The Grand Canyon Throughout Time

Travel back in time with a history lesson on the Grand Canyon
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Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter going over blueprints for one of her buildings in the Grand Canyon

Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter going over blueprints for one of her buildings in the Grand Canyon

Two days of bone-jarring, head-rattling, nerve-wracking travel. That's what it took to reach the Grand Canyon back in the early days around the turn of the 19th century. Intrepid travelers disembarked from the railroad in Williams or Flagstaff, boarded a bus or stagecoach, and set off into a bewildering, maze of rutted two-track roads that led across the mesas to the canyon rim. Essential gear for those early travelers included: tools, extra food and water, and, if you were smart, a trained mechanic. The likelihood of a breakdown somewhere in the wilds between the railroad and the canyon rim was so high in the early days that bus drivers for the South Rim concessionaire, the Fred Harvey Company, traveled with carrier pigeons to send for help when things went wrong.

Pre-European History

The Grand Canyon's human history dates back much further than these early tourists, however. Archaeological evidence indicates hunter-gatherers roamed the rugged landscape as many as 10,000 years ago. Little remains of these early people beyond a few animal-shaped figurines made from willow branches that were discovered in a Red Wall limeston cave. Radiocarbon dating indicates these figurines are between 2,000 and 4,000 years old. Gradually the population of the area changed, in part because of the introduction of corn and the rising use of agriculture. Early Puebloan people, also known as the Anasazi inhabited the region for 700 years beginning in AD 500. These Ancestral Puebloans abandoned the Grand Canyon area in the 1200s, moving into the Rio Grande Valley. The reason for their migration is unclear, but most scientists believe climate change or an extended drought drove them to search for greener pastures. The Puebloans were replaced by other tribes including the Hualapai and the Havasupai who continue to inhabit the region today.

Early European Contact

The first Europeans to see the Grand Canyon were searching for the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola, cities that were reputed to harbor great treasures of silver and gold. Sent by the conquistador Francisco Vazquez de Coronado from Mexico, a group of Spanish soldiers under the leadership of Captain Garcia Lopez de Cardenas ventured to the South Rim in 1540. Three soldiers led by Hopi guides descended partway down into the canyon but were turned back by the lack of water. They wrote of their awe of the landscape and described rocks larger than the towers found in the city of Seville. But the grandeur of the landscape wasn't enough to captivate the Spaniards. They found no gold, so they left and more than two hundred years passed before another European ventured into the area.

Not all of the early visitors saw the canyon as grand. Lieutenant Joseph Ives, who was sent to lead a U.S. Army survey of the region in 1857, wrote, 'The region is of course altogether valueless. Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality.'

But Ives was wrong in his assessment. A little over 10 years later, Major John Wesley Powell led the first boat trip down through the canyon. His crew endured hardship, uncertainty, hunger and fear as they negotiated the rapids that raged beneath the towering canyon walls. Three members of his party, dispirited, fearful and convinced they were going to fail, left the expedition at Separation Rapids, determined to walk to safety. Unfortunately for them, they miscalculated. Powell and the remaining members of the team made it safely to Grand Wash Cliffs and the end of the Grand Canyon a few days later. The other three men were never seen or heard from again.

Powell's trip opened up the region, which had previously been little more than a blank space on the map. A few hearty adventures followed his footsteps over the years, but it was not until the turn of the century that tourism began to take off.

The Rise of the Cult of Nature and Its Impact on Tourism

The names of the land features left behind by Powell's expedition hint at the changing aesthetic toward the natural world that was nascent in American culture at the time: names like Vasey's Paradise, Bright Angel Creek, even the Grand Canyon label itself indicate a growing appreciation of the beauty, drama and spiritual power of nature. This ethic is also reflected in the concurrent rise of Romanticism, which popularized the idea of nature as a source of spirit renewal and inspiration. Work by artists from the Hudson River School of painting, including Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, and Thomas Moran,whose painting of the view from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon was one of the most effective early marketing tools for the region depicted nature as raw, powerful, and other worldly. Romantic writers William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson further explored the power and beauty of the natural world. Their poems and essays, coupled with the paintings, helped popularize a kind of cult of nature in the middle and upper classes of both the United States and Europe: a cult whose adherents were drawn to see the landscapes for themselves and who were willing to undergo a certain amount of discomfort to do so. Hence the hardy men and women enduring the difficult overland journey to the Grand Canyon at the turn of the century.

