In 1893, Katharine Bates, an English professor from Wellesley College in Massachusetts, decided to experience some of the local sights while teaching a summer class in Colorado Springs. Little did she know that her “merry expedition” would result in one of the most patriotic songs of all time—one that would continue to be popular more than a century later.
On July 22, 1893, Bates and some colleagues climbed into wagons and headed up Pikes Peak, a mountain more than 14,000 feet tall. Though they didn’t get much time at the summit—part of the party became faint in the thin air—it was more than enough time for inspiration to strike.
“Our sojourn on the peak remains in memory hardly more than one ecstatic gaze,” she later recalled. “It was then and there, as I was looking out over the sea-like expanse of fertile country spreading away so far under those ample skies, that the opening lines of the hymn floated into my mind."
Bates wrote the entire piece—a poem, not a song—later that evening. “America the Beautiful” first appeared in print on July 4, 1895, in a weekly newspaper called The Congregationalist. It didn’t take long for people to realize the words would make great lyrics, and for years, they attached them to any tune with the right rhythm: “Auld Lang Syne” was a popular fit. (Try to sing it that way now. It’s incredibly difficult.) As the song became more popular over the years, Bates tweaked some of the lyrics.
A single tune eventually prevailed, borrowed from “Materna” by Samuel Augustus Ward. Though a contest was held in 1926 to create new music for the lyrics, “Materna” was already the popular choice. No new song was chosen, and “America the Beautiful” settled into the song and the lyrics we know and love today.
Not everyone was impressed with Bates's work, however. In 1911, The New York Times deemed her "a good minor poet" [PDF]. You can decide for yourself. Here's the original America the Beautiful as it appeared in The American Kitchen Magazine in 1897:
O beautiful for halcyon skies, For amber waves of grain, and For purple mountain majesties Above the enameled plain! America! America! God shed His grace on thee, Till souls wax fair as earth and air And music-hearted sea! O beautiful for pilgrim feet Whose stern, impassioned stress A thoroughfare for freedom beat Across the wilderness! America! America! God shed His grace on thee Till paths be wrought through wilds of thought By pilgrim foot and knee! O beautiful for glory-tale Of liberating strife, When once or twice, for man's avail, Men lavished precious life! America! America! God shed His grace on thee Till selfish gain no longer stain, The banner of the free! O beautiful for patriot dream That sees beyond the years Thine alabaster cities gleam Undimmed by human tears! America! America! God shed His grace on thee Till nobler men keep once again Thy whiter jubilee!