How the Tower Ladder Helped Make History

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The National Historical Register was created to preserve the most historic and noteworthy places in the U.S., and it includes a number of fascinating locales. Architectural wonders like Frank Lloyd Wright creations earned a spot on the list, as well as natural wonders like Muir Woods National Monument in California. Important churches, hotels, houses, and even post offices have made the cut. And then there's a ladder—a rather primitive, handmade wooden ladder.

It’s not the material or the craftsmanship that makes the ladder so interesting—it’s the location. In 1893, the ladder was placed on the southeast side of Devils Tower in Wyoming by William Rogers and Willard Ripley, local ranchers who decided to climb to the top for an annual Fourth of July celebration.

Their trek marked the first time anyone had ever attempted to formally climb the Tower. Rogers and Ripley used native oak, ash, and willow to make pegs that were driven into a large vertical crack between two of the Tower columns. A plank was placed across each pair of pegs to construct the ladder steps. By the time the ranchers were done with construction, the ladder stretched 350 feet to the summit of the Tower.

On July 4, 1893, 1000 spectators gathered at the base of Devils Tower to watch Rogers make his ascent. Many had journeyed more than 100 miles—several days of hard travel by horse and wagon—to witness the feat. With the help of his ladder, Rogers made it to the top in about an hour. The crowd below cheered wildly as Rogers pulled out an American flag and raised it from a 12-foot flagpole he and Ripley had placed at the top long before, making the title “first ascent” a bit of a farce.

The ladder proved useful to other climbers, including Rogers’ wife, Linnie. On July 4, 1895, she used it to become the first woman to reach the top of the tower. About 25 others used it before it was decommissioned. It was last climbed in 1927 by Babe “the Human Fly” White.

About 100 feet of the ladder was removed in the 1930s, but what remains is still visible today, though you’ll probably need binoculars to see it—unless you’re planning on getting up close and personal by making the ascent yourself.

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February 26, 2016 - 11:00am
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