National Treasures: Grand Canyon

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Story and Photos by Mike Yawn

To Americans, the Grand Canyon is the most ancient and revered of national landmarks. The rocks in the Grand Canyon are approximately two billion years old. The Colorado River began to erode that rock around 5 million years ago—a long time on a human scale, although young as canyons go. But it was not until February 26, 1919—100 years ago this year—that this most famous of geologic features became a National Park.

Today, despite its rather remote location, it is the best-known of the 61 National Parks. More than six million people visit the Park annually. As a national icon, however, it is in its youth. Indeed, the first photographs of the Canyon were not taken until 1871, and prior to that development, few Americans would have even known of its existence.

One of the earliest photographs of the Grand Canyon, by John Hillers, on the second Powell expedition.

“Discovering” the Grand Canyon

It’s not clear who first laid eyes on the Canyon. Evidence of Native American presence dates back more than 10,000 years, with permanent dwellings by the Ancestral Puebloans extending perhaps to 4,000 years ago. Civilian Conservation Corps workers found twig figurines in the 1930s, and scientists believe these were made between 2,000 and 1,000 BC. These artifacts and oral histories—including a Hopi legend resembling the Biblical story of Noah—are the extent of our knowledge of human interaction with the Canyon in the “pre-contact” era.

In 1540, however, while exploring the southwest, Francisco Vazquez de Coronado sent men in search of a rumored “large river.” Garcia Lopez de Cardenas led this mini-expedition to the South Rim of the Canyon. Alas, Cardenas and his dehydrated men could not find a way down, not even with Indian guides—who, historians suggest, may not have wanted foreigners bumbling through their sacred home.

Little effort was made to explore the Canyon for the next three hundred years, but in 1857, Lt. Joseph C. Ives embarked on an expedition to determine whether the Colorado River could serve as transportation for a streamlined trade route. After a difficult and unsuccessful journey, he left “baffled and disheartened,” reporting the region was “altogether valueless.”

John Wesley Powell and The Grand Canyon

“All of the scenic features of this canyon land are on a giant scale, strange and weird.”

—John Wesley Powell

A dozen years later, Major John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Union veteran—initiated an even more ambitious attempt to navigate what was then referred to as “the big canyon.” Departing from Green River, Wyoming, Powell embarked on a 700-mile journey with a four-boat, ten-man team.

After more than three months and the loss of three lives, Powell’s team completed their journey—the first men known to navigate successfully “The Grand Canyon,” an appellation popularized by their journey.

Thomas Moran’s painting of the Grand Canyon, purchased by U.S. Congress for $10,000 (in 1875!)

In 1872-1873, Powell made another successful run through the Canyon, and this time he brought photographer John Hiller and artist Thomas Moran. Their images of the Grand Canyon were among the first to provide the larger American population opportunity to “see” the Canyon.

Attracting Visitors, Protecting Resources

“Leave it as is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”

—President Theodore Roosevelt

As awareness of the Canyon spread, so too did the presence of humans, often in the form of prospectors, hucksters, and speculators. By the 1910s, the Canyon rim began to resemble a sideshow. Street-side peddlers used megaphones to reach customers; tourists camped where they pleased; garbage and waste piled up.

The interior of the El Tovar Lodge.

The first automobile arrived at the Grand Canyon in 1902, and cars soon became a scourge of the Park, leading to congestion, wildlife disruption, and pollution. By 1926, half of the people who visited the Park arrived by automobile, although the Park had little infrastructure in place for such travel. The next year, Congress appropriated $7.5 million for much-needed infrastructure. But this infrastructure also fed the beast, and by the 1970s, there were millions of annual visitors, almost all of whom arrived by car. According to Don Lago, the author of the best short history on the Grand Canyon, “The Canyon’s air was sometimes so polluted that the opposite rim became a blur.” Merle Stitt, the Park’s superintendent, quipped that to avoid the traffic, he went to Phoenix.

And cars weren’t the only modes of motorized transportation in the Park. Planes began appearing in the Canyon in the 1920s, and they were mostly unregulated through the 1950s. In 1956, however, two planes collided over the Canyon, killing 180 people and scattering wreckage into the Canyon. In 1986, a helicopter and an airplane collided, killing 25 people. Add in trains, buses, and motorized river craft, and you had quite a lot of noise, exhaust, and sight pollution. The Canyon, as Lago has noted, was in danger of being “loved to death.”

