The Reverend Thornton R. Sampson (1852–1915) was an important religious figure and educator in Texas who disappeared on a hike in the Rocky Mountains in 1915. Sampson’s disappearance received national coverage. The massive search effort launched by his wife was one of the largest ever, though it was ultimately unsuccessful. Along with the death of mountaineer Carrie Welton in 1884, Sampson’s fatal excursion in the Colorado wilderness was one of the state’s first highly publicized recreational catastrophes.
Like Welton, who made an ill-advised ascent of Longs Peak in late September, Sampson was an experienced hiker perhaps too confident in his abilities and knowledge of the terrain he was traversing. However, the circumstances of Sampson’s death, unlike Welton’s, remained unknown for some seventeen years, prompting near-endless speculation in the press about his demise. Today, Sampson’s journey remains a cautionary tale for even the most experienced hikers in Colorado.
Thornton R. Sampson was born in Hampden-Sydney, Prince Edward County, Virginia, on October 9, 1852, where his father, the Reverend Francis S. Sampson, was professor of Hebrew at Union Theological Seminary. Following the death of his father in 1854, the family moved to Goochland County, Virginia, where they remained through the dark days of the Civil War.
Sampson’s college education began at the age of sixteen, and after graduating from the University of Virginia in 1873 he spent a decade studying abroad at various universities in Europe. In April 1878, Sampson married Ella Royster of Memphis, Tennessee, a distant cousin. The same month he was licensed at Hampden-Sydney by the Presbytery of East Hanover and then ordained into the ministry at Charlottesville, Virginia. In 1892 he journeyed to Asia to study at mission stations in India, Ceylon, Japan, Korea, and China.
Two years later, Sampson entered the world of higher education, serving as president of Fredericksburg College in Virginia. He then moved to Sherman, Texas, in 1897 to serve as president of Austin College. In April 1900, he was asked to become the founding president of a new Presbyterian theological seminary in Austin. Over the next two years, he secured the money and facilities for the new institution, and Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary opened to a class of six students on October 1, 1902. Although Sampson gave up the presidency at Austin for health reasons in 1905, he stayed on as Lutheran Professor of Church History and Polity.
Colorado Excursion and Disappearance
Sampson developed his love for mountains in his travels abroad. He “tramped in the high altitudes of Asia and Europe,” as his ministerial colleague Arthur Gray Jones later wrote, and crossed and recrossed the great passes in Austria, Switzerland, Italy, France, and Spain. As he grew older, Sampson continued to find rest and inspiration in his communion with the mountains. In 1915 they called to him again, this time from Colorado. Sampson and his wife arrived in Denver on August 7, spending several days at the Metropole Hotel. On August 11, having moved his wife into a room at the YMCA, the minister left the city for a trek through the Estes Park region, planning to return to Denver on September 5. Sampson thought he knew the area reasonably well—he had spent one summer vacation, possibly two, in the Colorado Rockies and boasted that he had crossed them on foot some ten times.
Within a week of leaving Denver, Sampson had made his way across the Continental Divide to Rand, a tiny hamlet in North Park, where he sent Ella a postcard on August 19. Two days later, he again wrote from Rand, reporting to his wife that he was staying with a “forest ranger” named Stevens. The only complaint voiced by Sampson was about his encounter with “abominable autos,” incursions of civilization that threatened his hunting and fishing.
It was on August 28, from 10,285-foot Cameron Pass, that Sampson wrote his last letter to his wife. In that letter, Sampson told his wife that “he had never felt better in his life and was gaining in strength and health.” He also told her that he was “well supplied with provisions” for his tramp to Estes Park. By August 28, the day of his letter, Sampson left Grand Lake, making his way on foot northward toward “Squeaky Bob” Wheeler’s tent resort on the North Fork of the Colorado River, fishing as he went. There, Sampson posed for a photograph, wearing his cap, smoking a pipe, and holding a rod and reel. Five-foot-eleven and 170 pounds, with blond hair, gray eyes, and strong features, Sampson was a man easily recognizable, as several would shortly testify.
What happened in the days that followed must be pieced together from a number of published sources, some of which are contradictory. Sampson apparently left Squeaky Bob’s on September 2, announcing his intention to trek across Flattop Mountain to attend the dedication of Rocky Mountain National Park, scheduled two days later. The journey before Sampson was some sixteen miles, a strenuous but not terribly difficult trip for anyone in good physical condition. By that night, he was back at Grand Lake village. The next morning he started alone for Estes Park, taking the North Inlet Trail to the broad peneplain that marks the summit of 12,324-foot Flattop Mountain. He dressed lightly and took just one full meal, suggesting he expected little difficulty on this last leg of his trek. Two miles out of Grand Lake, Sampson was overtaken by Clifford Higby, a licensed guide making his way home to Estes Park on horseback. Higby gave the reverend directions and said he would leave a cairn with a red bandanna to the east of Flattop Mountain along with further directions.
