Feb 212012
01 GRCA Historical Society logo - Copy
The Grand Canyon History Symposium offered several field trip opportunities including the historic boats.  Unfortunately, they all filled up on the first day before I arrived.  However, I was added to a waiting list for the historic boats tour and when the second tour was added, and some folks in front of me couldn’t attend, I got to go.  So after a quick ride part way out the Hermit Road to view the canyon I joined a group of folks at the warehouse which currently houses some of the historic boat collection.  Our guide, Brad Dimock, has been a river runner for 45 years (more than he’d like to admit). This is just a little of what I learned. (Hope you’re ready for a history lesson.)
01a Only surviving piece of the Nellie Powell SR GRCA NP AZ (1024x601)
Remains of the Nellie Powell
The history of whitewater boating on the Colorado River evolved over time with the modification of boats and techniques.  The challenge of the river called many names beginning with the one-armed Major John Wesley Powell.  Unfortunately, all that remains of the Nellie Powell, one of four Whitehall boats used in the 1871-72 Powell expeditions, is seen in the image above.  This was the largest piece discovered in 1938 shortly after a brush fire at Lees Ferry, where Powell had stashed it in 1871.  The Whitehall boat design originated in the east where sleek, keeled cutwater boats were ideal for fast travel in relatively smooth water.  One or two men rowed downriver while facing upstream while another steered in the stern with a sweep oar, or rudder.  Because the Whitehalls were poorly adapted to shallow, rocky rapids they were portaged or lined around most major rapids.
02 Photo of the Edith SR GRCA NP AZ (1024x642)
Bert Loper & Ellsworth Kolb with the Defiance & the Edith
By the beginning of the 1900s an entirely new boat style designed by Nathaniel Galloway with flat-bottomed upturned boats for shallow draft and ease of pivoting plus he chose to face the rapid, pull upstream to slow his momentum.  In 1911, Emery & Ellsworth Kolb rowed similar boats with a stronger lapstrake construction, making photographs and movies as they went down the Colorado River.
03 Brad Dimock with his replica & original Edith boats in Headquarters for the History Symposium SR GRCA NP AZ (1024x640)
Brad with the replica and original Edith
Brad built this replica of the Edith which he ran on the Colorado and says it was fun but handled poorly and is surprised the Kolbs made it at all.
04 USGS Gallowy-style GLEN circa 1923 & Esmeralda II circa 1949 SR GRCA NP AZ (1024x314)
In 1923, the United States Geological Survey completed their mapping survey of the Green, San Juan, and Colorado Rivers in an over-sized Galloway-style boat named Glen.  The Galloway boats dominated river travel for four decades yet their narrowness and thinly planked sides limited loads or much room for passengers.
05 Cataract boat the Wen Nevills Expedition at VC, training, SR GRCA NP AZ (1024x768) (593x708)
Nevills’ Cataract boat the WEN, named after his father (displayed in the Visitor center)
Norman Nevills originally designed and built plywood boats in the 1930s to run whitewater on Utah’s San Juan River.  In 1938 he led an expedition in his Cataract boats, wider than the Galloway and built from marine plywood.  His design lived on another twenty years before succumbing to more modern craft.  Nevills introduced commercial tours to the Colorado River.
06 Esmeralda II circa 1949 SR GRCA NP AZ (1024x571)
Esmeralda II
The excitement spread by word of mouth to Ed Hudson who built a plywood craft modeled after A.J. Higgins’s revolutionary World War II landing craft with a V-shaped prow and a reversed-V stern to protect the propeller and rudder naming her the Esmeralda II.
07 Photos of the Esmeralda II SR GRCA NP AZ (1024x682)
Hudson attempted to run upriver with no success but did travel downriver in 1949 becoming the first motorboat down the Colorado through Grand Canyon.  During a river run the following year engine trouble occurred and Hudson abandoned the boat which was repaired and brought down river a week later by another expedition.
08 Georgie White's raft SR GRCA NP AZ (768x1024)
After World War II surplus military rafts became available, and were commonly used in the Grand Canyon by the 1950s.
09 The Georgie photo SR GRCA NP AZ (1024x768)
Although the first inflatable down the Colorado was Amos Burg’s 1938 Charlie, credit should be given to the famous Georgie White for introducing motor-powered inflatables, sometimes tying two or three together for more stability and allowing for more passengers which really introduced river tourism.
10 Original GEM drift boat cira 1950s SR GRCA NP AZ (1024x768)
Motorized inflatables almost replaced wooden boats for a decade on the Colorado River yet some were still searching for the best wooden design.  During the late 1950s P.T. Reilly, a former Nevills boatman, built three boats like the GEM with the influence of Oregon’s McKenzie River drift boat.
11 Reproduction of GEM drift boat by Tom Martin SR GRCA NP AZ (1024x768)
Reproduction of the GEM built by Tom Martin
12 Grand Canyon dory cira 1962 Music Temple SR GRCA NP AZ (1024x403)
Built in 1962 and originally named The Susie II
These flare-sided, high-prowed fishing boats evolved into a fuller hulled Rogue River drift boat in the 1970s built by one of Reilly’s fellow boatmen, Martin Litton and became known as the Colorado River dory, still the most prominently used wooden boat on the river today.  Yet rafts are the most common used.
13 SportYak circa 1963 SR GRCA NP AZ (768x1024)
The SportYak looks like a bathtub instead of a boat
In the spring of 1963 the newly built Glen Canyon Dam pinched the Colorado River’s flow to 1,000 cubic feet per second (cfs)—a mere trickle compared to its normal flow of 10,000 to 20,000 cfs.  River running photographer Bill Belknap talked the manufacturer of SportYak II into donating seven boats for an expedition down the ultra-low river.
14 sportYak photo SR GRCA NP AZ (1024x768)
Most rapids couldn’t be run so the boats were either lined or dragged across the rocks.  Three of the boats were hauled out by mule from Phantom Ranch and their rowers hiked out while the remaining four completed the river run.
15 Ross Wheeler GRCA NP (768x1024) (768x1024)
Ross Wheeler
Many historic boats are safely protected and preserved on the South Rim, a few remain in the canyon.  (You can read about the Ross Wheeler here.)  Yet space is limited to display all the boats to the public. The tour I took was by special arrangement.
16 Old laundry building SR GRCA NP AZ (1024x768)
Old laundry building proposed for Colorado River Heritage Museum
The story of human desire to run the Colorado River includes many colorful characters, all part of the cultural history of Grand Canyon.  Many of you have experienced the journey and adventure of looking up at steep canyon walls from the river.  The Grand Canyon River Heritage Coalition along with many partners supports the National Park Service with its vision of renovating the historic 1926 built laundry building into the Colorado River Heritage Museum to share the boats and artifacts associated with the history of boating on the Colorado River.  Wouldn’t it be great to visit this display?  I thoroughly enjoyed my tour of the historic boats and hope you got something out of it too.

