In 1873, a group of explorers led by Clarence King found and photographed a legendary mountain in Colorado called the Mount of the Holy Cross. Prior to their documentation of the mountain’s actual existence, an aura of mystery and myth had surrounded it. No one was sure of its actual location, and many maps of the time placed it at least 30 miles away from its true position. But the real cause of the mythology around the mountain was the cross of snow, formed by intersecting couloirs, that remained on its ridge even after the rest of the snow on the mountain had melted.
Americans were thrilled with King’s discovery of the Holy Cross, and were dazzled by William H. Jackson’s photograph (perhaps his most famous photo of all).
William Henry Jackson: Mount of the Holy Cross (1873) . Photo courtesy of Idaho State University
They were even more impressed when, three years later, Thomas Moran’s painting, ‘The Mount of the Holy Cross,’ was awarded a medal at the Centennial Exposition (1876).
Thomas Moran, Mountain of the Holy Cross, 1875, oil on canvas. Donated by Mr. and Mrs. Gene Autry. Museum of the American West, Autry National Center.
And it turns out that one day, in 1879, the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was looking through an illustrated book of western scenery. There he saw the Mount of the Holy Cross, and he subsequently wrote this poem, The Cross of Snow, about the death of his wife in a fire eighteen years earlier. The poem was only published after Longfellow’s death.
In the long, sleepless watches of the night,
A gentle face--the face of one long dead--
Looks at me from the wall, where round its head
The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.
Here in this room she died, and soul more white
Never through martyrdom of fire was led
To its repose; nor can in books be read
The legend of a life more benedight.
There is a mountain in the distant West
That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
And seasons, changeless since the day she died.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Image courtesy of Gutenberg.org