November 4-6, 2016

Grand Canyon Historical Society logoI hated history classes as a kid.  Maybe that had something to do with how history was taught.  Now it is one of my many favorite subjects and I jumped at the chance to attend the Grand Canyon History Symposium 2016, my second out of four.  The last one in 2012 was excellent, although the January snow was deep.  This year’s November gathering was superb.  “The Grand Canyon Historical Society celebrates and promotes the study and preservation of the Grand Canyon region’s cultural and natural history for the education and enjoyment of its members and the public.”

Bright Angel canyon & North Rim from South Rim Grand Canyon National Park ArizonaBright Angel Canyon & North Rim

After an afternoon walk along the rim we attended the registration and welcome reception at Maswick Lodge Friday evening.  Ran into several people I know.  Poor Bill, who claims not to be social, met more new people that night than he has all year.  Called it an early night because the speaker sessions began at 8 the next morning.


Saturday was a full day.  I’m picking out my favorites from the 16 research presentations, although they were all interesting, about people, issues and places from Grand Canyon’s history.  I took no photos as the presentations were all inside the Shrine of the Ages and would only show a person’s silhouette in front of an over bright slide.

Current President Wayne Ranney opened the day by welcoming and thanking everyone.  His wife Helen and Dave Mortenson—along with many volunteers—took care of the business of making this happen and their name tags were labeled “Big Cheese”.  It has to be a lot of work to put an event like this together.  Wayne reminded the presenters of the strict 20 minute time limitation, including a moderator in the front row who would hold up signs when 5 and 1 minute remained.  Then the new Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Christine Lehnertz spoke about the importance of remembering and sharing the history of the park.

Havasupai Medicine Duo Uqualla & White Dove Natve American Heritage Days North Rim Grand Canyon National Park ArizonaHavasupai Medicine Duo Uqualla & White Dove at Natve American Heritage Days North Rim Grand Canyon National Park 2008

The first presenters, Steve and Lois Hirst, talked about their “Recovering Lost Stories: The Havasupai Photograph Project.”  Steve and Lois began a lifelong relationship with the Havasupai in the mid 1960s.  While living on the reservation they were asked to research and document the case for winning back ancestral land.  This led to the discovery of hundreds of long-lost historic photographs in museums and archives.  So they began putting names to the faces drawing on memories of elders and facial comparisons.  Steve’s award-winning book I Am the Grand Canyon, his novel Lauren Greasewater’s War, and the historic enlargement of the Havasupai Reservation are the outcome of that work.

Historic lodging NPS 5155Historic lodging NPS 5155

Several lesser know characters from Grand Canyon’s history were brought to light.  Julius Farlee ran the first tourist operations even though that credit is typically given to the better known John Hance and William Bass.  From the early 20th century, Henry C. Peabody was identified as an “Eminent National Park Service Photographer” who created a 43-photograph narrated slideshow  of the Grand Canyon.  Rose Collom, a self-taught botanist, collected over 800 specimens between 1938-54 putting Grand Canyon near the top of national parks in plant diversity.

Desertview Watchtower South Rim Grand Canyon National Park ArizonaDesertview Watchtower – Colter design completed in 1932

Plus many well known people were recognized for their accomplishments and involvement at, and in, the canyon.  From 1905-35 Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter created visionary designs on the South Rim for the Santa Fe Railway and Fred Harvey Company using natural materials to give the structures a sense of place.  Martin Litton spent more than 80 years as an active environmentalist and fought against two dams in Grand Canyon in the 1960s.

Discussed were just a few issues the National Park Service has dealt with like gaining control of our park from the earliest mining claimants, managing the river and user-group conflicts, and transportation and visitor parking.

Shrine of the Ages South Rim Grand Canyon National Park ArizonaShrine of the Ages 2012

Did you know Grand Canyon has a cemetery?  Seems people are dying to be buried there.  Yet it is small and mostly local folks who find their way here.  Right next door is the Shrine of the Ages built during the late 1960s with an original intention of providing an interfaith chapel for locals and visitors to worship.  Services are held yet the multi-purpose building is also used for fund raisers, music festivals, evening programs, and symposiums.  There are several examples of the rather boring Mission 66 architecture built for the National Park Service 50th anniversary and talk of tearing some of it down.

Interpretive sign Mather Visitor Center South Rim Grand Canyon National Park ArizonaDisplay at Mather Visitor Center

Morning and afternoon breaks plus a long lunch helped break up the day a bit.  Plus just outside the Shrine was displayed restored or replicated historic river boats.

Vintage Grand Canyon National Park WPA posterFriday night Doug Leen’s presentation told the story of WPA National Park serigraphic posters printed between 1935 and 1943 as part of the WPA’s Federal Art Project.  Few remain yet are being restored.

Renown photographer Gary Ladd shared what he considers the 50+ finest features at Grand Canyon Saturday evening.  Having spent 50 years floating the Colorado river and hiking in, on, and around the canyon his images wowed us all.

Hopi Lyle Balenquah and Navajo Jason Nez GRCA History Symposium South Rim Grand Canyon National Park ArizonaSeveral tours with per-registration were also offered on Friday and Sunday.  We chose A Time of Profound Change co-presented by Hopi Lyle Balenquah and Navajo Jason Nez.  While enjoying the view we heard them talk about increased communications between the Nations and Park Service.  This land may belong to us all but has sacred meaning to many of the First People.

Preparing for 2019

A follow up questionnaire came quickly via email and while still fresh in attendee’s minds as plans begin for the 5th Grand Canyon History Symposium only a few years away.  I could hardly thank everyone enough for putting on this historic event.  My only recommendation was to hold the next one on the North Rim.  Now I’m thinking of ideas to submit for the next gathering of historians in 2019, when Grand Canyon National Park celebrates its 100th birthday.

All presentations will be compiled and eventually published by Grand Canyon Association, an official nonprofit partner of Grand Canyon National Park.