John Wesley Powell’s expedition launched on May 24, 1869, and things quickly went sideways.
Library of Congress(Photo)
John Wesley Powell’s expedition launched on May 24, 1869, and things quickly went sideways.
John Wesley Powell’s expedition launched on May 24, 1869, and things quickly went sideways. (Photo: Library of Congress)
John F. Ross

The Greatest Show on Earth

John Wesley Powell’s Perilous Journey Down the Colorado

In 1869, John Wesley Powell led nine men and four boats on the first documented descent through the Grand Canyon. As is made clear in this excerpt from 'The Promise of the Grand Canyon,' it was a hell of a challenge.

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The Colorado River Exploring Expedition had an ambitious goal: float more than 900 miles from the Green River in present-day Wyoming, down to the Colorado River, and through the Grand Canyon to the confluence with the Virgin River, in what is now Utah. Led by John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran and geologist, the expedition consisted of ten men and four wooden rowboats. They launched on May 24, 1869, and things quickly went sideways: rations were lost in the river, one man abandoned the expedition, and boats were routinely damaged—one of them irreparably. After more than two months, the remaining nine men arrived at the Grand Canyon battered and running low on supplies. In this excerpt from The Promise of the Grand Canyon (July 2018, Viking, $30), author John F. Ross documents how even then the biggest test of the journey remained in front of them.

On August 5—the expedition’s 74th day—3,100 feet above sea level, the expedition finally pushed off into the Grand Canyon, just downriver from today’s Lees Ferry, nine miles south of the present Utah-Arizona border. They had half the vertical distance left to descend, but only one-third of the mileage in which to do it. Several days earlier, George Y. Bradley, a former soldier, noted that only 15 pounds of bacon remained. About that time, mountain guide John Sumner had shot a mountain sheep, the last of the game they would find. Although unaware that they had entered the Grand Canyon they certainly understood that something was up. “With some feeling of anxiety we enter a new canyon this morning,” recalled Powell. “Below us are the limestones and hard sandstones which we found in Cataract Canyon. This bodes toil and danger.” Powell could now read the canyon walls with increasing sophistication. Horizontal rock layering, he noted, often meant an absence of rapids. When those same layers tilted downstream, they generally signaled that the river would flow faster, although probably not arousing any serious whitewater. But when the layers inclined upstream, the river often turned violent.

At Lees Ferry, the whitish-gray Kaibab limestone at the water level would provide a benchmark of sorts for the next 300 miles. The Canyon would altogether cut downward through 19 distinct rock formations, some of them many hundreds of feet deep. Each new layer pushed the Kaibab higher until it gleamed a mile above their heads. No geologist—or non-geologist for that matter—had been able to experience the unfolding of Earth’s history in such a fashion. From the merely 270-million-year-old Kaibab they would push deeper and deeper into the past, until they encountered the so-called basement rocks, hard granites and schists that had lain there for 1.7 billion years— among the oldest exposed rocks in the Southwest and nearly half the age of the Earth. Their descent left them feeling that they were penetrating the very bowels of the Earth.

Powell turned to literary metaphor: the Grand Canyon as the “library of the Gods . . . The shelves are not for books, but form the stony leaves of one great book. He who would read the language of the universe may dig out letters here and there, and with them spell the words, and read, in a slow and imperfect way, but still so as to understand a little, the story of creation.” This book was replacing the narrative in Genesis. The stories of Adam and Eve, and the great flood, were yielding to visions of dinosaurs roaming the Earth, of great inland seas, volcanic disruptions, mountains thrust up and worn away. Powell could read it all in the rock. Even to a man of Powell’s formidable imagination and ability to confront the unknown, the experience proved overwhelming. Powell would not be the first to feel the cold realization of humanity’s relative new-coming, yet few would experience it so viscerally as did Powell that summer of 1869. It would force him to reflect in powerful new ways about the relationship of humans and the natural world.

In the Canyon, the Colorado River Exploring Expedition would encounter 360 rapids and the worst whitewater of their journey. The men entered the Canyon a ragged mess, not one of them owning a complete set of clothes. Nor were their boats in any better shape.

