Despite being one hell of a big hole in the ground, except for the native tribes that lived in or near it, the Grand Canyon remained mostly a cipher and mystery until well into the 19th Century and was mostly cursed as a damn nuisance and an impediment to trade and commerce. Yet by the turn of the 20th Century it was threatened by timber, mining, and development interests, and even threatened by its emerging popularity as tourist attraction.
On February 26, 1919 President Woodrow Wilson signed the act that finally created and protected Grand Canyon National Park. It was the culmination of a long struggle to preserve the sprawling gorges of the Colorado River in Arizona.
The canyon had long been home and sanctuary to several tribes and bands of Native Americans. As early as 1450 Hopi guides led Captain Garcia Lopez de Cardenas, one of Conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s officers, and a small band to the South Rim of the canyon but refused to show them a way to the bottom or a ford of the river.
Regarding the canyon as an impenetrable barrier, Europeans did not return until Spanish missionary priests and a handful of soldiers explored along the North Rim in 1776 seeking a route from Santa Fe to California. They did find a ford, but not a reliable trade route and attempts to convert local tribes were unsuccessful.
American trappers may have visited the canyon in 1826 and Mormon missionaries scouted the area from 1850 on orders from Brigham Young and finally identified two sites that could accommodate ferry crossings in 1858. Two expeditions reached parts of the canyon in 1857—a survey crew from Ft. Defiance seeking a route to California along the Thirty-eighth parallel and a river expedition under Lt. Joseph Ives that traveled upstream in a small paddlewheel steam boat from the Gulf of California and entered the canyon floor on foot.
In his 1861 report to congress Ives reported that the canyon (meaning this portion of it) may have been visited by “one or two trappers.” He discounted the value of what he called “altogether valueless” and predicted that his would be “the last party of whites to visit this profitless locality” This mercenary assessment of the economic value of the howling wilderness was common among Americans of the time who were sentimental to a fault about everything but the fastest route to big bucks.
At least one member or Ives’s expedition, however, felt differently, geologist John Strong Newberry. He transmitted his enthusiasm for the Canyon and it scientific interest to another geologist, as well as a suggestion that the gorge could be explored by small boats.
The Civil War disrupted further exploration until Major John Wesley Powell, the man Newberry had confided in, led his famous transit of the canyon by boat in 1869. It was the first purely scientific expedition to Canyon as was funded—not all that well—by the Smithsonian Institution. The party failed to include either an artist or photographer. The one-armed Civil War veteran’s nine man party traveled from Green River Station in Wyoming in four wooden boats. A boat containing much of the food and almost all of the scientific instruments was destroyed early on in some rapids. Later, not realizing that they had already passed the worst of the rapids, three of the party mutinied and abandoned the group. They climbed the canyon wall to the rim hoping to walk back, but were promptly killed by an unhappy band of Paiutes. Powell and the remaining men made it through the canyon.
Powell’s report was a rip-roaring adventure story that captured the attention of the public and loosened the Smithsonian’s purse strings.
Powell mounted a much larger and better planned expedition that stretched from 1871-73 to completely map the canyon and its rims, and make detailed scientific observations. This time he had boats specifically designed for the brutal rapids and established a series of supply depots along the route by having provisions brought down from the rim. He also included an artists and nearly a ton of photography equipment. Despite losing his first two photographers—the first to a personality clash and the second to illness, previously untrained expedition member John K. Hillers took many stunning pictures with the clumsy apparatus. 17 year old artist Frederick Dellenbaugh made hundreds of sketches which were later rendered as engravings and widely published. After the completion of the transit by boat in 1872, Thomas Moran, a distinguished landscape artist, joined the party for work along the rims. His stunning oil painting later toured the country and one was bought to hang in the lobby of the United States Senate. Powell’s reports and the art work sparked interest in the wonder of nature.
By the end of the century tourists were regularly visiting the canyon. In 1903 one of those tourists was President Theodore Roosevelt who was both awe struck and determined to preserve the canyon from encroaching commercial exploitation. He established the Grand Canyon Game Preserve in 1906 which reduced grazing. But in keeping with conservation practices of the time most of the eagles, wolves, coyotes, and cougars within its boundary were eradicated followed by a predictable explosion of population of jackrabbits, conies, ground squirrels, prairie dogs, and reptiles which nearly denuded the canyon floor and rims of vegetation.
In 1908 Roosevelt threw his lasso wider and incorporated adjacent National Forest land with the Preserve to create the new Grand Canyon National Monument. But efforts to create an even larger National Park were stymied by years by powerful mining and timber interests.
Adjacent National Monuments were added to the Park over the years and today it encompasses over 12 million acres and is visited by nearly 4½ million visitors.
The park is threatened by increasing air pollution on one hand and a drastically reduced flow of water due to up-stream dams.
And, as always, developers and other exploiters clamor for the opportunity to encroach on the Canyon, often with the support of the Arizona state government which often seems dedicated to cutting its nose off to spite its face.