The Bureau of Reclamation’s Push to Create the Shoshone Cavern National Monument

Image of map of Shoshone Cavern National Monument
1928 General Land Office Plat showing Shoshone Cavern National Monument, with subsequent handwritten annotations noting the transfer of ownership.

Today’s post is written by Cody White, Archivist at the National Archives at Denver.

“The cave was discovered by a man and his dog.” So University of Wyoming Professor Emeritus of History Phil Roberts succinctly explained it in a 2015 Wyoming State Historical Society blog post about Shoshone Cavern, Wyoming’s second named national monument and the only one ever delisted in the state when it was turned over to the City of Cody in 1954.

As the story goes, chronicled in Roberts’ richly detailed book Cody’s Cave; National Monuments and the Politics of Public Lands in the 20th Century West, Ned Frost and his pack of hunting dogs were chasing a bobcat on the east side of Cedar Mountain just west of Cody, Wyoming in January of 1909 when the bobcat simply disappeared. Investigating further, Frost discovered an entrance and using matchsticks was partially able to see the splendor of the first cave chamber, one of many that led deep into the mountain. After marking the location, Frost returned with friends and supplies to explore what would soon be called Crystal Cave. Shortly thereafter even William “Buffalo Bill” Cody himself toured the cave and extolled the tourism possibilities for the fledging town that bore his name.

Roberts notes that on February 16 the Secretary of the Interior wrote the Commissioner of the General Land Office that the land including the cave should be withdrawn from the public domain in anticipation of it being named a national monument. The question is, how did the Secretary learn of the discovery? Did Cody write to Washington, D.C. to pressure officials into designating the newly discovered cave a national monument? It is quite possible he had some hand in it, as our Bureau of Reclamation correspondence files feature a spate of letters from Cody to both the Secretary of the Interior and the Director of the U.S. Reclamation Service advocating or complaining about various things, so it is clear the great showman was not shy about writing to officials. But as a recently discovered folder of Shoshone River Project correspondence from throughout 1909 shows, Reclamation officials first broached the issue in a February 14 telegram and actually worked throughout much of the year, at times with the General Land Office, preparing the cave for its monument designation.

Image of Feb. 14 Telegram
Reclamation Service Supervising Engineer H.N. Savage drafted this telegram on February 13 and it was sent on the 14, imploring the Director of the U.S. Reclamation Service to withdraw the land sections containing the cavern entrance.

On February 27, the Acting Director of the U.S. Reclamation Service, Morris Bien, replies to the telegram, remarking that some of the proposed land for withdrawal had already been done so by the agency for “power purposes” on February 16. Special concerns were noted for section five, where the cave mouth was, as it had been withdrawn for tunnel purposes in 1904 but it was generally assumed it would not be needed and so eventually restored. A diagram of the land in question was requested to begin the process of withdrawal.

Image of Correspondence: Morris Bien to Supervising Engineer
Morris Bien to Supervising Engineer, 2/27/1909 (Withdrawal and Restoration Files, 1902-1945, NAID 2568964, Box 143).

One month later and still no diagram. On April 5, Bien writes Savage and notes now that the sections withdrawn for power site investigation are being restored; if they want to preserve the land with the cavern they are going to need that requested diagram and legal land description to get the ball rolling. But alas, April showers bring May flowers and May brings … the intrusion of the Commissioner of Public Lands of Wyoming. Bien writes again to Savage, noting that the State of Wyoming has learned of the cave and wants it under state control. It is now up to the Secretary of Interior to either push for the national monument designation or let the state have it. And again, they are awaiting the diagram.

Image of May 14 Telegram
Morris Bien to Supervising Engineer, 5/14/1909 (Withdrawal and Restoration Files, 1902-1945, NAID 2568964, Box 143).

On June 24, Savage finally comes through, sending drawing S-1570 and his recommendations on what lands should be withdrawn.

Image of June 24 Letter
H.N. Savage, Supervising Engineer, to Director, U.S. Reclamation Service, 6/24/1909 (Withdrawal and Restoration Files, 1902-1945, NAID 2568964, Box 143).
Image of blueprint drawing 1570
Bureau of Reclamation drawing S-1570 from June 19, 1909, showing the location of Crystal Cave (Withdrawal and Restoration Files, 1902-1945, NAID 2568964, Box 143).

In August, Savage receives word that the General Land Office too had drafted a diagram of the area in question and alas, the section lines do not match. According to the letter, the General Land Office prepared the proclamation for President Taft to sign and is awaiting reconciliation of the issue.

Image of Aug. 3 letter.
Morris Bien to Supervising Engineer, 8/3/1909 (Withdrawal and Restoration Files, 1902-1945, NAID 2568964, Box 143).

By this time Savage had been replaced with acting supervising engineer Charles Williams, who replies to the Director that “considerable confusion exists in the land lines” and that Constructing Engineer D.W. Cole has been brought in to help resolve the issue. This time there is no delay and on August 28, drawing S-1760 along with the exact legal land description of the proposed monument is submitted to Bien. On September 10, Bien writes to the General Land Office that with the land discrepancy corrected, “it is the understanding of this office that the matter of such reservation by Presidential Proclamation is to be taken up by your office and accordingly no recommendation therefor has been made to the Department by this office.” Eleven days later, on September 21, 1909, Shoshone Cavern National Monument was established.

The monument ultimately suffered from years of neglect by the National Park Service and as noted earlier, was formally delisted by the U.S. Congress in 1954. However the City of Cody and local entrepreneurs too were unable to successfully exploit the now named Spirit Mountain Cave for tourism and in 1977 the Cody City Council returned the land to the federal government, where it is now administered by the Bureau of Land Management and can only be toured by appointment.


The correspondence and diagrams discussed here are found in Record Group 115: Records of the Bureau of Reclamation, series Withdrawal and Restoration Files, 1902-1945, (NAID 2568964), Box 143. For more on the cave and the politics behind the subsequent delisting, see:

Roberts, Phil. Cody’s Cave: National Monuments and the Politics of Public Lands in the 20th Century West. Laramie, Wyo.: Skyline West, 2012.