Now, at most every stop, they caulked leaky seams. On August 7, after running ten bad rapids and portaging three times in Marble Canyon alone, they replaced the ribs of one boat. Never had they worked so hard, and now they had to cut rations even more. Portaging admittedly became easier with fewer supplies to haul, but their steadily weakening bodies now made more mistakes. Two days earlier, the exhausted men had dropped Emma Dean while portaging, busting a hole in its side that required major repair.

The lightened boats did appear to ride the waves better. On August 10, Powell seemed to brush away some degree of caution; and so they ran 35 rapids—some of them bad ones—in 14 miles, emerging from Marble Canyon where the Little Colorado River comes in from the left. Here they took a two-day break, Powell taking the latitude by fixing on the North Star, which indicated that they were as far south as their destination, Callville—“so that what we run now,” noted Bradley, “must be west from this point.”

They now prepared to enter the Inner Gorge, the core of the Grand Canyon. Years later, in the sanctuary of his government office, Powell would mark that pivotal moment with the words for which he is best known: “We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls ride over the river, we know not. Ah, well! We may conjecture many things.” Grand sentiments indeed. He noted that the men joked before setting off, “but to me the cheer is somber and the jests are ghastly.” In that day’s journal, Bradley reported that the men were “uneasy and discontented and anxious.”

After running 15 miles in two hours of near-continuous whitewater, they heard a roar unlike anything they had encountered before and quickly pulled ashore. Powell climbed the cliffs to scout what others would later call Hance Rapid, returning with somber news. A mile downriver, the Colorado passed over hard granite—a situation the men would come to dread, for it often equated with hellish whitewater. The river’s course through softer sedimentary rock, which they had run and labored through since Green River City, now yielded to metamorphic rock, forged by continental-scale pressure and heat from within the Earth’s interior to come out as hard, sharp, and unforgiving. The jet-black Vishnu Schist seemed to suck the light from anything near it, except when occasionally—and surprisingly—veins of raspberry sherbet–colored Zoroaster granite shot through it. Unable to erode this unyielding rock as easily as the sedimentary formations, the river becomes a caricature of a whitewater passage, cutting through vertical walls now thousands of feet high. “No rocks ever made can make much worse rapids than we now have,” noted Bradley gloomily. The jagged rock gnawed on their ever-weakening boats.

The next morning, “emphatically the wildest day of the trip so far,” wrote Bradley, they lined and portaged Hance, then ran a bad rapid at its foot. Two miles later they heard the throaty rumble of yet another menacing rapid, so thunderous that they had to shout to be heard—“a long, broken fall, with ledges and pinnacles of rock obstructing the river,” wrote Powell, the torrent breaking “into great waves on the rocks” and lashing itself “into a mad, white foam” for a third of a mile before the river turned sharply to the left and out of view. Sumner, never one to show fear, noted that a line of 15-foot standing waves made his hair curl. The steep walls offered no point of purchase to line the boats or any places to portage. “We must run the rapid,” wrote Powell, “or abandon the river.”

“We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls ride over the river, we know not. Ah, well! We may conjecture many things.”

“Who follows?” Sumner shouted. The young men on the expedition, Andy Hall and Billy Hawkins, yelled back, “Pull out! We’ll follow you to tidewater or hell.” Sumner, Powell, and William Dunn, a hunter and trapper who had most recently been working in Colorado, shoved out into the turbulence, riding one wave to its top like a roller coaster, then dropping precipitously into the trough. Again and again they bounced and thrashed through these mad waves until they struck the crest of one as it broke. The boat plunged underwater, its center compartment filling completely, Sumner and Dunn desperately trying to avoid the rocks. Powell frantically bailed as best he could. A whirlpool spun them, but the boat did not sink, and somehow came through.

“I have been in a cavalry charge, charged the batteries, and stood by the guns to repel a charge,” wrote Sumner. “But never before did my sand run so low. In fact, it all ran out, but as I had to have some more grit, I borrowed it from the other boys . . .” They named the rapid Sockdolager, a 19th-century term for a bare-knuckled knockout punch. They had just entered what later boaters call Adrenaline Alley—40 miles of chaotic whitewater. That night, denied any place to lie down, the men wedged themselves painfully into niches in the wall.

