1981 18¢ Purple Mountain Majesties
Issue Date: April 24, 1981
City: Portland, ME
Printed By: Bureau of Engraving and Printing
Printing Method: Engraved
The looming mountains straddling the Continental Divide created a barrier that is as physical as it is symbolic. When schoolteacher Katharine Bates looked out from the summit of Colorado’s Pikes Peak and east over the Great Plains, she was moved to write what would become one of America’s most beloved songs, “America the Beautiful.” Around her lay the purple mountain majesties – tall and snowcapped, a direct contrast to the sea of grain below.
The Continental Divide, or “Great Divide,” not only serves as a boundary between East and West, but also determines where North America’s waters flow. It is just one of the continental divides in North America. The Laurentian Divide is an East-West separator which intersects the Great Divide at Triple Divide Peak in Montana. From that point all rain that falls there flows either east to the Atlantic Ocean (counting the Gulf of Mexico), north to the Arctic Ocean, or west to the Pacific Ocean.
The Great Divide was a barrier in the nation’s westward expansion. As the U.S. followed the ideal of “Manifest Destiny” and progressed to an American flag with 50 stars for 50 states, the vast mountain ranges were just one hurdle to overcome.
America The Beautiful
On July 22, 1893, Katharine Lee Bates wrote America the Beautiful.
In 1893, 33-year-old college professor Katharine Lee Bates traveled to Colorado to teach a short summer English course. Along the way, she stopped at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where the alabaster “White City” moved her. And as she rode the train through America’s heartland she was awestruck by the expansive wheat fields.
As Bates later recalled, “One day some of the other teachers and I decided to go on a trip to 14,000-foot Pikes Peak. We hired a prairie wagon. Near the top we had to leave the wagon and go the rest of the way on mules. I was very tired. But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there, with the sea-like expanse.”
When Bates approached Colorado Springs, she noticed how the granite of Pikes Peak gave the mountains a purple hue. As she stood on the summit of the mountain, a poem came to mind. She returned to her room at the Antlers Hotel and immediately wrote it down. She initially titled the poem, “Pikes Peak.”
Two years later, the poem appeared in the church periodical, The Congregationalist, for the Fourth of July. As the poem gained popularity, it was set to different pieces of music. Perhaps the most popular was Samuel A. Ward’s Materna. The poem and song were first combined in 1910 and titled, America the Beautiful.
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