BATES WILSON: The ‘Father of Canyonlands NP’…in his own words

I came to Moab and became a seasonal ranger at Arches just a couple of years after Bates Wilson retired from the National Park Service, so I never had the chance to work for him. But stories about Bates lingered for years after he hung up his uniform and took up ranching in Professor Valley.
As a rookie ranger who had no idea what he was doing, the idea of the superintendent coming to pay me a personal visit would have struck terror in my soul. But that is exactly what happened more than once to young seasonals who came to work for Bates.

Typically, one morning at the Needles section of Canyonlands, the district ranger stopped by the quarters of two recently-hired trail maintenance workers to inform them that Superintendent Wilson was on his way down from Moab to see them.
“What did we do wrong?” one of them asked feebly.
The district ranger just shrugged and said, “I guess you’ll find out when he gets here.”
The two underlings searched vainly for clean uniforms and were determined to convince the superintendent they were good employees, no matter what else he might have heard. They were busy working up a sweat when they saw the pickup truck pull up at the trail head.
It was Bates.
“What are you fellas all dressed up for,” he chuckled. “You’re just gonna get dirty again.”
Bates pulled a shovel out of the bed of the truck, pulled his dirty straw Stetson over his eyes, and went to work on the trail, shoulder to shoulder with his two young seasonals. He stayed all day on that trail project, and went quitting time came, Bates put away the shovel and pulled out his Dutch ovens. The boys never ate better.
He camped the night with them under the stars and went back to Moab the next morning. “I just like to know the people I’m working with,” he explained to these new Friends of Bates.


* * *

You had to look real hard to find the hierarchy of the Bates Wilson administration at Canyonlands. One of Bates’ dearest friends was Dutch Gerhardt, an NPS heavy equipment operator and a man who said what was on his mind. It was a quality Bates admired and respected; it’s why they were such good friends.
 Not all Park Service managers appreciate candor and an NPS administrator named Bill Briggle was just that type of a guy. But Bates could get along with just about anybody…or at least tolerate them…and so, on one of his famous pack trips into the Great Red Unknown, he invited Briggle to join Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall and himself on a multi-day excursion. Riding with them, as he often did, was Dutch.
They had been riding all day, and as the sun dropped below the canyon rim, they decided to make camp. As Bates unsaddled his horse, he turned to his old friend and said, “Gather up some firewood, Dutch. I’m going to be needing it pretty soon.”
Dutch squinted at Bates coldly and said, “Go to hell. I’m off the clock now. You can get the damned wood yourself.”
Briggle sprang to his feet, bristling with officious indignation, stepped between the horses and came right at Dutch.
Dutch didn’t move. It was almost hard to tell that he noticed this sudden intrusion into his personal space. The truth is, Dutch looked bored.

Bates and Secretary Udall.

Bates and Secretary Udall.

“Mr. Gerhardt!” Briggle sputtered, “Mr. Wilson is the superintendent of this park and he is your supervisor! When Mr. Wilson tells you to do something, you do it! You don’t question his instructions, you don’t ignore them, and you certainly don’t behave like this! YOU JUST DO IT! Do I make myself clear?”
Briggle’s face was the color of the rock. The veins bulged and throbbed at his temple and alongside his neck. Dutch looked into his eyes. Deeply.
“Screw you Briggle,” said Dutch. He turned to his supervisor. “Screw you Bates.” And then he turned to the Secretary of the Interior of the United States of America. “And screw you Udall…and the mules you rode in on.”
Dutch spit softly on the ground, gave Bates a wink and lumbered off to take a nap. Briggle stood there in the sand, shaking violently in the late afternoon light. So were Bates and Udall—they were laughing so hard they were gasping for breath.
Bates didn’t think much of hierarchy.

Fifteen years before Bates Wilson became the first Superintendent of Canyonlands National Park, he went to work at Arches National Monument in that same capacity. The 50s were years of dramatic change in Southeast Utah; the uranium boom brought thousands of prospectors and fortune hunters here. From 1949 to 1962, Bates filed monthly reports on life at Arches, and through these reports can be found the history of that time. What follows are excerpts from those reports. – JS.


April 1949

General: On April 11 Russell Mahan left for permanent duty as Superintendent of Colorado National Monument, leaving Ranger Earl Worthington in charge of this area. On April 19 I arrived from El Morro and am just recovering from the confusion and headache of moving.

Weather: Cold raid fell for a solid week, March 27 through April 1, and during the latter part of April we have had three days of high winds. For these thick-blooded guys from El Morro the weather seems quite hot at present, but I understand it is not unusual.

