John Otto: The Colorado National Monument’s First Park Custodian
By Camille Jestrovich
If you’ve heard of John Otto, it’s likely from hiking one of the Colorado National Monument’s spiraling trails, or maybe from reading some sensational historical gossip about what a strange hermit he was. But there was more to the man who single-handedly carved out many of the roads and trails we enjoy today.
Otto’s Early Days
In 1870, Otto was born to immigrant parents in Marthasville, Missouri. He inherited his broad-minded manner and unconventionality from his father who also tended to rub authority figures the wrong way.
John enrolled at what is now Elmhurst College in Illinois, where he studied the church organ. Perhaps he planned to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a pastor, but his independent perspective was not accepted by traditional Lutherans.
At the age of nineteen, he took the guidance of Horace Greeley’s famous slogan, “Go west young man, go west.” He left for California and onto Idaho where he discovered his first gold in the Kootenay River. He likewise panned for gold in Eureka, California, discovering gold flakes and platinum.
Being an avid reader of local newspapers, it’s plausible he followed the news of the several mine catastrophes in Colorado. In 1902, Otto was paid a visit from several gold miners from Cripple Creek, Colorado who apprised him on the miner’s strikes.
Otto traveled to Denver in 1903 to obtain a meeting with Governor Peabody to suggest how the governor should deal with Colorado mine labor problems.
In 1906 he arrived in the Grand Valley to work on the Fruita pipeline. When first witnessing the beauty of the “rugged redrock canyons…it was love at first sight.” It felt like “the greatest spot in creation” to him.
Otto frequently wrote to politicians and newspapers on women’s suffrage, labor issues, American values, and controversial views on religion. His energetic letters to politicians and newspaper editors were often long and incoherent, imaginative but disorganized.
Most politicians wrote him off as a crackpot and newspaper editors were confused on how to publish many of his lengthy, prolific writings. There were times when Otto was forced to purchase advertising space in order to share his ideas when they were rejected as too “unreasonable”.
He celebrated practically every president’s birthday and frequently displayed flags in the canyons. Several of the monoliths within the Colorado National Monument were formally named for some presidents – Jefferson, McKinley, Hamilton, and Lincoln.
Other monoliths were dedicated to advocates for American independence including Tomas Paine, Samuel Adams, and Benjamin Franklin. Unfortunately, few records exist to indicate which formation bore who’s name.
According to Hank Schoch, former Chief Ranger of the Colorado National Monument for seventeen years and CNMA member, at some point in the 1940s or 1950s, “some well-meaning park officials tried to rename many of the features in the monument with [difficult to pronounce Ute] names. Perhaps that’s when many of the names Otto bestowed upon features got lost in the shuffle and were forgotten.”
Wedding in the Canyons
Between building trails and encouraging visitors to the area, he found a wife. He claimed to have girlfriends that he corresponded with, but one woman was special.
To the astonishment of his friends, she arrived in Monument Canyon in the spring of 1911. Beatrice Farnham was an East Coast artist and entrepreneur known for her Native American-inspired fashion and crafts.
John’s camp headquarters was located in Monument Canyon and that is where their small pup tents were pitched about 40 feet apart. Her engagement gift was a burro named Foxy. “While I can’t wear it, it will come in very handy,” Beatrice said.
They were married at the base of Independence Monument on June 20, 1911. Evidently, they were happy for a short time, but Beatrice decided, after a honeymoon in Pinyon Mesa, she wasn’t cut out for his lifestyle. “He wanted to live in tents or without tents, outdoors.” The marriage ended in divorce and John received $2000 in alimony.
Goin’ to California
Around 1931, John Otto left the Grand Valley and moved to Yreka, California. He was likely feeling under-appreciated and frustrated over the battles with the National Park Service and Chamber of Commerce.
He had been removed as the Colorado National Monuments custodian because, according to Al Look, personal friend and author of John Otto and the Colorado National Monument, “John was gradually becoming impossible to talk to, much less to work with.”
Some members of the Chamber of Commerce felt that he had difficulty completing jobs. When he received money for a project, he would come up with a new plan for which to allocate the funds.
While rejecting defeat, Otto continued to interfere and give unsolicited advice believing he had no reason to stop just because he no longer held the job.
Unconventional as Otto was, Al Look states, “there probably would not have been a Colorado National Monument had it not been for John Otto. Otto did not create the scenery, but he did create an opportunity to see it.”
In Yreka he spent his days panning for gold, working in a mine in the hills, and appreciating the wildlife living around his cabin. Shortly before he died, Otto composed a letter to the superintendent of the Colorado National Monument reflecting on his time spent there and memories of what he referred to as the Grand Park Project.
Otto wrote, “In the fall of 1907, I read a short news item in the Daily News morning paper. It stated that some Chamber of Commerce men had been to Monument Canyon and they wanted it ‘to be a National Park’…That’s what started it.”
In 1952, “The Hermit of the Monument Canyon” passed away. No notes of bereavement and no mourners were present.
Fortunately, 50 years after Otto’s death, Grand Junction locals Dave Fishell, Michael O’Boyle, and many others contributed in having an impressive, five foot by five foot, engraved sandstone tower resembling Independence Monument placed on his grave.
Michael O’Boyle, member of CNMA since 2012, states, “In my book, he is one of America’s great folk heroes, and now he has been honored with a headstone as monumental as the man himself.” The headstone is engraved with the words:
“Do your best for the west, the best for the world, the new day get going.”John Otto, promoter and first custodian of the Colorado National Monument