It’s About Time column: William Grandstaff and the Red Mountain Cross
It’s About Time
Describing the life of William Grandstaff in detail is challenging, as much of his time on earth is shrouded in mystery. What little is known doesn’t tell us much about him as a fellow human being.
The 1900 United States federal census lists William as age 60, born January 1840 in Alabama. His father and mother came from Louisiana. The record shows Bill as a widower. We do know he married Rebecca in 1891; she died in 1895. Bill would die alone in his cabin on Red Mountain in Glenwood Springs in the summer of 1901.
Before coming to Glenwood Springs, Grandstaff lived in the Moab, Utah, area from 1877 to 1881. He has a canyon in the area named after him, Negro Bill Canyon, though later this original name was considered a racial slur. In 2016 the Bureau of Land Management replaced the sign at the trailhead with a new one that reads Grandstaff Trailhead.
The book “A History of Moab, Utah,” by Fawn McConkie Tanner, says William lived in an abandoned fort north of town with a trapper known as Frenchie. Grandstaff planted a garden there and kept a small herd of cattle, leaving it all behind in 1881 when he was accused of selling whiskey to local Indians.
There is mention of Bill running a shoeshine stand in Salida, but it remains unknown the exact year he came to the Glenwood Springs area. Records show a Grandstaff Ferry at the South Canyon Coal Camp in 1887 when things were booming there.
Page three of the October 1891 edition of the Avalanche Echo mentions, “W. J. Grandstaff, of the hot sulphur springs of South Canyon, has been in the city for the past few days arranging the sale of the springs to E. H. Watson.”
Soon William was living in a cabin on Red Mountain where he worked mining claims named Dexter, Red Man, Japhet and Ham. Documents in the Garfield County Clerk and Recorder’s Office show he filed these claims from September 1886 through August 1898.
By the summer of 1901 William was in ill health. When friends in town hadn’t seen him for a few weeks, a local young black child named George “Luther” Kinney was sent up Red Mountain to check on Bill. Upon entering the cabin Luther found William had died in bed.
The funeral was held near his cabin, which was burned down for health reasons. The Avalanche Echo records that, “Old Deacon Jones, who had been Grandstaff’s friend in town, went away and picked a handful of flowers, and without a word laid them on the crude coffin just as it was lowered into the grave.”
Legend has it that Bill was buried under a dead cross-shaped tree, which over the years eventually fell down. In 1951, employees of Glenwood Springs Electric Company replaced the tree cross with a large wooden cross that measured 40 by 18 feet.
Because the cross was erected on city property, a challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union forced the removal of the cross and its relocation to private property near the top of Red Mountain. Soon after removal, the nonprofit Red Mountain Cross Preservation Association was founded to rebuild and take care of the cross, which now stands 66 feet tall.
A community tradition for nearly 70 years, the cross is lit to commemorate holidays including Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.
Its light has shown bright at darker times as well, such as after the 1994 Storm King/South Canyon Fire fatalities and the Twin Towers terrorists attack on Sept. 11, 2001.
During the bustle of the holiday season, I urge you to take time to look up at what began as a simple reminder of one man’s life and has become a symbol of community goodwill.
Bill Kight is the executive director of the Glenwood Springs Historical Society and writes a monthly column about history. He can be reached at 970-945-4448.
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