October, 1949

Weather: We have enjoyed warm sunny days and cool nights until winter dropped suddenly out of the sky on October 17 in the form of cold rain and snow which raised the Colorado River two feet at the Moab Bridge. Court House Wash ran for three days making it necessary to close the entrance road. One visitor who didn’t believe in signs sank deep in the quick sand and abandoned his car when the water started running in the window.

Special Visitors: Mr. John Ford, motion picture director for Argosy Productions, arrived in Moab October 4 to look over a location for the making of a picture in this area. He and his business manager, Mr. Farrell, spent three days around Moab and were shown through the monument. They said that their biggest problem would be making a choice of scenery and not finding it. On or two shots will be made in the monument.

June, 1950

Personnel: Ranger Worthington took annual leave May 28 through June 2 in order to take care of personal business in Nephi, Utah. I took four days leave and worked as an extra in John Ford’s current picture, Rio Bravo. I signed up as a calvary man, but much to the disgust of my young son, I found myself, the first day, with a calico dress over my blue & gold uniform riding in a covered wagon.

July, 1953

Interpretive Devices: The Cove Nature Trail is in extremely poor condition. Due to the dry weather, no rain this year, the Green Ephedra is brown and all specimens are poor. The Whipple Fish Hook Cactus has been transplanted several times, but within a few days it disappears. Evidently some people take the name of the cactus literally and hook on to it. The Galleta, Needle-and-Thread and Indian Rice grasses are still dormant and most of these specimens have been tramped out or covered with blowing sand. Even the Rabbitbrush is in sad shape. The stakes have been moved to better specimens but it is doubtful that the common person can tell one type of brown, probably dead, grass from the other.

April, 1954

Commercial Power: Commercial electricity for Arches was delayed for another 30 days pending the development of an AEC Uranium Ore sampling plant ½ mile below our headquarters. Mr. Charles Steen has just announced that the Utex Corp. and other interests are going to build a 4 ½ million dollar Uranium processing plant in the same area. This should put the AEC in business; one large sub-station will probably be built to serve the entire operation and power will be underlined back to us. This should cut down on the initial cost of the line since we do not have to pay for sub-station.

June, 1954

Stabilization of Delicate Arch: When tests are made with the Ethyl Silicate, which is being sent to us by Gordon Vivian, we will compare them with those using the Silicone preparation now on hand and then plans for the most practical application will be made. With the present program of work I doubt if this job can be done by June 30.

July, 1954

State Construction: A new bridge across the Colorado River has been started. The old one-way bridge has begun to succumb to the wheels of the atomic age. An armed guard is posted to keep the drivers of the uranium Ore trucks from shifting gears on the bridge and enforce the 5 mph speed limit. The heavy truck traffic over the bridge has increased many times in the last few weeks with the stockpiling of ore at the new AEC sampling plant and we understand the highway engineers are alarmed over the accelerated deterioration of the old bridge.
Administration Cont.: Rumors are flying in Moab that Arches is to be opened up for Uranium mining. The personnel at this monument does not know a thing about it and in the past three weeks we have seen several faces fall and a few million dollars fade from the eyes of would-be minders who are sure they would be another Charley Steen if the monument were only opened up.

Landscape Arch.

Landscape Arch.

September, 1954

Near Accident: One over-ambitious picture taking visitor, in an attempt to climb down on top of Landscape Arch, found himself in a spot where he could not climb up or down, and had to yell for help. A visitor reported his predicament to Ranger Fischer and he in turn reported to Headquarters. Ranger Morris and I left immediately with all the rope we could find, but by the time we had reached the Wayside Exhibit we learned that the man in trouble had cut foot holds with a hunting knife and come down safely. Another such photographer who tried this same trick in 1950 was picked up in a blanket.

Wayside Exhibit.

Wayside Exhibit.

June, 1955

Local Activities: Moab Canyon from the river bridge to its head is flowing with activity. The telephone line is being rebuilt, the new 138,000 volt power line construction is underway, the survey of the realignment of US 160 has been completed, the natural gas line will be laid soon, the Uranium sampling plant is handling 1 ¼ million dollars worth of ore per month and to top it all off the construction of the new mill, started this week, which according to news reports will cost in the neighborhood of 12 ½ million dollars. It is all interesting but difficult for us to comprehend the vast sums of money being spent.

April, 1956


Ed Abbey as a Park Ranger, 1957.

Personnel: Mr. Edward Abbey EOD as Seasonal Ranger on April 1. He also became a proud father of an eight pound boy on April 19.

May, 1956

Protection: The increasing desire of fools to carve their names in public places has reached the highest level possible in Arches; Delicate Arch. A list of the new names found was made and an attempt to run a bluff by letter will be made with those whose address we have, but to get conclusive evidence we sill have to catch them in the act.

