A Sudden Flash of Inspiration

By Brad Dison

In the summer of 1893, Katharine Lee Bates was teaching English at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Katharine and some of the other teachers decided to visit the summit of Pikes Peak, some 12 miles away as the crow flies. Katharine had learned all she could about the peak’s history before setting off.

Pikes Peak became part of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Soon thereafter, the federal government sent military explorers out to see what the newly acquired property contained. One of those military explorers was Zebulon Pike, the peak’s namesake. His task was to locate the headwaters of the Red and Arkansas rivers. On November 15, 1806, Pike spotted what he called “the Grand Peak” for the first time. Eleven days later, Pike and several of his men attempted to reach its summit. Bad weather and the lack of proper climbing gear ultimately forced them to retreat. Pike never made it to the peak which bears his name. It was another fourteen years, in the summer of 1820, before the first European-American reached the summit.

Climbing the 14,115 feet summit in the 1890s was not an easy feat. Katharine and the other teachers hired a prairie wagon to take them part of the way up the mountain. When the road became too treacherous for the wagon to go on, they mounted donkeys and continued. By the time they reached the top, several hours later, they were all exhausted. Their energy was renewed when they saw the breathtaking views. As Katharine took it all in, she had a sudden flash of inspiration. She pulled out her notebook and began writing. She diverted her gaze from the view just long enough to scribble down a few words at a time.

Throughout her lifetime, Katharine published numerous books, most of which were popular at the time but have largely been forgotten with the passage of time. Her most memorable work was that poem she quickly wrote while taking in the wonderful views from Pikes Peak. Organist Samuel A. Ward happened upon Katharine’s poem and composed music to go along with it. The song was first published in 1910. Since then, hundreds of artists have recorded the song including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and Aretha Franklin. Katharine’s sudden flash of inspiration produced one of the most beloved patriotic songs in American history, “America the Beautiful.”

Her original 1893 poem is still recognizable today, though there are noticeable differences from her later, more popular version.

O beautiful for halcyon skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the enameled plain!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
Till souls wax fair as earth and air
And music-hearted sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
Till paths be wrought through wilds of thought
By pilgrim foot and knee!

O beautiful for glory-tale
Of liberating strife,
When once or twice, for man’s avail,
Men lavished precious life!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
Till selfish gain no longer stain,
The banner of the free!

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
Till nobler men keep once again
Thy whiter jubilee!

1. The Boston Globe, March 29, 1929, p.1.
2. The Kansas Chief (Troy, Kansas), January 2, 1896, p.1.

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