Back in the 1860s, Iowa was considered the West, said Philip Koch, who teaches at the Colorado School of Mines. Colorado, which wasn’t a state yet, was considered the Far West. A mining spasm had hit the area in 1859, but it was still considered a wild area with American Indians running around.
In the eastern United States, stories were also circulating about mountain peaks as high as 18,000 or 19,000 feet here and in California. Colorado hadn’t been surveyed or mapped yet, so a group of scientists, mostly faculty, graduates and students from Harvard, came to the Arkansas Valley in summer 1869 in search of the highest point in the United States, among other things.
“The nation was only four years out of the Civil War,” Koch said. “It was exhausted and looking west.”
Koch, who’s an expert on the expedition, said they came through Denver and Georgetown and then used mining towns like Granite and Hamilton and Montezuma.
A lot of topographic methods were employed back then. Some used trigonometry and others astronomy. The Harvard group used mercury barometers to determine elevations, which are sensitive to atmospheric pressure, Koch said. They’d leave one barometer at the base camp and carry the other one on their backs to the summit and then compare the results.
On Aug. 18, 1869, Koch said six or seven members from the crew summited Mount Yale, only to look over and realize another peak was higher.
So the next day, Aug. 19, they sent two of the expedition’s junior members who had fresh legs up to the summit of the unnamed mountain for a first ascent, Stephen Paschall Sharples and William Morris Davis.
There were no trails to the top of the mountains, so they had to bushwhack their way to the top while carrying a barometer. It also snowed on them, adding another challenge. Koch said they left that morning at 7 a.m. and didn’t get back to base camp until 11 p.m.
When they looked at the barometer’s results, Koch said they knew they had made the highest measurement to date. They named the mountain Mount Harvard. They also named the peak they measured the day before Mount Yale since the two people leading the expedition had both graduated from Yale, Josiah Dwight Whitney and William Henry Brewer.
The two-month expedition also put some rumors to rest, although Koch said they weren’t so brash as to assume they had found the highest point in the country. They had found what turned out to be the third highest.
Their results said Mount Harvard was 14,500 feet tall, which has since been adjusted to 14,421 by the National Geodetic Survey, which is responsible for measuring geographic features in the U.S.
“Using 19th century technology and a lot of sweat, that’s pretty darn good,” Koch said.
The GDS now uses satellites to measure mountains.
After Mount Elbert was discovered to be taller than Mount Harvard, Koch said one group of alumni carried a 22-foot pole to the top of Mount Harvard, thinking it would help make the mountain taller.
Koch also said that they initially called Harvard and Yale the “College Peaks.” It was only after Columbia, Princeton and Oxford were named that they became the Collegiate Peaks.
This year on Aug. 19, a group of Harvard alums and their friends and family will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the event by hiking to the top of Mount Harvard.
“We’re trying to celebrate the achievement that has been pretty much forgotten,” Koch said.
He said at least 35 people will participate in the event, taking precautions not to harm the land since it is in a wilderness area. He said they’ll commemorate the event by hiking the roughly 13.6 miles out and back and gaining 4,500 feet to reach the peak in the process.
“I’m encouraging them to be in shape,” Koch said.
The event will also serve as a reminder about what the crew went on to do after the expedition.
“All of the junior members went on to do some remarkable things, and they got their first look at the world out here in Colorado,” Koch said. “It was a fun time in history, and some important things were done that are still around today.”