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Guest Post: Lee’s Ferry and the Little Colorado – A Pictorial

By: Kevin Folkman - November 21, 2012

After reading the 3rd installment of “Bright Treasure” with its stirring description of crossing the Colorado and climbing up and over Lee’s Backbone, I thought of the pictures I had used in my article about the 1873 Arizona expedition, and wanted to share. I didn’t take these pictures. Most of them are the work of LaVar Clegg of Scottsdale, Arizona, who graciously offered to let me use some of them in my article. I have credited other sources in the captions for each picture not by Clegg.

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Vermillion Cliffs north and west of Lee’s Ferry (Photo courtesy of US89society.org)
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A quick general description of the area around Lee’s Ferry and the Colorado river helps to appreciate the difficulties of the crossing. Most of the surrounding desert country is at 3,000 to 4,000 feet, with the mountains and hills much higher than that. Just a few miles below the ferry, Marble Canyon narrows to sheer rock walls from 600 to 1000 feet straight up from the river’s edge. Lee’s Ferry had the distinction, then as now, of being the only place along the Colorado for seven hundred miles where an easy approach at the level of the river is possible. Easy, though, is a deceptive word. In anticipation of the 1873 expedition, President Brigham Young had his nephew, St. George Stake President Joseph W. Young, survey and build a road passable by larger wagons on the north side of the river from the plateau level to down to the river valley at the bottom of Marble Canyon They labored to cut out the wagon path over several weeks in the late winter and early spring of 1873. John D. Lee had already set up his ferry service at the mouth of the Pahreah River (present day Paria). [1]

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Aerial view of Lee’s Ferry (Courtesy of National Park service)
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In this picture, you get a great overview of the general area of Lee’s Ferry and the crossing. Here, Marble Canyon widens just before it turns sharply going upstream and becomes Glen Canyon. The Glen Canyon dam has tamed the river. Before the dam, the placid blue water in this picture was not typical. In the spring, or after any significant rainfall in the country upstream, the river could become a raging muddy torrent, jammed with cottonwood logs, dead animals, and other debris. Crossing under those conditions would have been impossible, and the river level fluctuated from day to day. Now, the Colorado through this stretch presents a placid character unknown to the generations of travelers and colonists who crossed here. Lee had a small ranch, Lonely Dell, with some orchards and garden on the banks of the Paria, at the center right of the picture. Part of his stone house still stands there. The road that the St. George saints built came down from the plateau that runs above the lower cliffs of the river gorge, and the higher Vermillion Cliffs of the upper right corner. The road descended over a mile or two some 1000 feet down to the river valley.

The actual crossing in 1873 took place just below the center of the picture. You can see the red sand of the parking lot. A ferry,man’s cabin was built here in the 1880’s, close to the ferry, and with some repairs, is still standing. The ferry crossed the river here and landed on the beach, and the actual wagon road led up over the northwest face of Echo Peak, the red sandstone ridge cut with washes and gullies in the left center of the picture.

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(Courtesy of LaVar Clegg)
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This is the view at river level from the parking lot. The physical feature that led to the name of Lee’s Backbone is the harder, grayish-pink tilted sandstone slab that angles up to the right and west. Echo Peak to the left is more traditional red sandstone, and has eroded more over the years, creating lots of ravines and washes that the wagons had to cross.

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This picture, from downriver to the west, looking back at Lee’s Ferry, better shows why the hard gray sandstone slab, profiled here in shadow, got called Lee’s Backbone, resembling nothing so much as the bleached out backbone of some large creature. The lower crossing that the travelers in “Bright Treasure” were unable to use is further to the right and out of view in this picture. It was built later in the 1880’s but had a bad habit of washing out when the river flooded, or heavy rains cascaded through the gullies, forcing travelers to use the original upper ferry. The advantage of the lower crossing had to do with a more direct climb up and over the high ridge. It took nothing off the height of the climb, but did eliminate some of the up and down of the original road as it climbed over dozens of smaller washes and ridges.

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(Photo courtesy of LaVar Clegg; the men in the picture are unidentified friends)
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You can see here what was meant by “building the road.” The 1873 colonists and subsequent companies were constantly fixing and rebuilding sections of the road by hauling rock to build up a reasonably level path. It doesn’t take much to imagine why many were too scared to ride in the wagons up the climb to the top. And the road was never very smooth. On some of the steeper sections, the horses, mules, oxen, and men would pull the wagon forward a few feet, and others would block behind the wheels with rocks to prevent the wagons from rolling back, a process that would be repeated tediously, usually under a hot sun. The 1873 colonists described hitching up to 3 teams per wagon to haul them up the north side of the mountain, about 1500 feet vertically from the river level to the top of the ridge, in slightly over a mile. This translates into about a 25% grade. For reference, a steep hill on our modern road systems would be a 6% grade.

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Nearing the top, more exposed rock was encountered, and less building required. Here, you can plainly see the wagon wheel ruts in the solid rock.