  13 Responses to “Grand Canyon Historic Boats”

Comments (13)
  1. Thanks for the history lesson; very enjoyable and I doubt I would ever be able to attend such a tour. Thank you for the visit. I had seen one of the old Powell boats at the VC many years ago but that may have been a replica.

  2. Fascinating. I've always enjoyed the tales of Powell's adventures, but never really thought about the evolution of the boats that have been used in the Canyon. Thank you for sharing this bit of history.

  3. Very interesting history. I'm quite surprised that its been mostly wooden boats that has been used and if I understand right still being used. I would have though inflatables woulf have been the order of the day these days. Perhaps I'm just used to seeing images of white water rafting from all over the world and associating it with that.

  4. Very interesting, Gaelyn! I, too, didn't realize that wooden boats were still being used. I thought it was all inflatables nowdays.

  5. I'm not ready! No history! OUCH! I need more coffee! Ooh, boats!

    The Good Luck Duck

  6. Great write up, thanks for taking the time to share. It sounds like a great tour.

  7. Very interesting read, Gaelyn! Thanks for taking the time to share it.

  8. Having rafted the CO River for 7 days, I can't imagine doing it in one of those old wooden boats! What courage and skill it must have taken. Loved seeing your photos of history, Gaelyn.

  9. Interesting, Gaelyn. I've seen movies of running the Colorado and it was definitely a challenge. It's good that they have preserved so many of the historic boats.

  10. Amazing post. I really enjoyed it. Interesting about how the boats evolved and then ended up mainly being the rafts.

  11. Isn't it wonderful that such things are kept and who would have thought of all those changes happening and I guess still going on and being refined. A lovely post, thanks.

  12. Not bored at all! I love learning history this way (esp. with all your colorful boat pictures). Would love to take this tour (and Bill would love it even more).

  13. Boats… I do love them! ;-)

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