In 1893 a young English professor from Massachusetts named Katharine Lee Bates traveled to Colorado Springs to spend a few weeks teaching a summer session at Colorado College. On July 22 – the “supreme day of our Colorado sojourn,” as she put it – Bates and other visiting teachers piled into a wagon for a bumpy ride to the top of Pikes Peak, which towered over the town. From the snow-capped summit she “gazed in wordless rapture over the far expanse of mountain ranges and the sea-like sweep of plain” before her.
That night, back in her room, Bates scratched out the opening lines of a poem that had floated into her mind on the mountaintop, words that originally ran: “O beautiful for halcyon skies, / For amber waves of grain, / For purple mountain majesties, / Above the enameled plain!”
Two years later, on July 4, 1895, her poem was printed in the Congregationalist, a popular church magazine. It quickly found an appreciative audience. Several years after that, it was set to the hymn tune “Materna,” composed by Samuel A. Ward. By that time Bates had made some revisions to her verses, including changing “halcyon skies” to “spacious skies” and “enameled plain” to “fruited plain.” Today the song – which reminds us that America can be great only as long as the beauty of the land is matched by the goodness of its citizens – is one of the nation’s favorite patriotic hymns.