On Main Street in downtown Grand Junction stands a bronze sculpture of a man with a sighting scope held to his eye. He’s astride a horse, and accompanied by a dog.
I’ve just finished a run through streets lined with mature trees and blooming tulips. The faint smell of lilacs hangs in the early morning, lemony-gold sunshine brightening dark green leaves. I’m curious about the sculpture, so I wander over to check it out. When I see that the man and I share a birthday - although not birth-centuries - I want to know more about him.
The man is John Otto, the Promoter and First Custodian of Colorado National Monument. Otto was immediately taken with the canyons of western Colorado when he arrived on the scene in 1906. He decided that this was a place others should experience, and began a sustained campaign of letter-writing and fundraising. His dogged determination got results. In 1911, President Taft signed the Colorado National Monument into being.
According to the plaque at the base of the sculpture, he married Beatrice Farnham shortly after the monument became official. The marriage lasted all of two weeks. She said that she tried to live according to his ways, but it was difficult to be with a man “to whom even a cabin was an encumbrance.”
Otto spent his days in hard work, building trails in the monument while earning $1 per month (equivalent to $33/month in 2022) as the monument’s first superintendent. He retired after 16 years and headed to Yreka, California. When he died of heart failure in 1952 he was 81 years old and had less than $50 to his name.
John Otto was a man ahead of his time. He was a fierce supporter of workers’ rights, women’s voting rights, and Prohibition. His own short-lived marriage notwithstanding, his views on marriage differed significantly from the social norms of his era:
“Marriage can only be founded on love, and it’s silly to try and read into the ceremony to ‘honor and obey.’ I never heard of a woman obeying- her husband, anyway- and what is the use of making them lie every time they stand up before a minister. If the present marriage system was right, we wouldn’t have all these divorces.”
Standing there in front of his bronze likeness on a May morning in the year 2023, I am struck by John Otto’s focused and unflagging determination to create Colorado National Monument. He took meaningful action for something in which he deeply believed: a desire to preserve and share the beauty of western Colorado with others.
"I came here last year and found these canyons, and they feel like the heart of the world to me. I'm going to stay and build trails and promote this place, because it should be a national park."
National Park Service Article: John Otto
Jacqueline Denny, ACC, CHPC, LMT