UW History Professor Tells Story of Cody Caves Shift from National Monument to Hole in Ground

September 17, 2012
Historic photo of people standing by cave
This photo, taken by Cody photographer F.J. Hiscock in 1909, shows a group of people at the entrance to Shoshone Cavern shortly after its discovery. Among the group was William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, standing at center with his distinctive goatee. This photo is on the cover of UW History Professor Phil Roberts’ new book, “Cody’s Cave: National Monuments and the Politics of Public Lands in the 20th Century West.” (Wyoming Division of Cultural Resources, State Parks and Cultural Resources Department)

University of Wyoming History Professor Phil Roberts has published a new book exploring a little-known chapter in Wyoming history.

The book -- “Cody’s Cave: National Monuments and the Politics of Public Lands in the 20th Century West” -- examines the 1909 establishment of Shoshone Cavern National Monument near Cody, and its subsequent loss of national monument status.

“The case of Shoshone Cavern is a story of both success and failure for a policy embraced by many Westerners who sought to gain local or private control over the vast federal lands,” Roberts writes. “However, the politics of the transfer don’t play into the narrative of federal-state conflict and, thus, historians have ignored the story.”

Shoshone Cavern, located on Cedar Mountain west of Cody, was discovered in January 1909 by Ned Frost, a well-known local rancher, while he was hunting bobcats. After being designated as a national monument by President William Howard Taft later that year, the cave -- described as one of the deepest in North America -- was neglected by the National Park Service.

Local and state officials convinced the federal government in the 1950s to turn the property over to the city of Cody for development as a tourist attraction. But those efforts failed, and the cave was transferred to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in 1978. Today, the cave is basically a hole in the ground with a gate over it to prevent access, largely forgotten even by locals, Roberts says.

In addition to describing in great detail the discovery of the cave -- along with the failed attempts to develop it as a tourist attraction, and the political wrangling over its ownership -- Roberts places Shoshone Cavern in context with conflicts over public lands and preservation played out in other places such as Devils Tower, Yellowstone National Park and South Pass City.

“The story is a cautionary tale for those who may believe that federal designation equates with permanent protection for a site they may cherish,” he writes. “But it is also a reminder to local communities who may believe federal agencies cannot manage local lands as well as local communities can do it.”

Published by Skyline West Press in Laramie, the book is available in bookstores and museum shops statewide.

A UW faculty member since 1990, Roberts has served as editor of “Annals of Wyoming.” He is co-author (with his two brothers) of “Wyoming Almanac,” now in its fifth edition, and his edited textbook, “Readings in Wyoming History,” is in its fourth edition.

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