Copyright, 1899, by H. G. Peabody. Bright Angel Creek and North Wall of the Canyon.
THE TITAN OF CHASMS
BY C. A. HIGGINS
The Colorado is one of the great rivers of North America. Formed in Southern Utah by the confluence of the Green and Grand, it intersects the northwestern corner of Arizona, and, becoming the eastern boundary of Nevada and California, flows southward until it reaches tidewater in the Gulf of California, Mexico. It drains a territory of 300,000 square miles, and, traced back to the rise of its principal source, is 2,000 miles long. At two points, Needles and Yuma on the California boundary, it is crossed by a railroad. Elsewhere its course lies far from Caucasian settlements and far from the routes of common travel, in the heart of a vast region fenced on the one hand by arid plains or deep forests and on the other by formidable mountains.
The early Spanish explorers first reported it to the civilized world in 1540, two separate expeditions becoming acquainted with the river for a comparatively short distance above its mouth, and another, journeying from the Moki Pueblos northwestward across the desert, obtaining the first view of the Big Canyon, failing in every effort to descend the canyon wall, and spying the river only from afar.
Again, in 1776, a Spanish priest traveling southward through Utah struck off from the Virgin River to the southeast and found a practicable crossing at a point that still bears the name “Vado de los Padres.”
For more than eighty years thereafter the Big Canyon remained unvisited except by the Indian, the Mormon herdsman, and the trapper, although the Sitgreaves expedition of 1851, journeying westward, struck the river about 150 miles above Yuma, and Lieutenant Whipple in 1854 made a survey for a practicable railroad route along the thirty-fifth parallel, where the Santa Fe Pacific has since been constructed.
The establishment of military posts in New Mexico and Utah having made desirable the use of a waterway for the cheap transportation of supplies, in 1857 the War Department dispatched an expedition in charge of Lieutenant Ives to explore the Colorado as far from its mouth as navigation should be found practicable. Ives ascended the river in a specially constructed steamboat to the head of Black Canyon, a few miles below the confluence of the Virgin River in Nevada, where further navigation became impossible; then, returning to the Needles, he set off across the country toward the northeast. He reached the Big Canyon at Diamond Creek and at Cataract Creek in the spring of 1858, and from the latter point made a wide southward detour around the San Francisco Peaks, thence northeastward to the Moki Pueblos, thence eastward to Fort Defiance, and so back to civilization.
That is the history of the explorations of the Colorado up to forty years ago. Its exact course was unknown for many hundred miles, even its origin being a matter of conjecture. It was difficult to approach within a distance of two or three miles from the channel, while descent to the river’s edge could be hazarded only at wide intervals, inasmuch as it lay in an appalling fissure at the foot of seemingly impassable cliff terraces that led down from the bordering plateau; and to attempt its navigation was to court death. It was known in a general way that the entire channel between Nevada and Utah was of the same titanic character, reaching its culmination nearly midway in its course through Arizona.
The Colorado, Foot of Bright Angel Trail.
In 1869 Maj. J. W. Powell undertook the exploration of the river with nine men and four boats, starting from Green River City, on the Green River, in Utah. The project met with the most urgent remonstrance from those who were best acquainted with the region, including the Indians, who maintained that boats could not possibly live in any one of a score of rapids and falls known to them, to say nothing of the vast unknown stretches in which at any moment a Niagara might be disclosed. It was also currently believed that for hundreds of miles the river disappeared wholly beneath the surface of the earth. Powell launched his flotilla on May 24th, and on August 30th landed at the mouth of the Virgin River, more than one thousand miles by the river channel from the place of starting, minus two boats and four men. One of the men had left the expedition by way of an Indian reservation agency before reaching Arizona, and three, after holding out against unprecedented terrors for many weeks, had finally become daunted, choosing to encounter the perils of an unknown desert rather than to brave any longer the frightful menaces of that Stygian torrent. These three, unfortunately making their appearance on the plateau at a time when a recent depredation was colorably chargeable upon them, were killed by Indians, their story of having come thus far down the river in boats being wholly discredited by their captors.
Powell’s journal of the trip is a fascinating tale, written in a compact and modest style, which, in spite of its reticence, tells an epic story of purest heroism. It definitely established the scene of his exploration as the most wonderful geological and spectacular phenomenon known to mankind, and justified the name which had been bestowed upon it—The Grand Canyon—sublimest of gorges; Titan of chasms. Many scientists have since visited it, and, in the aggregate, a large number of unprofessional lovers of nature; but until a few years ago no adequate facilities were provided for the general sight-seer, and the world’s most stupendous panorama was known principally through report, by reason of the discomforts and difficulties, of the trip, which deterred all except the most indefatigable