a spot?"


View of Gray's Peak. Archives of the Gray Herbarium.

Recorded in a newspaper article, signed "John Cree, President of Party and R.L. Martin, Secretary," which had been preserved in a scrapbook devoted to Asa Gray housed in the Gray Herbarium Archives, we find the following address, delivered to Gray upon this day:

"Honored and Respected Sir:-

It gives me no little pleasure to extend to you this welcome to the summit and center of the Rocky Mountains. And although many of us who surround you on this lofty and sublime spot are strangers to you, you are not altogether a stranger to us. The instructive books you have written, and the fame you have honestly and justly acquired, have gone as far as the waves of our civilization have dashed their fertilizing spray! Most of us learned to respect and honor you when we were students. We, sir, well recollect the difficulty we had in committing then to us, the hard technical terms of your Botany to memory, but our old Latin tutor used to repeat the old saying, "Memoria augetur excolendo," and we found in after years that he was right.

"The human mind is a wonderful contrivance, unlike all other things of capacity, the more you put into it the more it will hold. And in no department of science is this peculiarity of the mind better illustrated than in your favorite sceince of Botany, and in no individual case do we find a more illustrious example than in your own. The man who can name, and rank and file more than 100,000 plants, must have a better memory than ever was possessed by the King of Pontus."

The address continued in this manner for some time more, praising Gray and Torrey and naming their contributions to science. The newspaper article then recorded that Asa Gray made a "short and appropriate" speech in response. Gray said that he was on his way home from a long journey, and that he had visited famous localities in his recent travels, but that "nowhere had he seen any scenery equal to the view from this peak." After the speeches had been made, the ladies sang "My Country, 'tis of the Sweet Land of Liberty" for all who had gathered. It happened that the son of the author of that song was also present, and helped them sing. The party then enjoyed the scenery for some time more, before leaving again for Georgetown.

We have also a personal account of the trip recorded in letter from Jane Loring Gray to Dr. Farlow, written October, 18, 1872:

"Dr. Gray's ascent of his own peak made quite a stir, & all Georgetown, the base of ascent, apparently turned out in honor! _ We had a dinner there, & then went off to sleep some 8 miles up a valley. Next morning rode in carriages up mts. to within 3 miles of the summit, then took horses to the top, above grass, flowers, & vegetation, over some patches of snow, then rough crumbling rocks, savage wildness about us & so to the summit, some 20 of us, where the view was the grandest & most extensive I ever saw - There we had speeches, & resolutions that Gray's Peak was a fixed name, & so also should be Torrey's Peak. The newspaper report would delight you, were it worth sending - We came down to our carriages for lunch, & so back to Georgetown-"

               
Photographs from the trip Gray's Peak, 1872. Archives of the Gray Herbarium

The mound of stones in the images above may seem strange to be piled upon a mountaintop. Rossiter Worthington Raymond explains in his 1880 book Camp and Cabin: Sketches of Life and Travel in the West:

"The peak seems to be formed of loose fragments of rock, piled up in confusion. How did they get here? They didn't get here: they were here always. This heap of stones is the effect of ages of frost and snow and wind upon the once solid rock. At our left, as we ascend, stands a solitary crag, which has not yet quite yielded, nor toppled into ruins, but is seamed and cracked through and through."

Asa Gray's memory and name live on today in a multitude of ways. From his Library and Herbarium at Harvard University, to the descriptions of plants he dedicated his life to, we are reminded of him through the lasting impressions he left upon this world. His lofty peak in the Rocky Mountains will stand for generation upon generation to come, reminding us of his vast contributions to botany.

In the book Birds of the Rockies (1902) by Leander Sylvester Keyser, it is written:

"The panorama from Gray's Peak is one to inspire awe and dwell forever in the memory, an alpine wonderland indeed and in truth. To the north, northwest, and west there stretches, as far as the eye can reach, a vast wilderness of snowy peaks and ranges, many of them with a rosy glow in the subshine, tier upon tier, terrace above terrace, here in serried ranks, there in isolated grandeur, some just beyond the dividing canons, others fifty, sixty, a hundred miles away, cyclopean, majestic infinite.

"The summit of Gray's Peak is a favorable viewpoint from which to study the complexion, the idiosyncrasies, if you please, of individual mountains, each of which seems to have a personality of its own. Here is Gray's Peak itself, calm, smiling, good-natured as a summer morning; yonder is Torrey's, next-door neighbor, cruel, relentless, defiant, always threatening with cyclone or tornado, or forging the thunder-bolts of Vulcan. Some mountains appear grand and dignified, others look like spitfires. On one side some bear smooth and green slopes almost to the top, while the other is scarred, craggy, and precipitous."

Rossiter Worthington Raymond wrote of his ascent to Gray's Peak in his 1880 book Camp and Cabin: Sketches of Life and Travel in the West:

"Gloriously tipped with gold are the crest-ridges, and steadily the luster crawls down the steep rock-faces, until at last the glowing day is everywhere, save in those profound coverts where the cold, clear springs are hidden under tufted mosses and closely-twined arms of Dryads, and in the subterranean recesses of shaft, or tunnel, or stope, where the swart miner swings the sledge in perpetual midnight. The mountain-sides are still covered with timber, though sadly scarred by great fires which the recklessness of the inhabitants occasions or permits. The straight, dead pines, first charred and afterwards bleached, bristle like gray porcupine-quills on the back of the range. In the more accessible places wood-cutters are at work, felling the dry timber, and shooting it down the steep precipices to the valley. All along the base of the mountains are the mouths of inchoate tunnels, reminding us of those curious organisms that begin with a mouth only, and develop their bowls afterward."


Gray's Peak. Archives of the Gray Herbarium

Raymond continues further on:

"Eastward, another turn of the marvelous kaleidoscope, and a new combination of the endless beauties of outline, tiny, and shade; and beyond all ending and blending in the illimitable sky, the case ocean of the Plains. Upward, the empty heavens, speaking unutterable things; and everwhere the thin, pure, sweet mountain air, which one rather drinks than breathes, feeling the while that intoxicating combination of inspiring stimulus and delicious languor which nothing else bestows. It takes a good while to go up to Gray's Peak; but mark how short a tale shall put you down. A climb for descending the steep summit, leading the horses, - a brisk ride, with gallops interspersed, down the valley, through deepening twilight - and at last, beneath the glamour of a full white moon - Georgetown, Denver."

 


Trip to Gray's Peak, 1872. Archives of the Gray Herbarium

 

References

Archives of the Gray Herbarium. Papers of Charles C. Parry.

Dupree, A. Hunter. Asa Gray, 1810-1888. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1959.

Gray, Asa. Letters of Asa Gray. New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1894.

Hill, Alice Polk. Colorado pioneers in picture and story. Denver: Brock-Haffner Press, c1915.

Keyser, Leander Sylvester. Birds of the Rockies. Chicago, A. C. McClurg and co., 1902.

Raymond, Rossiter Worthington. Camp and cabin: sketches of life and travel in the West. New York, Fords, Howard, & Hulbert, 1880.

Weber, William A. King of Colorado botany: Charles Christopher Parry, 1823-1890. Niwot, Col.: University Press of Colorado, c1997.


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Last updated May 2010
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