Big future for Chimney Rock?

Monument status could double annual tourist traffic in 5 years

Rooms within the Great Pueblo complex stand in the shadows of the spires of Chimney Rock Archaeological Area outside of Pagosa Springs. Enlargephoto

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Rooms within the Great Pueblo complex stand in the shadows of the spires of Chimney Rock Archaeological Area outside of Pagosa Springs.

Visitors to the Chimney Rock Archaeological Area find a landscape of stark, silent beauty. They find a place to contemplate the ancient past and to ask questions that may never be answered. Chimney Rock is a reminder of our status as the most recent stitch woven into a colorful human tapestry. And reportedly, it soon will receive a promotion.

In August, sources confirmed that President Barack Obama would use executive authority, under the 1906 Antiquities Act, to designate Chimney Rock as a national monument.

The escarpments at Chimney Rock have been around far longer than have people to observe them. Palm-leaf imprints and prehistoric fish fossils embedded in the sandstone hint at a wetter age. A shallow sea once flooded the area.

Chimney Rock’s twin spires have not always been so prominent. The inexorable forces of nature — water, erosion, time — carved the rocks into their current shape over millions of years.

Starting in the 9th century, Chimney Rock became home to people who found meaning in the heavens and eked out a hardscrabble day-to-day existence in, by that time, a semi-arid climate.

Original settlers

Anthropologists believe Chimney Rock was inhabited by ancestral Puebloans — forbearers of the Hopi, Zuni and Acoma pueblo tribes, among others — from A.D. 850 to 1130. While still debated, most scholars agree they arrived in two main phases. Earlier groups tilled fertile soil near the Piedra River, growing maize and beans. Not until about 1050 did migrants from Salmon or Chaco Canyon, the great but short-lived civilization in present-day New Mexico, trek north to join them.

Both the original settlers and the newcomers viewed the skies as sacred, said Shelleah Conitchan, day manager for the Chimney Rock Interpretive Association. The Association offers guided tours under a special-use permit from the U.S. Forest Service.

“It was a mindset of being in tune with natural patterns and rhythms,” Conitchan said, adding: “Otherwise, (the Puebloans) were just like us. They had to survive, cook, raise the next generation. They were smart people. We underestimate them.”

Chimney Rock’s location dovetails with one special cosmic phenomenon: the lunar standstill.

The Puebloans observed that the moon rose between the two spires, like clockwork, for a 30-month period every 18.6 years. During that time the moon appears to stay in place at the northern edge of its orbit — “similar to the pause of a swinging pendulum when it reverses its swing,” said Kim Malville, a former University of Colorado astrophysics professor.

Lunar activity made an impression on the locals. They responded by covering the mesa beneath Chimney Rock with stone structures: a 35-room Great House (complete with two ceremonial kivas), a defensive “guardhouse” atop a narrow “causeway” and dozens of pit-house domiciles.

The buildings may have been coated by a white gypsum plaster. Malville suggests, based on tree-ring samples, that the Great House was built in two stages — in 1073 and 1096 — to match successive lunar standstills. The next cycle will occur in 2022.

Viewing the standstill was a major milestone for the locals. Most only witnessed one or two, given the average Puebloan lifespan of 40 years. And certain evidence suggests Chimney Rock was a sacred site for sojourning pilgrims to visit – a natural observatory of sorts.

“Artifacts not native to the area, like red pottery and abalone necklaces, could have been gifts, trade items or offerings,” Conitchan said.

Construction on the mesa required hauling building materials up steep inclines, 1,000 feet above the nearest water source. But for all their effort, the Puebloan inhabitants left mere decades later. Experts cite incursions by rival tribes, resource depletion and prolonged drought as possible causes for the exodus. The specifics remain a mystery.

The beginning

Chimney Rock kept a lonely watch over the abandoned ruins for nearly a millennium. When Jean Allard Jeancon began excavating in June 1921, most masonry and artifacts were hidden beneath layers of sediment. Jeancon and his team uncovered crumbling pit houses and scores of domestic items like grinding stones, ceramic pitchers and corn kernels of different strains.

“The above-ground pit houses were built on bedrock. If earth was soft, they dug down. The walls are four to five feet thick,” Conitchan said. “They had roofs at one time, resembling a truncated pyramid. The entrance was a rectangular opening at the top. You’d enter with a ladder into the living space.”

Interest in the site revived when Chimney Rock was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. Another CU professor, Frank Eddy, picked up excavating where Jeancon left off. He partially restored the Great House rooms and kivas to make them viable for public tours.

“Most of the walls had buckled because of the elements and condensation getting between the rocks,” Conitchan said.

Endangered peregrine falcons nesting in a crevice nearby put research on hiatus for 15 years. Authorities cordoned off the area because falcon populations were suffering the effects of widespread DDT spraying. Use of the toxic insecticide tapered off in the 1980s, and work resumed.

A new discovery in 1996 came from an unexpected source. As part of a science fair project, Farmington high schooler Kathy Freeman hypothesized that ancient Puebloans could communicate between outposts with fire or smoke signals. Freeman set up a series of mirrors at Chimney Rock, “repeater station” Huerfano Mesa and Chaco Canyon to the south. The test worked.

Conitchan set the scene. “Just imagine it: nobody around, quiet, just a hint of wind,” she said. “Suddenly you see a flicker or glimmer of light. Messages from afar!”

Three years ago, CU’s Steve Lekson and six graduate students removed excess fill, stabilized rooms in the Great House and examined architecture angles to verify that Chimney Rock was a “Chacoan outlier” (a satellite community allied with the central hub in Chaco Canyon).

Then-doctoral student Brenda Kaye Todd said the stabilization was necessary because “excavated rooms shared walls with unexcavated (rooms), placing an immense amount of stress on the 1,000-year-old masonry.”

All this rebuilding means the ruins at Chimney Rock are the closest they’ve ever been to their original state.

If a recent economic analysis is correct, monument status could bring more exposure to Chimney Rock. The June report, published by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and a Denver consulting firm, estimated that annual tourism would double in five years, to 24,000 visitors. Limited parking space and volunteers mean that number would be the “carrying capacity” unless facilities are expanded.

The new designation could spur more funds for expansion, preservation and research. It also would generate an additional $1.2 million for the area economy, according to the report.

Conitchan, like most Chimney Rock enthusiasts, supports monument status — “I want to give it the credit it deserves,” she said — but hopes the rise in foot traffic won’t change Chimney Rock’s quaint vibe.

“Our style is more informal, less commercialized,” she said. “We lead small tour groups where you don’t have to hurry. You can take time to explore and ask questions. It’s just people talking and being people together, trying to imagine seeing the same things the ancients saw.”

“It’s all about connections for the visitors” explains Shelleah Conitchan, Day Manager of Chimney Rock Archaeological Area as she discusses the experience at the Great Pueblo complex of the area. Enlargephoto

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

“It’s all about connections for the visitors” explains Shelleah Conitchan, Day Manager of Chimney Rock Archaeological Area as she discusses the experience at the Great Pueblo complex of the area.