Sampson was last seen alive at 2 pm on September 3 by a party of three women and their guide on their way to Grand Lake. He was resting in a small Forest Service shelter some 1,500 feet below the Continental Divide. What happened next can only be surmised. It is known that by 4 pm, at about the time Sampson should have reached the summit and turned down into Odessa Gorge, the weather rapidly changed for the worse. Thick, heavy clouds descended upon the mountain, rendering visibility extremely difficult, followed by heavy snow and high winds. By the next day, the snow across the area had drifted in places to depths of forty to fifty feet.
Search and Speculation
Although Sampson missed the appointed rendezvous in Denver on September 5, his wife and friends initially professed no great alarm, for as an Austin, Texas, newspaper noted the following week, “[Sampson] has often taken long jaunts through the woods or mountains alone and frequently makes excursions of this sort when on a vacation.” So confident were Sampson’s friends of his return that not until Monday, September 13, did the first search party leave Estes Park, taking the westward trail up from Horseshoe Park to Hallett (now Rowe) Glacier before circling back toward Specimen Mountain and covering the area around Odessa Gorge. A second search party left Grand Lake the following morning to cover the area eastward.
Among those speculating on the circumstances of Sampson’s death was veteran mountaineer Shep Husted, who conducted his own search of the area and said, “he would stake his reputation as a guide upon his belief” that Sampson’s body would be found “at the bottom of Odessa Lake Gorge, hidden from view by a thick coverlet of snow.” Husted was not the only expert to join in the search—Estes Park physician Roy Wiest allowed himself to be lowered by rope into crevasses on Tyndall Glacier.
By September 18, some fifty people were searching for Sampson, spurred on by the five-hundred-dollar reward offered by Ella Sampson for finding her husband dead or alive. On September 23, although three rangers still remained in the field, the search for Sampson was called off. Three days later, Ella was back in Austin, and on October 3, a memorial service was held in Austin for Reverend Sampson. His son, Frank Sampson, did not attend the memorial, however, because a day earlier both The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News printed sensational reports about a body found twenty-two miles east of Yampa, Colorado, believed to be Thornton Sampson. Higby, who had left the bandanna cairn for Sampson the day of his disappearance, told the papers, “the body found was that of the clergyman.” The body in question was too decomposed for Frank Sampson to make a positive identification, and the story evaporated.
Three weeks later, The Denver Post posited an even more sensational story, advancing a theory that Sampson was “Murdered by Hermit in Hills Above Estes.” The conjecture came from Charles R. Trowbridge, acting supervisor of Rocky Mountain National Park, who insisted that a “queer stranger” accompanied Sampson on his hike. There was no evidence for this claim, but the paper went on to conclude that Sampson’s body was at the “bottom of some prospect hole along the heights of the continental divide west of Estes Park.” While the paper ran with the most sensational of Trowbridge’s theories, the park supervisor offered more plausible causes of death, including a lightning strike or a heart attack. Still holding out hope that he might find his father’s remains, Frank contacted Husted in April 1916, asking him to prepare for another search effort in the mountains. It is uncertain if such a search was ever conducted, but for the next sixteen years, Thornton Sampson’s body remained missing.
On July 9, 1932, Meldrum Loucks, a young man from Fort Collins, came across human skeletal remains at the base of a cliff at the foot of Odessa Gorge. The left leg showed a shinbone fracture. The upper part of the skeleton was encased in what had been a raincoat. Nearby, in a cave-like rock overhang, Loucks found a pipe, leather puttees, a can of tobacco, matches, English-made fishing flies, toilet articles, a few coins, a tattered railroad timetable, a watch, and a frayed diary, the handwriting still legible despite years of exposure. Rev. Thornton R. Sampson had at last been found. Evidently, he had begun his descent of Odessa Gorge when the weather turned for the worse. As the snow fell and the temperature dropped, he apparently slipped and fell, breaking his leg. Although Sampson found shelter, the immobilizing injury, wet clothes, and freezing temperatures proved too much for him to overcome. According to the wishes of his family, his remains were interred at the Fern Lake Trailhead, in the mountains he so adored.
Adapted from James H. Pickering, “Vanished in the Mountains: The Saga of the Reverend Thornton R. Sampson,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 20, no. 3 (2000).