The U.S. government has attempted to keep up with and respond to these trends. In 1891, Congress passed the “Forest Reserve Act,” and President Benjamin Harrison quickly designated the Grand Canyon as a “Forest Reserve,” a forerunner to today’s “National Forest.” This was somewhat enterprising, inasmuch as while the Grand Canyon has forests on both the North and South Rims, the actual Canyon has relatively little vegetation, and certainly no forests. (Interestingly, Harrison proposed the possibility of designating the “Petrified Forest” a “Forest Reserve,” but his advisors believed this might be a forest too far.)

Interior fireplace in Hermit’s Rest, designed by Mary Colter.

When the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway began carrying its first visitors to the Grand Canyon in 1901, more tourists arrived that year than in the previous 30. In 1903, one of those train-borne visitors was President Theodore Roosevelt, who took a rim excursion at Grandview Point, and then spoke to a crowd of approximately 800, declaring the Canyon as “the one great sight every American should see.”

Roosevelt did his part in preserving the landmark for Americans by making it a National Monument in 1908. In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson designated it a National Park.

While these government designations set standards and regulations for the Park, the Santa Fe Railway also improved visitors’ experience at the Canyon, at least on the South Rim. In 1905, the Railway opened El Tovar Lodge, giving visitors a first-class place to stay. The Chief Architect for the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway, Charles Whittlesey, offered a rustic design, but one fit for a President. Indeed, when Roosevelt returned to the Canyon in 1911, he stayed there—as have seven additional presidents since then.

It was the first in a string of impressive structures that still grace the Park. Most notably, Mary Colter created structures still admired by millions of visitors today. Originally hired as an interior designer for the Fred Harvey Company, she soon began working as an architect and completed the Canyon’s “Hopi House” in 1905, the same year that El Tovar opened. Designed to resemble a Hopi Pueblo and built by Hopi Indians, the three-story building continues to serve as a gift store and art gallery.

She went on to design Hermit’s Rest (1914), which she gave a well-worn look by furnishing it with antique and rustic furniture—and even going so far as to hand-rub soot onto the rocks of the fireplace. When told that the place needed a “good cleaning,” she responded, “You can’t imagine what it cost to make it look this old.”

The Watchtower, South Rim of Grand Canyon

She also completed Lookout Studio (1914), Phantom Ranch (1922—the only lodging in the bottom of the Canyon), Desert View Watchtower (1932), and Bright Angel Lodge (1935). In the latter structure, she created the lounge’s “geological fireplace,” which consists of Canyon rocks stacked in a sequence reflecting the geographic strata found from river to rim.

All of her Canyon structures offer edifice enthusiasts an interesting look at the National Park System’s architectural aesthetic. This is particularly true of the Desert View Watchtower, a four-story structure containing Hopi-artist Fred Kabotie’s murals, Fred Greer’s petroglyphs, and unparalleled views of the Grand Canyon.

The Colter-designed structures were remarkable: they blended in with—and enhanced—the Grand Canyon. They offered Canyon visitors observation areas and comfortable lodging, while also evoking the Native American presence in the area.

The Santa Fe Railway had little interest in developing the North Rim, but the Union Pacific, which had already developed routes to Bryce and Zion National Parks, hired Gilbert Stanley Underwood to design a North Rim lodge. This structure was built in 1928 and, although it burned down in 1932, was rebuilt in 1937. Underwood, who also built lodges in Yosemite, Bryce, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton National Parks, would, along with Colter and a handful of other architects, largely shape American’s perception of what “parkitecture” should be.

“The Grand Canyon is not a passive thing….It can be like a roaring lion in one section; in the next section, a quiet sinuous beauty carrying the reflection of the walls, towers, and pinnacles on its glistening surface.”

—Emery Kolb

The Kolb Brothers position themselves for a photograph.

A century before the selfie age, the Park’s architecture and the natural beauty of the Canyon offered an ideal location for photography. While not all tourists owned cameras, the arrival of the Kolb brothers, Ellsworth and Emery, resolved this issue. By 1902, they were photographing tourists, most of whom were taking mule tours into the Canyon.