July, 1956

Proposed Park Area: A joint meeting of the Moab Chamber of Commerce and Lions Club was attended at which the possibility of including Dead Horse Point, Grand View Point, and Upheaval Dome in the National Park System was discussed. I advised them to write to the Regional Director for the current status of these three areas. I was also invited to attend a meeting of the Sons of the Utah Pioneers in Salt Lake City, but could not find the time to attend. Their desire is to make those areas, and others, into state parks.


Another Bates Wilson “Field Trip”

Miscellaneous: On August 13 Dr. J.W. Williams, called The Father of the Arches died of a heart attack. He was 103 years of age. Dr. Williams was instrumental in starting the movement to create Arches National Monument and the proclamation was signed April 12, 1929 by President Hoover with his personal fountain pen.

September, 1956

Personnel: Due to family complications it was necessary for Ranger Abbey to leave a week before his termination time was due. We were sorry to have him leave early and hope he will be back next summer.

Supervisory Ranger Lloyd M. Pierson arrived the evening of the 9th. I am afraid that this area will not provide a great deal of archeology for Lloyd and the quarters are definitely not like those at Chaco; however school for his children is only five miles away and apparently Lloyd has the ability to adapt himself to any area.

August, 1957

Grand County Sheriff’s Office: Two days were spent by Superintendent Wilson and one day each by Rangers Pierson, John Abbey and Ed Abbey in searching for a missing man, 70 year old Clinton Kjar, in the Upheaval Dome area. The search party was led by Sheriff John Stocks. Ranger John Abbey found the body on the second day of the search; the man apparently died of a heart attack or heat exhaustion while taking pictures.


Arches NM Float for the July 4th Parade.

November, 1959

Protection: Due to the misuse of the area by local “Pipe-Rattlers” and nocturnal “Beer-Can-Spreaders” it was necessary to close the area between the hours of 6:00 p.m. And 6:00 a.m. This thoughtless group is in the minority and local sentiment against their actions runs high. I doubt if it will be necessary to continue the closing of the area for very long.

January, 1960

Office Move: The big event of the New Year was our move to the new offices in the Visitor Center. This was accomplished on February 1, and our three desks and two file cabinets, which more than filled the 12′ x 20′ CCC Barracks Office, seem completely lost in the new space provided; however an order has been placed to complete our furniture needs for the entire building. At the moment the only available seating for the visitor is in the restrooms.

November, 1960

Protection & Ranger Services: All members of the staff, save the Superintendent, got their deer this year. “Ol Deadeye’s” eyes were not dead eyeing. Add to this one case of acute Buck Fever and you don’t bring home the bacon.
In 1962, Bates turned the chore of writing monthly reports to his Chief Ranger, Slim Mabery. In October, 1964, Slim made this notation:

Special Activities: Canyonlands has been established as our 32nd National Park and Superintendent Wilson has been in the area with various planning groups throughout most of the month. Inspection teams and planning groups have included engineers, architects and park planners from the WASO, WODC, and Regional Staffs.


An inspection team surveys Canyonlands National Park.

On the 15th Superintendent Wilson met Secretary Udall in Salt Lake City where his appointment to Superintendent of Canyonlands and promotion were announced to the public at a press conference held by the Secretary.

All photos of Bates Wilson courtesy of Anne Wilson.

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3 comments for “BATES WILSON: The ‘Father of Canyonlands NP’…in his own words

  1. Rebecca McCann
    July 18, 2015 at 11:57 am

    Station at needles 1965 to 1968, as wife of Robert Devine, mat Ryan was district arranger
    I have many Bates stories

  2. Bob dunnagan
    February 6, 2018 at 11:42 am

    Hi Rebecca…. by the time you got to the needles I had left for The Island. I was first in the needles in 1949 or ‘50 and then again in 1964. Arrived at Cave Springs prior to xmas and camped in the cave until the first two trailers arrived. Mat, Rosemary, Nancy and I along with two kids worked there until I was transferred to the Island as Dist Ranger after Ed Rothfuss left.

    I have lots of fond memories of Cany before and after it became a national park along with memories of the Dugout, and Pack Creek ranches and the tiny town of Moab and Charlie Steen before he made the big time.

  3. Alice Fanks
    March 23, 2020 at 6:32 pm

    Very nice article. Bates Wilson was one of the nicest men I ever met. I am the daughter of the very first permanent ranger at Arches National Monument, Earl Worthington. The area above our houses and the ranger station/repair shop was my playground. Bates had a daughter my age and we had many adventures at Arches. Our house was interesting, but it was what the government could afford. My father was one of the men who first went into what is now Canyonlands to explore it.

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