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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After World War II surplus military rafts became available, and were commonly used in the Grand Canyon by the 1950s.
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.
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.
Reproduction of the GEM built by Tom Martin
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.