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Reflections From Faith and History

The Grand Canyon -by Jeff Olson

During my lifetime, I have been fortunate to do more than my share of traveling around this great country of ours. In all of my journeys around America, I can think of but only two places I visited which defy photography, painting, or any other feeble human attempt at description. One is Niagara Falls and the other is the Grand Canyon. I would like to dedicate my column this week to the Grand Canyon.

Like much of the American Southwest in the mid-nineteenth century, this canyon was still unknown territory. Reports from Native Americans and hunters told of an enormous canyon carved by the Colorado River, but few others actually knew of its location. News of the canyon’s existence stirred the curiosity of John Wesley Powell (1834-1902), an American explorer, geologist, and ethnologist. In 1869 Powell set out to find the canyon and explore it.

Powell’s 10-man party included hunters, trappers, and fellow Civil War veterans. They left Green River Station, Wyoming, on May 24, 1869, in four small boats. Along the way, one of the boats sank in a rapid, taking with it scientific instruments and about one-fourth of the party’s provisions. Some they were able to recover. The explorers entered the canyon on August 5 at its northernmost point and as they floated into the Colorado River, three-thousand-foot walls surrounded them on both sides. Early on, the party got a taste of what they were in store for when violent torrents of water tossed one of the boats against a boulder and destroyed it. In another incident, Powell (who had lost an arm in the Civil War) climbed a cliff to get a better view of the water’s current. At eighty feet up, he lost his foothold and while he was clinging to a rock his climbing partner took off his pants and lowered them to Powell who made a life-or-death lunge for the waving cloth. Fortunately, he caught it and scrambled to safety.

Besides giving the Grand Canyon its name, Powell also named many other features during the voyage, including Marble Canyon and Silver Creek (which he later renamed Bright Angel Creek). As they traveled westward, they passed by spires and carved arches and experienced whirlpools, jagged falls, monstrous rapids, a shortage of food and supplies and loss of life.

One hundred fifty years ago this week, August 29, 1869, 95-days and nearly a thousand miles after beginning their journey, the two remaining boats and six men entered the confluence of the Virgin and Colorado rivers, a site covered by present-day Lake Mead in Nevada. Here, Powell called a halt to the expedition. Powell had accomplished one of the most amazing and celebrated journeys in American exploration history. He returned several years later, backed by an appropriation from the U.S. Congress and an 11-man crew that included several trained scientists. This voyage, from May 22, 1871 to September 7, 1872, produced the first reliable maps of the Colorado River.

Following Powell’s expeditions, pioneers began settling around the rim of the Grand Canyon in the 1880s. They were mostly prospectors looking to mine copper. However, it didn’t take long before these and other settlers realized that tourism would be more profitable than mining.

In 1893 President Benjamin Harris gave protection the Grand Canyon as a forest reserve. In 1901 builders completed a spur of the Santa Fe Railroad that would take tourists from Williams, Arizona to Grand Canyon Village. This greatly boosted tourism. In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt traveled to the Grand Canyon and was so inspired: “The Grand Canyon fills me with awe. It is beyond comparison—beyond description; absolutely unparalleled through-out the wide world… Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is. Do nothing to mar its grandeur, sublimity and loveliness. You cannot improve on it. But what you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see.” To keep the area pristine for future generations, Roosevelt created the Grand Canyon Game Preserve in 1906 and Grand Canyon National Monument in 1908.

In 1919 Grand Canyon National Park was established as the nation’s seventeenth national park, making this year the park’s centennial. Over the past century, the annual number of visitors has risen from forty-four thousand when the park opened to an estimated five million for 2019.

I think it best to close with John Wesley Powell’s words: “The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail.”

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