As they might say in a GEICO commercial: “If you write professionally, you obsess over punctuation. It’s what you do.” With that in mind, what were they thinking when they named the “Devils Postpile National Monument” without any punctuation?
The Postpile is one of the world’s best examples of columnar basalt. There are several others like it in the United States, and you can find these rock formations in other countries around the world. Columnar basalt has even been discovered on Mars.
Perhaps the most famous is the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, which, unambiguously, belongs to the Giant.
The Devils Postpile is near the town of Mammoth Lake at about 7,500 feet elevation. It can’t be seen from the John Muir Trail, but a trail which branches off the JMT and then re-connects at Red’s Meadow, passes by the base of the rock formation. My unscientific guess would be that 90% of JMT thru-hikers take the trail that goes by the Postpile.
It was photographed by J. M. Hutchings and popularized in his Hutchings’ Illustrated California Magazine during the late 1800’s. As was the tendency during those more superstitious times, peculiar natural phenomena were either the work of God (if it appeared graceful and appealing), or the Devil (if it was less so). Whatever committee appointed to decide such matters determined that the rocks in funny shapes were unequivocally “the handiwork of his Satanic majesty.” From then, until 1911, it was known as the “Devil’s Woodpile.”
In 1911, President William Howard Taft signed a proclamation naming it the “Devil Postpile National Monument.” That seems to make the word “devil” an adjective, attributing to the rocks, themselves, a certain ferocity. (The German army, in World War I, for example, called U.S. Marines Devil Dogs.) While using “devil” as an adjective to describe some rocks is indisputably ridiculous, the string of words does have the advantage of actually meaning something.
By mid-century, maps and signs added the “s” that is the convention today, but without the apostrophe. That is what you will find in all the current National Park Service literature. If I were king for the day, I’d put the apostrophe back in; I kind of like the sinister connotation. Besides, those slender, towering columns do look a little creepy – it’s like they know something about you, and they know that you know that they know.
Good hiking, Ray