When a 33-year-old Wellesley College professor reached the top of Pikes Peak on July 22, 1893, she was so moved she scribbled a poem that became America the Beautiful.
Katharine Lee Bates was teaching English at Colorado College in Colorado Springs that summer. She 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.
As soon as she reached her room at the Antlers Hotel she wrote down the poem, which she called ‘Pikes Peak.’ It morphed into America the Beautiful, with music by Samuel A. Ward. Ward found inspiration to write the tune on a ferry boat ride from Coney Island. He used a friend’s shirt cuff to write it down. The first version with Bates’ words and Ward’s music was published in 1910, and it caught on quickly.
Katharine Lee Bates
Katharine Lee Bates was born Aug. 12, 1859 in Falmouth, Mass., to Congregationalist pastor William Bates and his wife, Cornelia Frances Lee Bates. She graduated from Wellesley High School and Wellesley College in 1880. She taught for a few years, returned to Wellesley for her master’s degree, then to Oxford University for a year.
While teaching at Wellesley she also wrote prolifically: poetry, travel books and children’s books. Her second most noted work was a poem called Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride, which popularized Mrs. Santa Claus.
She never married. A colleague once described unmarried women as “a fringe on the garment of life.” She retorted, “I always thought the fringe had the best of it. I don’t think I mind not being woven in.”
From 1890 to 1915, she lived with Katharine Coman, founder of Wellesley’s economic department, in a Boston marriage.
Katharine Lee Bates died in Wellesley, Mass., on Sept. 28, 1929.
America the Beautful, of course, lived on as one of the most beloved patriotic hymns in the United States. Many, many people have recorded it, including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Whitney Houston, the Boston Pops Orchestra, Aretha Franklin and Charlie Rich. Ray Charles delivered one of the most memorable versions during America’s Bicentennial, then reprised it after 9/11. Newscaster Dan Rather cried briefly on The David Letterman Show while reciting the fourth verse just after the attacks, and the song became an alternate national anthem.
Photo of Katharine Lee Bates by RL, Find a Grave. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. This story last updated in 2022.