Steamboat Springs In the old days of Northwest Colorado, it was a simple thing to have a small wilderness lake named after oneself. The early homesteaders simply named lakes after their fishing buddies or the cow hand they herded cattle with.
There still remain many unnamed lakes and even mountain peaks in the rugged mountains surrounding Steamboat Springs and Routt County. But getting your family name planted on one isn't as simple as it used to be. Just ask Rae Benton.
Mrs. Benton, who lives in Edwards, is trying to get her late husband John's family name officially recorded as the name of a small lake in extreme South Routt County. The lake is in the shadow of Dome Peak, on the flanks of a mountain range called the Flat Tops.
John Benton represented the third generation of cattle ranchers in his family. They ranched out of the Burn's Hole area at the beginning of the 20th century.
Rae Benton says everyone she has contacted has been very helpful. But it has been necessary to contact many people in order to advance her cause.
"Now, you've got to have all kinds of people saying, 'yes, it's a good idea,'" Benton said. "The Benton Ranch ranged cattle in the White River national Forest where we had a summer permit. I suspect my husband enjoyed fishing in that lake sometimes while the cattle were grazing."
The location of the lake also has special meaning for Rae Benton; It's not far from the spot near Dome Peak where John Benton and three other men died in February 1991 when the light plane they were flying in ran out of room to make a turn, hooked a wing on a tree and went down.
So far, Benton has corresponded with and gained the help of senators Wayne Allard and Ben Nighthorse Campbell, State Rep. Jack Taylor of Steamboat Springs, Congressman Scott McInnis and Greg Walcher, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.
The Routt County Commissioners confirmed this week they have sent a letter to Rae Benton affirming their support for Benton Lake. Along with similar letters from her senators and congressman, she will forward the most recent to the federal agency in charge of naming geographic landmarks on public lands.
Taylor said he is in favor of naming the lake after John Benton.
"Prior to his untimely death, he had a major impact on issues affecting agriculture and public lands," Taylor said.
He pointed out that Benton was president of both the Eagle County and State of Colorado Cattlemen's associations. He also served on the Colorado State Water Board and the Colorado River Conservancy District Board.
Former District 56 State Representative Danny Williams, a fellow rancher, knew Benton well. Williams recalls that when he was an Eagle County Commissioner, Benton was the commissioners' appointee to the Colorado River Conservancy District Board.
"He was a very dynamic man, and so well known throughout Colorado," Williams said. "He showed a great deal of humility he wore his power very gracefully but he was very influential. He was involved in making Eagle County and Routt County better places.
Ben Wurtsmith is a rancher in the Burns area who grew up with John Benton and knew him through his adulthood.
"We were always riding horses when we were really too young," Wurtsmith said. "We'd have to get on a fence or a steep drop to climb on the horse. Once we got on, we never got off."
Wurtsmith said he will always fondly remember Benton's way of laughing.
"I was always trying to get him to laugh. I'm a pretty conservative fellow, so I'd lay some of my conservative agenda on him to shock him," Wurtsmith said. "I can still hear him saying "Gee whiz, man!" and then he'd let go with that laugh that came from plumb near the bottom of his feet."
The fate of "Benton Lake" is in the hands of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names in Reston, Va., this fall. The Board of Geographic Names is a a sub-agency of the U.S. Geological Survey.
Lou Yost, is a deputy chief with the agency, which is located in Reston, VA. He said the intent of policies governing geographic naming is to honor people of historical significance. It isn't open to every backpacker who camps near an unnamed lake and thinks it would be fun to name it after themselves. The person in question must also have been dead for five years, Yost said.
"The person should have been someone of regional notoriety and have had significant or long-term association with the feature," Yost said.
Roger Payne, the executive secreatry of the Board on Geographic Names, has informed Rae Benton that it could take several months for the board to consider her request.
It's ironic that John Benton's grandfather was a correspondent of President Theodore Roosevelt, because it was Roosevelt who acted in 1905 to expand the powers of the Board of Geographic names to standardize place names to be used on federal maps. Roosevelt made big game hunting trips to the White River National Forest, near Meeker, on the other side of the Flat Tops from "Benton Lake."
"Frank Benton, John's grandfather was quite a figure," Rae said. "He wrote a book called 'Life on the sidetrack, which was a comedy about shipping cattle. He sent a copy to Teddy Roosevelt and I think because of his personality, he received a note from Teddy."
Prior to 1900, the Benton's ranched in southern Wyoming. Frank tried to retire, but couldn't quite bring himself to slow down, and in 1907 began purchasing homesteads in the Burns Hole area near the border of Routt and Eagle counties.
Frank Benton died in 1921, but his son T. Harry Benton (John's father) continued building the ranch and guided it through the depression. John assumed management of the ranch upon his father's death.
The ranch spanned the Colorado River, from Castle peak to the south, to Dome Peak in the north.
John had made up his mind to sell the ranch in 1991, at the time of his death, and that was the reason for the fateful airplane trip that took his life he was showing the ranch to representatives of a prospective buyer. The ranch was ultimately sold to the Nottingham family, which has its own history in the Eagle River Valley.
Now, John's widow wants to make certain the Benton family name has a permanent place in the Burns Hole area.