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On May 15, 1920, the gate officially swung open for the new Zion National Park. It had been a monument for some time and had been visited before, but now it was a member of the National Park system.

Sitting on the gate as it swung wide were five University of Utah coeds and one California teenager with Utah ties who had been invited by the Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad to be the park's first official tourists and to participate in a promotion campaign to introduce the "gigantic grandeur" to the world.

The six were Anna Gaarden Widtsoe, Isadora (Dora) Montague, Elizabeth Mildred Gerrard (who went by Mildred), Agness Ellen (Nell) Creer and Melba Victoria Dunyon, all students at the U.; and Catherine Alice Levering, who had recently moved to California to study dance.

The opening of Zion National Park and its first tourists were widely covered by the press, not only in Utah but worldwide. Yet it is a story that has largely been forgotten — until now.

Melissa Clark likes to go online to look at vintage photographs. "They are usually pretty expensive, so I don't buy them." But as she was looking at old photo albums in the summer of 2008, she came across a photo of a John Fairbanks painting in what was obviously Zion National Park.

"My grandfather was Calvin Fletcher, and he took classes from John Fairbanks," she says, "so I thought it might be worth looking at."

The blurb for that album mentioned a companion book about a "trip taken to Zion by five U. of U. girls. There were only one or two pictures shown, which was unusual, but I was intrigued enough to put in a bid."

Often these vintage scrapbooks are quite costly. "There was one recently about the Alaskan Gold Rush that went for over a thousand dollars." So, she was quite pleased when she got both books for a total of $131.66, even though she had no idea what she was getting.

"I expected something with typical snapshots of the day. What I got was a book filled with professionally taken photographs and a variety of news clippings." It was the scrapbook of one of the girls who had been on the promotional trip to Zion.

She and her husband, John, who works as a graphic designer at the Deseret News, scanned and printed some of the pages and took them to Zion. They showed them to the curator of the Human History Museum. She had never seen them. Lyman Hafen, "who has studied the park and everything about it for the past 20 years, saw them, and he had never heard about it. That's when we thought maybe we had something," John says.

They did more research on the story, contacted any of the girls' family members they could find, read old newspapers and looked through picture archives. The result is a book titled "Opening Zion: A Scrapbook of the National Park's First Official Tourists," published by Bonneville Books, an imprint of the University of Utah Press ($19.95).

The Clarks think their scrapbooks might have belonged to Catherine Levering. "We don't know for certain, but there were a lot of clippings from L.A. and a lot of pictures and clippings centered around her. We contacted family members of four of the other girls, and it didn't belong to them," John says.

Pictures in the book show the girls scrambling up rocks with the use of ropes, sitting on logs, even hanging over the edges of cliffs. "They are all so interesting," Melissa says. "There isn't a boring one in the lot."

The visit to the park was the "crowning event" of a carefully planned advertising campaign, John says. One of the people working on the campaign was Chauncey Parry, who had been involved in promoting automobile travel and providing services for travelers in southern Utah. He knew Anna Widtsoe, and through her the other university coeds.

"I think they specifically wanted college girls, in part because of the era," John says. "There was a feminist movement that had just gotten women the vote. I think they wanted to appeal to the more liberated woman and also show that the park was accessible to everyone, not just the thrill-seeking men of the day."

He gets a big kick about how some of the newspaper stories "go on and on about fashion, about what the well-dressed outdoors-woman of the day should wear."

Through the project, the Clarks felt they came to know the women, "even though we never met them," Melissa says. "I particularly enjoyed their spunk."

One of her favorite pictures shows three women riding their horses through some water. "If you blow it up and look closely, you can tell that one is so scared, another is very skilled with horses, and the other is having the time of her life."

The women all went on to do interesting things in life. One became a professor of speech at the University of Hawaii and then worked at an Army hospital during World War II. "Dora was a daredevil; she often made the newspaper; she later wrote a lot of letters to the editor," John says. "They always seemed to maintain their passion for life and for education."

When Anna was in her 50s, "she was driving along the streets singing a song, every time she switched verses, she changed lanes," John says. "She got pulled over and wouldn't tell the policeman her age, so he brought her to the station. She had to work off her fine by filing tickets. She discovered that a lot of her cronies had also been pulled over for doing similar things."

Melissa had a hard time "wrapping my head around the fact that Catherine was only 14 at the time. But apparently she was a real child prodigy with both violin and dancing. That's what took her to L.A., but she was well-known in publicity circles, and that's how she got invited."

Putting together the book has been a treat, say the Clarks. "Anytime a writer exposes a story that has been hidden for a long time, that's like going on a treasure hunt," John says.

"Retelling a story that has not been told for 90 years was exciting," Melissa adds.

But they hope that people who read the book also will enjoy the ride, especially as they visit Zion. "The more you can discover about the places you visit, the more you learn about what happened there before you, the more dimension it gives your visit," John says.

History is always a fascinating journey, he says. "It's never a destination. They more we learn about the past, the more we learn about ourselves. This is just one event, but it's a piece of a much bigger quest."

If you go...

What: "Opening Zion" book signing with John and Melissa Clark

Where: Ken Sanders Rare Books, 268 S. 200 East, Salt Lake City

When: May 21, 20106-9 p.m.

e-mail: carma@desnews.com