Float Your Boat: Grand Canyon Rafts, Then and Now

The four boats used on the 1869 Powell expedition were made of oak and pine and poorly suited for running Grand Canyon rapids.
Author:
Updated:
Original:
grand-canyon-powell-3

Powell's second expedition

The first dory boat to run the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Music Temple was originally named Susie Too and was owned by Martin Litton's company Grand Canyon Dories. Photo by M. Quinn of the National Park Service [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The first dory boat to run the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Music Temple was originally named Susie Too and was owned by Martin Litton's company Grand Canyon Dories. Photo by M. Quinn of the National Park Service [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The four boats used on the 1869 Powell expedition were made of oak and pine and poorly suited for running Grand Canyon rapids. There are no surviving pictures or illustrations of the boats, but historians have pieced together information from journal entries.

The boats were water taxis, called Whitehalls, originally designed to ferry passengers between large ships and the harbor. Powell had a boat builder customize the Whitehalls for running rapids but the additions only made things worse. He added large, sealed compartments at the front and back of the 22-foot long boats to store supplies and to add buoyancy. Instead, the extra mass made the crafts difficult to steer and easier to capsize. The wooden boats also soaked up water and were brutally heavy to portage around more than 100 rapids. Powell revised his design on the second 1871 expedition to include a mid-ship compartment, steering oars, and a captain's chair.

The Grand Canyon was run in wooden boats until 1952, when Georgie White not only became the first female commercial river guide but also the first in the Grand Canyon to introduce "soft boats" in the form of 10-man inflatable life rafts. Today, Grand Canyon river trips are mostly done in self-bailing rubber rafts that are 18 feet long, 8 feet wide, hold up to 11 passengers, and bounce off rocks. They are loaded with ice chests stocking cold beer and steak, something Powell never could have imagined.

Related article: Legendary Grand Canyon Boatman Dies - Martin Litton

Related

John Wesley Powell with a native guide

Powell's Grand Ambition - Rafting Through the Grand Canyon

Running the treacherous Colorado River in 1869 would be one of many historic firsts for explorer and scientist John Wesley Powell.

Early Tourists of Grand Canyon

Early Tourists of the Grand Canyon

The first people to come to sightsee were transcontinental travelers, who disembarked in Williams or Flagstaff and came to the canyon via stagecoach

Relaxing while rafting on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Photo by Whit Richardson

Booking Your Grand Canyon Rafting Trip

Deciding to take a Colorado River trip is easy. The tricky part is making that dream a reality. Sixteen companies offer trips through the Grand Canyon.

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

The Grand Canyon Throughout Time

Travel back in time with a history lesson on the Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon View

How the Grand Canyon Became a National Park

The Canyon's natural beauty was under attack from developers, miners and ranchers. Jan 11, 1908, Roosevelt stopped them by establishing a national monument.

Lees Ferry - Mile 0 for rafting in the Grand Canyon

Legendary Grand Canyon Boatman - Martin Litton

In the Grand Canyon, 296 miles of the Colorado River runs free, largely because of Martin Litton. He was a Grand Canyon river runner and environmental activist.

Grand Canyon View

Grand Canyon Among the Seven Natural Wonders of the World

Considered one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the canyon stretches an impressive 227 miles long and averages over ten miles wide.

Marble Canyon

Grand Canyon Saved from Flooding

Until January 20, 1969 the Grand Canyon was not fully safe from flooding and becoming another major man made lake in Arizona.