Thomas Nast, Santa Claus, and the Colorado mountain named after him
by Allen Best
Most of us have a certain image of Santa Claus: rotund, his beard full and white, his clothing furry.
That image comes to us courtesy of a 19th century cartoonist, Thomas Nast, who also gave us enduring images of politics: the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey.
Nast is also the only cartoonist after whom a mountain is named. That is what the late Ed Quillen, the long-time columnist for The Denver Post (and my first employer as a full-time journalist), told me in 1997, and while I cannot verify this, Ed had a habit of doing his research.
That such a mountain existed was the only excuse I needed to set out one weekend that summer with a climbing companion, Jean McGuey. Jean had already climbed all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks and was well on the way to climbing all of the 100 highest.
Mt. Nast lies much further down that list. It’s 12,454 feet, still a strenuous hike but with nothing especially challenging. It is located northeast of Aspen, a few miles from Margy’s Hut, the first constructed in the 10th Mountain Division Hut system.
Access to Mt. Nast is from along the Fryingpan River, at a location called Norrie. Norrie was a siding in the short-lived Midland Railroad, which was established in the 1880s expressly to export silver ores from Aspen. The railroad long ago disappeared, replaced in the 1960s by the pipelines of the Fry-Ark project, which exports water to the farms and cities of the Arkansas Valley.
Jean, who died seven or eight years ago of ovarian cancer, never needed much excuse to climb a mountain, and it didn’t have to be on anybody’s list. She was slow as a tortoise, but steady. I was a hare, but by then starting to slow. The tortoise and the hare together arrived atop Nast on a day when storm clouds, dark and thick, had gathered early. I remember wondering if I was going to meet my maker.
We got down into the timber before the bolts started smacking the mountain. I remember one tree that had the girth of Paul Bunyan’s ankle. It was huge.
How did the mountain come to be named after Nast? I can only offer conjecture that Nast, being a progressive Republican in the cut of Theodore Roosevelt, was widely admired by a certain segment of Coloradans.
Mary Zastrow, who works in the magazine section of the Denver Public Library, researched more about Nast and posted this on the library’s website:
“Nast was born in Germany in 1840 and came to the United States in 1846. A naturally gifted artist, Nast had only a year or two of formal art instruction when at 15 he apprenticed as a draftsman for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and in 1862 he became a full time illustrator for Harper’s Weekly where he had his greatest influence and success.
“Nast came of age at a time when printing technology was changing and newspapers and magazines became capable of cheaply reproducing hand drawn illustrations. Illustrators would paint or draw on blocks of wood that then would be carved by engravers into printing blocks.
“Thomas Nast’s drawings chronicled the Civil War, elections, politics and political corruption. He is credited with creating the elephant as the symbol of the Republican Party and popularizing the Democratic Party donkey. His most famous political cartoons were of the corrupt William “Boss” Tweed commissioner of public works in New York City and were instrumental in turning public opinion against Boss Tweed and sending him to prison.
“But it is at this time of the year we come face to face with his most enduring image – Santa Claus. Nast has been credited with creating the modern American version of Santa Claus as a fat, jolly, white bearded guy in a fur trimmed red suit. Undoubtedly influenced by Clement Moore’s 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (“The Night Before Christmas”), Nast added his own spin on the Santa lore. He was the first to establish Santa’s home as the North Pole and gave Santa a toy workshop with tiny elves. Nast produced dozens of Christmas engravings for Harper’s between 1863 and 1886. In 1890 Nast published a collection of his Christmas drawings.
“Nast left Harper’s Weekly in 1886 citing artistic and editorial differences with the new publisher. He lost most of the considerable money he made at Harper’s in bad investments and could not find enough work as a freelance illustrator. In 1901 long time admirer President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Nast to serve as consul general to Ecuador where in 1902 he contracted yellow fever and died.”