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Powell: the first explorer of the Grand Canyon

Exploring the Grand Canyon

Major John Wesley Powell was a one armed civil war veteran (he lost his arm at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862) who went on to become a director of the United States Geological Survey. He was also an inveterate adventurer and in 1869 he led the first successful European American river expedition down the Grand canyon. He was also a great naturalist and geologist.

In the book he wrote afterwards ('The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons') he captured the feel of what it was like to be at the bottom of the canyon: “We are three quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth, and the great river shrinks into insignificance, as it dashes its angry waves against the walls and cliffs, that rise to the world above; they are but puny ripples, and we but pygmies, running up and down the sands, or lost among the boulders. We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river yet to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not”.

This was true exploration, with no notion of whether they would succeed and knowing no-one would rescue them if they failed.

One day they came across some fearsome looking rapids. They had already lost one of their three boats with its supplies and decide to have a night's rest before tackling it. Powell has a sleepless night worrying about them. He talks individually to the men during the night, eliciting support. Next morning, three decide it is safer to leave the river and take their chances climbing out of the canyon: · “Some tears are shed…each party thinks the other is taking the dangerous course.” The remainder successfully negotiate the rapids, which prove to be less fearsome than they thought. They fire their guns, hoping the others will follow them in the boat they left behind. The three who leave do manage to climb out of the canyon but are never seen again: Powell believed them killed by Shevwits Indians. Ever since, this point on the Colorado river has been known as Separation Rapid; as it transpired, only two days from safety.

“The relief from danger and the joy of success are great…Ever before us has been an unknown danger, heavier than immediate peril. Every waking hour passed in the Grand Canyon has been one of toil. We have watched with deep solicitude the steady disappearance of our scant supply of rations, and from time to time have seen the river snatch a portion of the little left, while we were ahungered. And danger and toil were endured in those gloomy depths, where oftimes clouds hid the sky by day and but a narrow zone of stars could be seen at night. Only during the few hours of deep sleep, consequent on hard labor, has the roar of the waters been hushed. Now the danger is over, now the toil has ceased, now the gloom has disappeared, now the firmament is bounded only by the horizon, and what a vast expanse of constellations can be seen!”

Powell’s journal triggered interest in the area. Such a dramatic geology must surely support mineral wealth? So in the 1870’s, 80’s, and 90’s there was an influx of prospectors, but miners turned to tourist guiding when they failed to find mineral wealth and many of the trails they made are what we walk today.

This is just one of the stories from my Grand Canyon National Park talk

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