John Wesley Powell (Part 1)

Photo Credit: U.S. Geological Survey

When No Isn't An Option

The coffee tables at Inn History Grand Canyon are miniature replicas of the boats John Wesley Powell used on his Geographic Expedition in 1869 as he explored the Green and Colorado Rivers.

The four boats used were water taxis, originally designed to ferry passengers between large ships and the harbor. They were made of oak and pine. Powell hired a boatwright to customize the boats for running rapids, but unfortunately, the additions only made things worse. The wooden boats soaked up water and were extremely cumbersome to carry on land around more than 100 rapids.

Very little of the Colorado River had been explored at the time. At the age of 35, Powell was determined to venture into the last open terrain on the map. A Civil War hero who had lost his arm in combat, Powell was bored with his college teaching job in the Midwest and was ready for something new.

When the men pushed off on May 25, 1869 from Green River, Wyoming, their spirits were high. Their rations were intended to last up to 10 months in the event they decided to spend the winter along the Colorado. The boats were loaded with scientific instruments, tools, guns, ammunition, and traps.

Into the Unknown

Just two weeks and 80 miles into the journey, the crew learned first-hand how rough negotiating the rapids would be. In a place that Powell would name Disaster Falls, one of the boats hit a rock, overturned, and split apart. No one was killed, but much of group’s rations and the boat itself was destroyed. After that, Powell required that the men perform back-breaking portages—carrying the watercrafts and cargo by land to avoid obstacles in the water; in this case, around many rapids. The boats, which were never meant to run the raging river rapids, often took on water; leaving the crew’s rations wet and often mildewy from the summer heat.

“We can neither land nor run as we please,” wrote Powell on August 15. “The boats are entirely unmanageable; no order in their running can be preserved.”

To learn more about John Wesley Powell’s expedition, find QR Code #7, The Oars (located above the bed). Also, check out these books: Down the Great Unknown and The Grand Canyon Expedition (located on the console under the television).

Major John Wesley Powell, Geologist U.S. Geological Survey.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress
Major John Wesley Powell's boat the "Emma Dean." Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. circa 1871.
Photo Credit: U.S. Geological Survey