Our responsibility here at Devils Tower included developing a program that we would deliver to visitors as a Ranger Talk. Following is our rendition of the story of George Hopkins, otherwise known as “Devils Tower George”.
The story begins in October 1941 when Devils Tower National Monument made headlines across the nation as George Hopkins jumped from an airplane to the top of the Tower and got stuck with no way down. Now we ask ourselves, who was this person, why was he on Devils Tower, and how was he going to get down?
Before we get into all that, think about this… It was the first part of the 1900s and parachute technology was still very basic by today’s standards.
Who was he?George Hopkins was a 30-year old professional parachutist and known daredevil who already held a number of records for spectacular parachute jumps, but he was looking to push the envelope even further.
Why was he on Devils Tower?Hopkins had several high aspirations. He wanted to set a world record for the number of parachute jumps in a single day. He also had made a $50 bet with eccentric entrepreneur, Earl Brockelsby, that he would become the first person to reach the top of Devils Tower by parachute. Thinking that a little publicity wouldn’t hurt, he determined that a single, spectacular jump would do the trick of proving that a parachutist could land precisely on a small target and he figured that the Tower summit being just about the size of a football field should work just fine. It should be noted here that Hopkins was by no means a slouch when it came to the up and coming sport of skydiving. In fact, one of the ways he made a living was by leaping from burning planes for motion pictures. In other words, he was fairly confident he’d be able to make the jump despite random, sometimes severe up and down drafts around the Tower.
So, without the consent or knowledge of the National Park Service, Hopkins left Rapid City, South Dakota, at daybreak on October 1st in a two-passenger plane piloted by Joe Quinn. The morning had dawned clear and cold with a ground wind blowing about 35 miles per hour – all seemed fine. In fact, Hopkins had only tolda single newspaper reporter from the Sundance Times that he would be performing the stunt, promising them exclusive coverage of the event on the condition that they not tell anyone until afterward.
When Quinn reached the appointed jump off point, his passenger bolted from the aircraft, taking careful aim at a small area he had pinpointed for a landing. Problems began almost immediately as Hopkins was nearly knocked off course by severe wind gusts. He ultimately managed to get over his target but was much too high, so he partially collapsed his parachute, plummeting to the rocky surface below. After a bit of a rough landing in which he reportedly was blown several feet across the rocks, hitting a boulder in the process, he was down and mostly unharmed.
Prior to the event, Hopkins had worked out a paper plan to climb down to the ground by pounding a sharpened Ford axle into the rock with a sledge hammer, and then climb down on a 1,000 foot length of rope. He had calculated that he could scramble the rest of the way to the bottom freestyle.
But when Quinn dropped the axle and the rope, the package hit the summit with a bounce and slid off the edge falling about fifty feet below on the tower’s side. Quinn then flew away toward Rapid City and it was not until late afternoon that Clyde Ice, a pilot from nearby Spearfish, was enlisted to make another attempt to drop a rope.
Ice, having had evacuated many flood and forest fire victims, figured a tower drop posed unique problems due to sudden updrafts. So when he flew in with the second rope, he cut the motor and glided about six feet above the monument while his partner tossed out the line, then he restarted the engine. The good news is that his strategy worked. The bad news is that the loosely coiled rope landed in a hopeless mass of tangles leaving Hopkins stranded again.
Knowing that Hopkins was not coming down that night, Ice returned just before dark to drop food, blankets, a tarp, and a note promising they would get him off the next day.
Then it started to storm. Fog covered the top of the monument, and Hopkins had to spend a miserable night in his make-do shelter as it continued to rain and sleet.
At dawn, Hopkins threw down a note stating that he intended to parachute to the ground, but the National Park Service quickly told him not to do it and that they were sending for help. In the meantime, Ice airlifted the stranded daredevil a megaphone and a medium rare T-bone steak.
By the time the sky cleared that afternoon, over a thousand sightseers, photographers, press and radio reporters had gathered to watch at the Tower.
How was he going to get down?The National Park Service now had a problem to solve, and newspapers around the country ran with the story. Letters written by concerned citizens, corporations and the military posed uncertain suggestions for getting him down, but after a few days, a fellow by the name of Jack Durrance, one of the early technical climbers who had scaled the Tower a few years before, telegraphed from Dartmouth that he was coming to lead a rescue party, along with a few other experienced climbersand the park service accepted his offer.
Meanwhile, more supplies were dropped to Hopkins and assurances were given that help was coming as advice and offers of assistance were still pouring in.
On the fourth day a new storm with rain and snow moved in and news wires buzzed with the saga of “Devils Tower George,” and the episode was featured in Time and Newsweek.
Storms in the Midwest had canceled all flights out of Chicago so Durrance was making his way by train, but only as far as Denver; he would have to come the rest of the way by automobile and he finally arrived at the monument on October 5th.
Shortly after arriving, the team was handed a note that Hopkins had thrown down to the crowd. The note said that he did not want to be rescued by mountaineers. He said, “I’m not a mountaineer. I got up here by air and I’m going to get down by air.”
Regardless of Hopkins’ demands, the rescue team worked with the park service and laid out a safe climbing route for the operation. The following day, at 7:30 a.m. Durrance led seven other climbers to the summit of the Tower. When they were within voice range of Hopkins, he peered over the edge. It was almost four o’clock. It would soon be dark.
They called up and said, “Well, George, “we hear you got up here by air and want to get down by air. You’ve got ten seconds to make a decision because we want to get down off this thing. It’s cold as ice.”
“For God’s sake, come and get me,” said Hopkins.
Once on the summit, a member of the team tied Hopkins into a safety sling, demonstrated how to use the rappel rope and they started their descent. As you might expect, they were greeted with a loud roar of approval from the crowd when they finally reached the base around 9:30 p.m.
Overall, the stranded parachutist attracted about 7,000 visitors to the monument during the six-day period that he was up there.
Within a few months following the Hopkins episode, the United States entered World War II. National Park Service sites saw very little visitation during the war years. And, as for Hopkins, he went on to work with the military training new airborne infantry divisions for the war. It is believed he set his world record as he taught other young men to safely jump and land using a parachute.
Note: The content and photos for this Ranger Talk comes primarily from the Devils Tower website at: www.nps