Mistakes and mishaps piled up. The day after Sockdolager, hunter and editor Oramel Howland lost his notes and river map; then 16-foot Emma Dean broke her bow rib on a rock. The following day, the cook knocked the baking soda tin into the river, so their musty bread would now also be unleavened.

Near constant rain, which often turned torrential at night, served as its own plague, extinguishing their driftwood fires almost immediately. For several nights, they huddled two to a blanket, shivering against the cliff until dawn. Powell wrote that they were more exhausted by the night’s discomfort than by the day’s toil. No matter what they did, they could not keep their food dry. The constant alternation of soaking and heating had ruined their bacon, leaving them with a thin ten days’ rations of flour, some dried apples, but plenty of coffee at least.

On August 22, they returned to the limestone, which enabled them to run a dozen rapids in a similar number of miles. At midday they passed an odd rock in the middle of the river, like nothing they had seen before: a 50-foot plug of dark volcanic basalt standing as a silent marker to a world that would transform itself just a mile downstream. They pulled up shortly thereafter at the head of a massive rapid, today known as Lava Falls.

Everywhere black lava coated the older rocks like tar. Gone was the symmetrical limestone and sandstone layering, now yielding a geological chaos. Beginning about 850,000 years before, waves of molten rock had erupted from numerous vents both on the rim and within the canyon, flowing through the side canyons, then pouring into the main river channel. The expedition bestowed the name Vulcan’s Throne to a cinder cone volcano, its 4,000-foot peak sitting high above on the north rim on the boaters’ right. Some 13 lava dams had blocked the lower canyon, one of them filling it to a height of more than two thousand feet, another flowing 86 miles down the river course. “What a conflict of water and fire there must have been here!” wrote Powell. “Just imagine a river of molten rock running down into a river of melted snow. What a seething and boiling of the waters; what clouds of steam rolled into the heavens!”

The formidable hydraulics of Lava Falls forced them once again to line and portage. But afterward, the whitewater eased and they swept along for 35 miles. They began on their last sack of moldy flour.

The next day, they again traveled 35 miles, which elicited a glimmer of optimism. But the river was not yet done with them. The following day, August 27, the Colorado darted south, then west, then south again. Worst of all, the dreaded dark granite reappeared downriver. The hope blooming among these desperate men withered, then blacked out altogether when they heard the roar of a rapid that made all of the others pale in comparison.

They pulled over and gazed silently at it. Two side canyons entered the river nearly opposite one another. The river first bounced through boulders washed out of the side canyons coming in from the left, then hit rapids caused by the rocks from the canyon on the right. A granite reef reached one-third of the way across the river. The resulting Z-shaped rapid had no apparent way through. “The spectacle is appalling to us,” wrote Bradley dramatically even for the master of the superlative. “The billows are huge and I fear our boats could not ride them if we could keep them off the rocks.”

That morning and afternoon they spent climbing the rock walls, first from the right bank, then the left, searching for a path around this monster. Scrambling for a mile or more over the granite, they found their way entirely impeded. A portage would work only if they could haul the boats up eight hundred vertical feet then come back down, which Powell calculated would take ten days, an impossible feat with only five days’ rations left. They had already wasted half a day on the search itself. Three more rapids—all looking equally formidable—loomed below this one. “[T]o run it would be sure destruction,” Powell wrote plainly. The vise had tightened, closing off whatever slight room for maneuver they had enjoyed before. “We appeared to be up against it sure,” wrote Sumner.

The formidable hydraulics of Lava Falls forced them once again to line and portage. But afterward, the whitewater eased and they swept along for 35 miles. They began on their last sack of moldy flour.

Before sunset, Powell climbed down the cliffs to announce a plan that he and Sumner had worked out. They would lower the boats on the rocky bank to avoid the first falls, then run to the head of the second, which they would try to skirt through a chute on the right side.  Then they would try to cross to the left to avoid a boat-destroying boulder. An iffy plan at best, but it was all they had. They ferried across, then sat down to drink coffee and chew on half rations of tasteless, unleavened balls of bread, the rush of the river loud in their ears. “This is decidedly the darkest day of the trip,” scribbled Bradley in his journal.

