America The Beautiful: How Colorado Springs Shaped A Patriotic Anthem

Nov 20, 2017

Katherine Lee Bates
Credit Wikimedia Commons - Public Domain

Of all the works of art that have been inspired by or created in Colorado Springs, perhaps none is more famous than the song, "America the Beautiful." It's a patriotic song nearly as recognizable and beloved as the National Anthem itself.

But despite the song’s popularity, the woman behind those famous lyrics is less well known. A new book called Katharine Lee Bates: From Sea to Shining Sea, by author Melinda M. Ponder, examines the life of poet Katharine Lee Bates, who wrote the first draft of "America the Beautiful" while teaching in Colorado Springs in the summer of 1893. Ponder spoke with 91.5 KRCC about how Bates' experience in Colorado Springs shaped her patriotism.

91.5 KRCC: I want to jump right into a period of time in the life of Katharine Lee Bates that you dub, “the enchanted summer” -- the summer of 1893. Who was Katharine Lee Bates at this moment in her life?

"I think that it completely empowered her, that summer out here. I think it transformed her into feeling that she could do this, and her voice was necessary."

Melinda Ponder: She had been born in 1859 on the eve of the Civil War and grown up in Falmouth, a small village on Cape Cod. She went to Wellesley, graduating in its second class. She became a teacher and eventually came back and was a professor there. Her Wellesley colleague and dear friend Katharine Coman suggested that they come teach summer school in Colorado Springs at a Colorado College sponsored summer school. That is why she came.

91.5 KRCC: Colorado Springs at that time was a little oasis of sophistication an east coast sensibility in the West…

Melinda Ponder: East Coast and British sensibility. There was a Tuesday Club where the British women helped the local women with their pronunciation of English words, polo was played on the prairie, you know, afternoon teas. But luckily while she was here she also went over to Cripple Creek so she saw this gold mining boom town. So she said she saw two Wests when she was here.

91.5 KRCC: And she was also quite taken with the landscape.

Melinda Ponder: Loved the landscape. I mean I can imagine how it was to see these wonderful mountains when she got here. And then she had this wonderful trip up to the top of Pikes Peak and she'd never seen anything like that.

91.5 KRCC: And that's kind of a fateful moment.

Melinda Ponder
Credit Courtesy of the author

Melinda Ponder: Yes

91.5 KRCC: Paint a picture, if you would, of that trip up Pikes Peak.

Melinda Ponder: First, this group took the train to Cascade and there they got into a wagon that was pulled by horses, which said “Pikes Peak or Bust” on it. Then at the halfway house they changed and mules took over the ride up. I think as she looked out on the 360-degree view from up there, you know, you see the purple mountain majesty, the ridges stretching out in all directions and you don't see territories or boundaries -- of course the kind of thing that causes conflict. This was at a time when the silver mines were closing and people were arguing about the silver or the gold standard. And there were jobless men homeless on the streets of Colorado Springs. So there she was up above all this where she could have kind of a transcendent experience, and think of trying to bring the country together.

91.5 KRCC: So in her attempt to write a poem that somehow expresses something essential about America and American identity there's a kind of urgency to that mission, it seems, a need to respond to a kind of crisis taking place in the country.

Melinda Ponder: That’s right. She really wrote this I think as a prayer for the country. It was a prayer for God to “shed his grace on thee” to help this country that needed help. It was a celebration in a sense but it was a reminder to people of what they had in common.

"She used her writing to educate her readers to understand other people and to lift their values."

91.5 KRCC: So much of the song and imagery in the song is rooted in the landscape. What do you make of that? Do you think that's significant?

Melinda Ponder: Yes. I think she could see that that was something we all loved. It didn't matter what political party you were in. So I think that was common ground and there's common ground in the history that she mentions, the “patriot dream” that she talks about in the song. “America the Beautiful” is really about creating a national community -- I think that's its hope. She said later that people love the song because she felt Americans were really idealists at heart.

91.5 KRCC: So the fact that Katharine Lee Bates writes this song that does symbolize idealism and a certain dream for America -- and the fact that it was inspired by her experiences out here in the West -- was it her experience out here that gave her some hope for the country?

Melinda Ponder: Yes. Yes. I think that it completely empowered her, that summer out here. I think it transformed her into feeling that she could do this, and her voice was necessary. I think that especially seeing the women out here but also even in Cripple Creek, the independence and the idea that anybody could strike it rich, including the women who have who did there. She admired that.

91.5 KRCC: Why do you think Katharine Lee Bates, after all these years, remains an important figure, someone who is worth dedicating a book to?

Melinda Ponder: Because I think she was a trailblazer in her life. She was friends with all these colleagues at Wellesley who were social reformers out on the ramparts and she used her writing in various ways. Her textbook on American literature included women and, God forbid, Walt Whitman and Thoreau. She used her writing to educate her readers to understand other people and to lift their values.