- Historic Sites
Down The Colorado
One hundred years ago John Wesley Powell set out to explore the Grand Canyon of the Colorado —something no man had attempted before. His official report of the voyage remains one of the great adventure stories in all the literature of the American West
October 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 6
By midday of May 24, 1869, the entire population (maybe one hundred people) of Green River Station, Wyoming Territory, had turned out to witness the second “historic occasion” in less than two weeks. Thirteen days earlier the first transcontinental train had passed over the new railroad bridge upstream. Now ten men in four awkward-looking boats were pushing off onto the swollen, mud-colored Green River to begin an epic journey down the Green to where it meets the Colorado, then down the Colorado and into the Grand Canyon. The leader of the party was a small bearded man who had lost his right arm at Shiloh, but whose courage and determination were in no way diminished by the handicap. He was John Wesley Powell, thirty-five years old, a professor of geology, museum director, Rocky Mountain explorer, accomplished naturalist, and born leader. There were cheers from the shore as Powell waved his hat, then the boats were swept off and disappeared round the bend. Downriver, according to the stories he had heard, were whirlpools and rapids that would swallow boats in an instant, and a place where the river was said to go underground for hundreds of miles.
On August 30, 1869, some thirteen weeks and nearly nine hundred miles later, Powell emerged from the Grand Canyon. He and his party had been reported drowned weeks before, but ragged as they looked, and despite all they had been through, Powell and five of his men stepped ashore very much alive. They had lost two boats along the way; one man had quit near the start of the trip; and later, in the depths of the Grand Canyon, three others had refused to go on and had climbed out onto the north rim. Only a few days later, as Powell was soon to learn, they had been killed by Indians.
Powell returned to the East a hero, and justly so: his voyage was easily the most dramatic western expedition of the time, and it had succeeded in filling the last big blank on the map. But Powell was far from finished with the Colorado. In Washington he got a small congressional appropriation to finance a second transit of the river and in 1871 was again back exploring.
Powell’s articles on his experiences in Scribner’s Monthly and his 1875 report, Explorations of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries , created a sensation when they appeared. Part of the report, the diary section, is a compilation of Powell’s journals of both river trips, some newspaper articles he had written, and the Scribner’s articles. The narrative unfolds as though everything in it happened during the first trip. There is no mention of the men who made up the 1871–72 party, no mention even that there was a second trip.
This hybrid rendition has been looked upon with disdain by some historians, but Powell was more intent on doing justice to the spirit of his experiences than on writing a precise historical record. He was out to stimulate public interest and to gain the attention of the United States Congress, from which the money would have to come if there was to be further research. And in that he was successful. His explorations were given official status as the third of the “Great Surveys,” the survey of the Rocky Mountain region, and out of all this eventually came the creation of the U.S. Geological Survey, which Powell was to run with marked success for fourteen years.
On the one-hundredth anniversary of Powell’s first voyage a magnificent new edition of the 1875 journal has been brought out by E. P. Dutton and Company under the title Down the Colorado , with illustrations by the noted nature photographer Eliot Porter, whose thoughts on our own century’s contribution to the canyon country, Lake Powell, are included on page 61. The selections from Powell that follow pick up toward the close of the trip, the most dangerous part, as he and his men shoved off into the Grand Canyon itself.
AUGUST 13.  We are now ready to start … down the Great Unknown. Our boats, tied to a common stake, are chafing each other, as they are tossed by the fretful river. They ride high and buoyant, for their loads are lighter than we could desire. We have but a month’s rations remaining. The flour has been resifted through the mosquito-net sieve; the spoiled bacon has been dried, and the worst of it boiled ; the few pounds of dried apples have been spread in the sun, and reshrunken to their normal bulk; the sugar has all melted, and gone on its way down the river; but we have a large sack of coffee. The lightening of the boats has this advantage: they will ride the waves better, and we shall have but little to carry when we make a portage.
We are three-quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth, and the great river shrinks into insignificance, as it dashes its angry waves against the walls and cliffs, that rise to the world above; they are but puny ripples, and we but pigmies, running up and down the sands, or lost among the boulders. …