After this slim repast, Oramel Howland asked Powell to join him on a walk. Up a short distance into a side canyon, out of earshot of the camp, he urged Powell to call off the expedition. He informed Powell that he, his brother Seneca, and Dunn had decided to abandon the river.

Somewhere not too far downstream—but still at an unknown distance—the Virgin River fell into the Colorado. Twenty miles up that tributary stood a Mormon settlement. An overland hike to such an outpost from where they now stood would entail crossing some 75 miles of desert, but Howland believed the recent rains would have left enough water pockets to keep them going. And they might find some game along the way. For the elder Howland, the odds of surviving such a desert journey looked much better than running the next rapid, and who knew how many more after that. The five days of half rations could easily rot away with another wetting. The granite showed no signs of abating any time soon. Howland had reviewed his best odds for survival—and they pointed away from the river. Powell could not disagree that the expedition had reached a critical juncture.

“Of course I objected,” Powell wrote later, “but they were determined to go.” The time for glorious speeches invoking the national importance of the mission had long since passed. At his core as a commander, Powell understood that he had to honor the Howland party’s decision—the expedition was not a military unit but a mishmash of volunteers serving at their whim.

On the morning of August 28, Howland, Dunn, and Seneca would walk out, the remaining six having “come to the determination,” wrote Bradley, “to run the rappid or perish in the attempt.”

“They left us with good feelings,” recorded Bradley, “though we deeply regret their loss for they are as fine fellows as I ever had the good fortune to meet.” The trio climbed a crag to watch the others in a final gesture of goodwill.

Powell joined Andy Hall and the cook aboard 24-foot Kitty’s Sister, which then pushed off into the current, shooting along the rock wall, then dangerously grazing one large rock. Just before reaching the second fall, they pulled directly into the smooth tongue of water that poured into the mouth of the whitewater. But an unseen hole caught them, their boat filling with water, and they smacked into a giant wave. But in a second, the boat punched through the wall of water.

Pulling their oars for all they were worth, Hall and Hawkins muscled Kitty’s Sister across the river with Powell shouting commands, narrowly avoiding the great, dangerous rock in mid-channel. They slammed through in little more than a minute. Maid of the Cañon followed the same line through the uproar; both boats escaped damage. Scouting—and hard-earned experience—had paid off with their lives.

Below the fall, the exhilarated men signaled the Howlands and Dunn to join them, hoping they might follow in the small boat. But the trio turned away to begin their journey. Powell would name this spot Separation Rapid. “Boys left us,” he noted simply in his journal. They would never be seen again.

All that morning the remaining two boats battled down a series of terrifying rapids, until at midafternoon they encountered yet more volcanic rock and an unrunnable section of whitewater that they would dub Lava Cliff Rapid. They determined to line the rapid by tying together several lengths of rope. Bradley volunteered to keep Maid off the rocks from within the boat. Powell’s brother Walter and Sumner carried 130 feet of rope and scrambled up the rocky cliff, Bradley soon obscured by the overhang. With Bradley fending off the rocks and walls with his oar, the boat lurched foot by foot as the men high above paid out the rope. Maid rolled and tumbled, the now-soaked Bradley fighting for balance. In short order, as the men climbed even higher above the river, the rope ran out. Walter wrapped the end around a rock knob, while Sumner dashed back for more. Meanwhile Bradley bounced violently in Maid.

The boat shuddered badly each time it slammed against the rock; Bradley realized that he did not have much longer. With remarkable coolness—“just as I always am, afraid while danger is approaching but cool in the midst,” as he himself admitted— Bradley unsheathed his knife, ready to sever the line, all the time desperately scanning the foaming cataract downriver for “the best channel through.” He paused for several long moments, waiting for the men above to deal him more slack, but none came. At the exact moment he leaned forward to cut the line, the force of water ripped the stem post right out of Maid’s bow with such violence that it flew thirty feet into the air, still attached to the rope.

