When 28-year-old biology professor John C. Johnson first laid eyes on Gothic on July 4, 1919, he did not foresee that in a few years he would found the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL), or that the research center would become one of the world’s most respected and productive institutions devoted to biological study.
In 2018, RMBL had 192 scientists (graduate level and up) working on 100 projects. This year, it has 36 federally funded research projects involving approximately $12 million of funding. RMBL scientists produce an average of 50 scientific publications a year, which places RMBL among the most productive biological field stations in the world.
RMBL’s thriving undergraduate research program will host 40 students this summer. In addition, the laboratory offers much-loved youth programs in the summer and programs for the local schools in the fall and winter.
As one of the most studied ecosystems in the world, RMBL research provides one of the best opportunities for understanding how complex ecosystems around the world are working and changing. It has generated fundamental insights into food security, the quality of the water we drink, and biological responses to a changing climate and human health.
Some of the world’s most respected scientists return to RMBL year after year, conducting long-term field studies and continuing the work of generations of impassioned researchers and students.
Johnson (1891-1973) was born in a sod hut on the eastern Colorado plains, the sixth child and first boy in a family of Swedish immigrants. In September 1911, he stepped off the narrow-gauge train in Gunnison to join the first faculty of the new college there (now Western Colorado University). From 1915-1919, he was away from the college, earning a doctorate degree in zoology at the University of California-Berkeley.
During his early years in Gunnison, Johnson hiked and fished all over the area, but there was one place he had not seen. Over and over again he had heard, “You must see Gothic, the most beautiful spot there is.”
However, there had not been much chance to do so because almost all travel in the region up until 1915 was by horseback, buggy or wagon. Finally, upon his return to Gunnison in 1919, a friend said to him, “How would you like to take an auto ride with me to Gothic tomorrow?”
Johnson jumped at the chance.
“The scenery,” Johnson wrote in his memoirs, “seemed to get more beautiful each mile we traveled.”
They arrived at Gothic early in the afternoon, “when the shadows were just right on the east side of Gothic Mountain, showing up the many and enormous cathedral spires and abutments.”
He continued, “Several very large snow patches, one over a thousand feet long, were also very beautiful on the mountain, as were the abundant columbines, legumes, fireweed, shooting stars, gentians and numerous . . . daisies, asters and their kin.”
“Surely,” Johnson said to himself, “this is a paradise for the biologist who wants to study the hundreds of species of plants and animals in a very beautiful and primitive area. ...”
That summer of 1919, college President Samuel Quigley asked Johnson to become the first dean of the college, head of the Division of Science, and professor of biology. For several years thereafter, Johnson took auto loads of biology majors for weekend camping trips to Gothic, then a deserted mining camp.
One afternoon, after it had poured rain during the night and the group “looked like wet ground squirrels,” Johnson was approached by Garwood Hall Judd, who had remained a summer resident in Gothic even after the silver mining bust of the 1880s.
Judd claimed that he owned the old structure that still stands at the center of the current townsite, known as the “Swallow’s Nest.” He offered to sell the building to Johnson, who promptly bought the building for $150 with money from his own pocket.
This was the first of many personal outlays Johnson made over the years, as he and his family nurtured what was to become RMBL.
An institution takes root
Johnson formally organized RMBL in 1928 as an independent field station. He actively recruited faculty from multiple institutions of higher learning, assuring colleagues that he would be RMBL’s director and financial backer.
For the next 30 years, he forged ahead with an intense focus that laid the groundwork for the renowned institution RMBL has become today.
RMBL is an extraordinary place that is quietly transforming field science as we know it, making vital insights about life understandable to everyday humans. RMBL and the research of its affiliated scientists have been featured by national and international media, including National Public Radio, the Associated Press, the Danish Broadcasting Company and the New York Times.
Johnson remained fond of the college in Gunnison until his death, despite the fact that they parted ways in 1928. The Ku Klux Klan had seen a rise in influence throughout the U.S. in the 1920s, including in Colorado.
Johnson, a man of ramrod integrity, refused to kowtow to the new college president or to join the KKK and do its bidding, and he was fired by the college early in 1928.
Adamant that he had been wrongfully terminated, Johnson sued to clear his name, and the college president and trustees rapidly backed down. Johnson was reinstated as a faculty member but resigned from the college in August 1928.
He quickly secured another position, this time in the Pennsylvania state college system, where he completed his academic career. Part of the agreement with his new employer was that he would be free to return to the Gunnison Country each summer, to be the director of RMBL.
Johnson would be very proud of RMBL’s place in the world today and of 100 years of science in Gothic.
(Carol M. Johnson is the granddaughter of RMBL founder John C. Johnson, and now lives part of the year in Gunnison. She and her brothers grew up at RMBL, with their parents and grandparents, who devoted decades to the institution. She also served for many years on the RMBL Board of Trustees.)