This was more difficult than might be imagined. The nearest water (necessary to develop film) was at Indian Garden, two-thirds of the way into the Canyon. After taking photographs, one of the brothers (they alternated) would sprint to Indian Garden, develop the images, and return—a 9.2 mile round trip—just before the mule-borne tourists returned. They did this several times a day until the 1930s, when running water became commonplace on the Canyon rim.

Bright Angel Point, North Rim of Grand Canyon

The two also produced the most famous movie of the Grand Canyon, filming themselves canoeing the Grand and Colorado Rivers—reenacting the Powell expedition of 1869. They subsequently toured the country showing their film, drawing attention to themselves and to the Canyon.

While Ellsworth tired of the business in the 1910s, Emery continued to operate the studio until 1976, when he died at the age of 96. In his three-quarters of a century at the Grand Canyon, Emery witnessed the arrival of Theodore Roosevelt in 1903; the Canyon’s designation by Roosevelt as a National Monument in 1908; its “promotion” to a National Park in 1919; as well as more general environmental efforts such as the Clean Air Act (1963), Wilderness Act (1964), and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (1968). The Kolb Brothers Studio is now an art gallery and gift shop, and it remains in its original location, perched, literally, on the canyon rim, above the Bright Angel Trail.

Kolb Studios on the South Rim

Visiting the Grand Canyon

“The elements that unite to make the Grand Canyon the most sublime spectacle in nature are multifarious and exceedingly diverse.”

—John Wesley Powell

Thanks to preservation efforts over the past century, tourists can still visit the Kolb Studio, learn about the history of the Canyon from one of the visitor centers managed by the Park, or engage in one of the many “multifarious” and “diverse” activities offered by the Park.

Ooh Aah Point on the Kaibob Trail

The adventurous can plan ahead and work with commercial water-craft companies for a river trip or apply for a lottery-driven permit to do a self-guided boating tour, an endeavor particularly appropriate for 2019, the 150th anniversary of John Wesley Powell’s first expedition.

Hikers can take one of the trails into the Canyon as a day hike, or engage in a more extended one or two-night stay at Phantom Ranch, perhaps even doing a rim-to-rim hike.

For those who just want to soak in the beauty of the canyon, the Rim Trail is enjoyable, allowing visitors to see Mary Colter’s Hermit’s Rest, the John Wesley Powell Memorial on Powell Point, or more than a dozen additional overlooks. Less proximate points along the 35-mile South Rim are accessible by shuttle or car and feature highlights such as Moran Point or the Desert Watchtower.

Elk at the Grand Canyon

People who prefer to enjoy the Park’s beauty in relative solitude might prefer the North Rim, which receives only 10 percent of the Canyon’s annual visitors while offering similar landscapes and more wildlife-viewing opportunities.

The Canyon offers sublime views from almost all of its vantage points, whether from the river, inside the Canyon, or along the rim. This sublimity is enriched by the 3,000-plus programs offered by Rangers annually, on topics as diverse as the “night sky,” “Canyon’s geology,” and “Park wildlife.” And, this year, the Park will offer dozens of special Centennial programs, allowing visitors to celebrate the Park’s 100th birthday and its ageless beauty.

“For each man sees himself in the Grand Canyon—each one makes his own Canyon before he comes, each brings and carries away his own Canyon.”

—Carl Sandburg


Photo by Mark Burns; Cape Royal, North Rim of the Grand Canyon

Mark Burns’ “Grand Canyon Photographs” at the Sam Houston Memorial Museum

For those who cannot visit the Grand Canyon, it’s still possible to experience the beauty of the Park. The Sam Houston Memorial Museum will feature more than 30 of Mark Burns’ images of the Park in its “Grand Canyon Photographs” exhibit. Burns has enjoyed a four-decade career as a professional photographer, and his “National Park Photography Project” exhibit in 2016 featured his images of all 59 National Parks, a project that prompted former President George H. W. Bush to call him a “modern-day Ansel Adams.” To highlight this comparison, the Sam Houston Memorial Museum will feature three original Ansel Adams photographs alongside Burns’ work during the exhibit’s first week. The exhibit will open June 11, 2019 and continue through September 6, 2019, with a special opening reception on Thursday, June 13, 2019. Burns will be present at the event’s opening.

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