The late 1800s also saw a growing awareness of the limits of nature and the negative impacts of civilization, coupled with rising concern for conservation as witnessed by the establishment of national forest preserves and later national parks in the United States. President Theodore Roosevelt was an early proponent of conservationism. A keen outdoorsman, Roosevelt first visited the Grand Canyon in 1903. His enthusiasm led to the establishment of the Grand Canyon Game Preserve in 1906, which was expanded into the Grand Canyon National Monument in 1908. Early efforts to create a national park (by this time Yellowstone, Yosemite, Mount Rainier and Crater Lake had already been established) in the Grand Canyon were stymied by the lobbying efforts of local miners and landholders who did not want to loose the right to develop their claims in the area. But finally after an 11-year battle, Grand Canyon National Park was established in 1919.

Early tourism in the American West coincided with the rise in popularity of landscape paintings that glorified nature. Paintings by artists like Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, and Thomas Moran whose painting of the view from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon was one of the most effective early marketing tools for the region depicted nature as raw, powerful, and other worldly. Romantic writers William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson further developed the notion that nature was a source for spiritual inspiration and renewal. Their poems and essays, coupled with the landscape paintings of the Hudson River School helped popularize a kind of cult of nature in the middle and upper classes of both the United States and Europe: a cult whose adherents were drawn to see the landscapes for themselves and who were willing to undergo a certain amount of discomfort to do so, hence the hardy men and women enduring the difficult overland journey to the Grand Canyon at the turn of the century.

The Grand Canyon Becomes a National Park

The late 1800s also saw a growing awareness of the limits of nature and the negative impacts of civilization, which led to rising concern for conservation as witnessed by the establishment of national forests and later national parks in the United States. President Theodore Roosevelt was an early proponent of conservationism. A keen outdoorsman, Roosevelt first visited the Grand Canyon in 1903. His enthusiasm led to the establishment of the Grand Canyon Game Preserve in 1906, which was expanded into the Grand Canyon National Monument in 1908. Early efforts to create a national park (by this time Yellowstone, Yosemite, Mount Rainier and Crater Lake had already been established) in the Grand Canyon were stymied by the lobbying efforts of local miners and landholders who did not want to loose the right to develop their claims in the area. But finally after an 11-year battle, Grand Canyon National Park was established in 1919.

The early days of the park witnessed a gradual changing of the guard as the pioneers were forced out by corporate concessions linked to the railroads. The park service under the auspices of its first leader, multimillionaire Stephen Mather, sought to create elaborate visitor services and boost the number of tourists exponentially. Between 1919 and 1929 this effort resulted in a fivefold increase in the number of visitors to the South Rim, from 38,000 to 184,000. This dramatic rise put strain on services: employees lived in ramshackle buildings, unfettered livestock wandered the villages, trash was dumped in the surrounding forests, and in places the smell of open-pit toilets fouled the air. Mather wanted this to change. His vision, which became the park's vision, was of bucolic villages catering to the affluent travelers. He dreamed of grand hotels, curio shops, landscaped open spaces, and other visitor attractions. The conservation of natural resources did not make his priority list.

Shift From Small-Time Operators to Corporate Control

With such grandiose schemes in mind, the small-scale pioneer operations like those of William Wallace Bass, Emery and Ellsworth Kolb, John Verkamp, and on the north rim, Elizabeth Wylie McKee could not compete. Most did not have the money to develop the infrastructure demanded by the park's master plan and were gradually forced out of business as the South Rim became the territory of the Fred Harvey Company and its parent company, the Santa Fe Railroad, and the North Rim went to the Union Pacific and its Utah Parks Company, which also held concessions in Zion, Bryce and Cedar Breaks national parks. A flurry of building took place between 1900 and the 1939, with some of the most notable achievements being the El Tovar Hotel, the Watchtower, Hopi House, Grand Canyon Lodge and Phantom Ranch.

Railroads were critical both in providing capital for infrastructure and for bringing in tourists. An early railroad-marketing scheme called 'See America First,' which was designed by the Great Northern Railroad to promote its resorts in Montana but was later usurped by the National Parks Service was instrumental in establishing the popularity of America's park system. The slogan played upon America's sense of patriotism, particularly after World War I, and helped to shift the focus of the traveling public from a Grand Tour of Europe which had long been considered a rite of passage for most wealthy Americans to a grand tour of America's treasures: its national parks.

Today, the Grand Canyon is one of America's most popular tourist destinations with more than four million visitors annually. But the roots of the park's early days can still be found in many of its historic buildings and in the colorful place names that dot the maps.

Related

An artist's impression of United Airlines Flight 718 colliding with TWA Flight 2. Wikimedia Commons by anonymous author.

1956 Grand Canyon Airplane Crash

A mid-air collision occurred on June 30, 1956 when a United Airlines Douglas DC-7 struck a Trans World Airlines Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation over the Grand Canyon in Arizona