Like a rocket, Maid shot forward into the maelstrom, Bradley getting off a first, then a second stroke to swing the bow into the waves before the water took complete control. Just when the men above glimpsed Maid, it plunged into a deep hole and disappeared. In the next instant, Maid spat out, crested a massive standing wave, only to smash into yet another wall of water. Narrowly skirting some rocks, due more to luck than to Bradley’s flailing efforts, Maid then simply vanished into the madly foaming whitewater. “We stand frozen with fear, for we see no boat,” remembered Powell. “Bradley is gone!”

But then, far below, a dark object emerged from the froth. Somehow the boat, with its man still in it, had come through intact. The hard-breathing Bradley waved his sodden hat in exultation. But he had not yet quite escaped; a massive whirlpool swung Maid in its steely grip. Not aware of how badly Maid might be damaged—was it in fact sinking?—Powell yelled for his brother and Sumner to get Bradley a line. In the most dangerous, impulsive decision of the trip, Powell, Hall, and Hawkins raced down the cliff face—then all jumped into Kitty’s Sister and frantically pushed off to the rescue.

On this journey, Sumner had always been the one engineering emergency descents and rescues, but this time Powell took charge. So the one-armed Major and the expedition’s two youngest members drove right into the river’s maw, not quite able to swing their bow directly downstream. Powell realized the impetuousness of his decision the moment they smashed headlong into the first wave. He thought he had seen a line through the rapid, but the waves washed away any such plan in an instant. At the foot of holes, waves act like animate beasts: Depending on when a boat hits it—often a matter of mere seconds—a wave may let it pass, but at other times will bend a boat so forcefully as to crush and collapse it back into the hole. What exactly happened then to Kitty’s Sister was lost in the madness of the moment. Bradley watched as they came inches from dashing themselves to pieces against the rocks. Powell later would reconstruct their passage as best as he could: “A wave rolls over us and our boat is unmanageable. Another great wave strikes us, and the boat rolls over, and tumbles and tosses, I know not how.”

Bradley unsheathed his knife, ready to sever the line, all the time desperately scanning the foaming cataract downriver for “the best channel through.” He paused for several long moments, waiting for the men above to deal him more slack, but none came.

Bradley, who had escaped the whirlpool, now turned to rescue the rescuers, pulling each floating man into the safety of the eddy. Only the watertight compartments of each boat had prevented it from sinking. It is doubtful whether the vessels, if heavily loaded, could have survived that awful tumult.

They righted and bailed Kitty’s Sister, then climbed aboard and rowed over to the bank to await Sumner and Walter coming down the cliffside. Only luck had saved them this time from Powell’s most impulsive bid. Bradley, who had for months proclaimed almost every new rapid to be the worst encountered, left no doubt about this one: “It stands A-No. 1 of the trip.”

There was nothing else to do but shake their heads and turn their drenched, aching bodies downstream once again. In two or three miles the river turned northwest and passed out of the granite. By noon the following day, August 29, the cliffs dropped away, the mountains receded, and they entered a valley they knew to be the Grand Wash. They had finally left the Grand Canyon behind them, a little more than 24 hours since the others had started their overland journey.

As he wrote his expedition report in the safety of his study, Powell would reach for an apt metaphor to voice the relief the entire party felt after three months of “pain and gloom and terror.” Those claustrophobic days brought to mind the time he spent in the makeshift hospital at Shiloh, battling the tides of pain from his shattered arm. It is a rare disclosure of feelings for a man who rarely acknowledged them:

“When he who has been chained by wounds to a hospital cot until his canvas tent seems like a dungeon cell, until the groans of those who lie about tortured with probe and knife are piled up, a weight of horror on his ears that he cannot throw off, cannot forget, and until the stench of festering wounds and anesthetic drugs has filled the air with its loathsome burthen, when he at last goes out into the open field, what a world he sees! How beautiful the sky, how bright the sunshine…”

Excerpted from The Promise of the Grand Canyon, by John F. Ross. Available July 2018 from Viking.

Lead Photo: Library of Congress

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