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Saving Sunset Crater from Hollywood

This 1929 photograph shows the road on Sunset Crater.

This 1929 photograph shows the road on Sunset Crater.

In the 1920s, a Hollywood director wanted to blow up the side of Sunset Crater for a movie avalanche scene. Flagstaff residents immediately objected to the destruction of the natural wonder. Fortunately, the crater is located in the Coconino National Forest, so it was protected from the immediate threat and the movie company was denied a permit for the project.

The threat, however, spurred the community to try to permanently protect and preserve the site.

Museum of Northern Arizona (MNA) co-founder Harold S. Colton and University of Arizona geology student Charles Park along with interested community members began discussions about getting the crater listed as a national monument.

The museum had recently opened and was struggling to establish itself as a scientific research and exhibition museum. Colton and Park made a careful study that led to a report of the outstanding geologic and volcanic features of Sunset Crater. This report and a cover letter from the U.S. Forest Service were sent to the National Park Service in Washington, D.C. Shortly thereafter, Sunset Crater received national monument status. In 1990, the name was changed to Sunset Crater Volcanic National Monument.

The geologically-young, 1,000 foot-high, classic cinder cone sits on the eastern side of the San Francisco Peaks inner basin. Its resemblance to the colors of a sunset is caused by oxidation of the cinders on the rim. Legend says that John Wesley Powell named the crater at sunset one day when he was exploring the region. The name does not appear on an 1883 map of Arizona, but it was called Sunset Peak on a 1912 map, and by 1923 it was known as Sunset Crater.

Not long after Flagstaff residents worked to get the crater site protected, MNA Curator of Geology Lionel “Major” Brady and an Australian friend were exploring the crater’s rim by car and noticed potsherds entangled in upended tree roots. During that time people could still drive to the top of Sunset Crater, likely unaware that their tracks would last for decades and affect plant life. Although vehicles are no longer allowed that close, the tracks left by earlier explorers may still be seen.

Brady reported his findings at the crater to Colton, the museum co-founder, and MNA Curator of Archaeology Lyndon Hargrave. Hargrave and Andrew E. Douglass were developing the science of tree-ring dating through the use of wooden beams at Native American sites. Their efforts dated a major eruption of Sunset Crater to 1066 A.D.

Hargrave and his crew also surveyed the area for pre-volcanic eruption settlement evidence. Sites were found and subsequently excavated and have led to today’s knowledge of the lives of these prehistoric populations. Hargrave also developed the science of archaeo-ornithology from the bird remains found in these sites.

Ultimately, Hollywood’s bad idea resulted in a positive outcome. Sunset Crater was saved for future generations and the Museum of Northern Arizona, through its research and involvement in the preservation of the site, elevated its status locally and nationally.

— S.D. Olberding. Photo courtesy of USFS Fort Valley Experimental Forest Archives.

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