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(Photo courtesy of LaVar Clegg)
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This is the most frightening picture of all of for me. Taken near the bottom of the descent down the south side to the plateau level below, the built up road disappears about a third of the way up the slope as it turns in a switchback west. You can see where they built up the downslope side of the road as it turns to your left looking up. Wilford Woodruff, who crossed Lee’s Backbone in 1879, described it this way: “It was the worst hill Ridge or Mountain that I Ever attempted to Cross with a team and waggon on Earth. We had 4 Horses on a waggon of 1,500 lb weight and for two rods we Could ownly gain from 4 inches to 24 with all the power of the horses & two men rolling at the hind wheels and going Down on the other side was still more Steep rocky and sandy which would make it much worse than going up on the North side.” [2]

Once down the southern slope, the travelers were faced with long, desert stretches with little or no water, and the water often foul. One spring became known as Bitter Springs, as the water tasted so bad. Some of the 1873 colonists got sick after drinking the water. Sometimes they had to rely on water left over from thunderstorms in potholes in the rock. And then you get to Tuba City/Moencopi.

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(Photo courtesy USGS)
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This is a picture by a US Geological Survey photographer in 1914. Tuba City would have been somewhere up on the plateau in the background, probably to the left. Moencopi had many small springs, and supported limited agriculture. You can see the cultivated fields in the background, and gardens near some of the buildings. The Hopis lived in Moencopi, and the Navajo people ended up with the plateau top. Today, Tuba City is the largest city in the Navajo reservation. I don’t have any pictures of Tuba City in this time frame, but I doubt it looked too much different than this view of Moencopi.

All in all, my impression from traveling through this area in 2009 is that it is a beautiful area, in the way that deserts can be, yet at the same time still harsh and unforgiving. You don’t venture out away from any roads without carrying large amounts of water. Bridges now cross Marble Canyon below Lee’s Ferry, and you can drive right by at 65 MPH and not even have a clue of the drama that unfolded only a couple miles upstream. Like many of my cross country trips by car, my trip through this corner of Arizona made me feel grateful for good roads and an air conditioned car, but also guilty at the same time. I covered in a matter of 6 hours what took most of the 1873 colonists 6 weeks, and never had to worry about heatstroke, exhaustion, dying horses, and a flooding Colorado River, threatening to wash away anything in its path. And I appreciate the accurate and engaging way that the author of “Bright Treasure” captured some of that peril. I truly find the deserts of Utah and Arizona beautiful, and miss them living in the Seattle area. I love the beauty of Western Washington, but I long for the open skies unblocked by cedars and firs, and the red rock and sands of these desert stretches, so accessible to us, and forbidding to those early pioneers. Go and see. It is worth the trip.

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[1] Most of the information in this post comes from my article, “The Moste Desert Lukking Place I Ever Saw, Amen!” in the Journal of Mormon History, Winter 2011.

[2] Wilford Woodruff’s experience is referenced in my article, but he certainly deserves his own credit here. This quote is from Wilford Woodruff, Journal, March 14, 1879, quoted in H. Dean Garrett, “The Honeymoon Trail”, Ensign, July 1989, 24.



10 Comments »

  1. Great post, and great pictures, Kevin.

    Comment by Mark B. — November 21, 2012 @ 8:46 am

  2. As you probably know before the Arizona Temple was built in 1927 LDS Couples had to travel by wagon train to St. George to be sealed in the temple. This was a two month round trip and later became known as the Honeymoon Trail.

    My great grandfather Willis and his bride made that trip in 1890. When they got to Lee’s Ferry my great grandmother was very scared of crossing the river. The only way she would do it was if my great grandfather held her in his arms.

    After the crossing was completed the ferryman told them that after they had been married a few years this wouldn’t seem so bad.

    Comment by john willis — November 21, 2012 @ 8:50 am

  3. Thanks so much for these photos and your commentary.

    Comment by Mina — November 21, 2012 @ 8:57 am

  4. My husband’s direct ancestor was Warren Marshall Johnson, who ran Lee’s ferry for a while. About 4 weeks ago, we traveled down that way. That is a ridiculously hard and forbidding area to travel. I can’t believe that people did that over and over again until the bridge was built in 1927.
    Now Lee’s Ferry is where you put in your raft to float down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. THAT I’ll do, because a guided river rafting tourist is the kind of pioneer I am.

    Comment by Jeannine L. — November 21, 2012 @ 9:10 am

  5. I understand that there are places where the ends of the wagon axles scraped the rocks on the side of the trail as drivers kept as far from the edge of the cliff as possible. And somewhere in the family lore is a story of driving up that road in the dark–I’ll have to go dig that up someday soon, before my memory is completely gone.

    Comment by Mark B. — November 21, 2012 @ 10:25 am

  6. Wow, great article. I too am amazed at what the pioneers accomplished. I don’t think I could talk my family into walking up just one of those hills now, even with our good modern hiking shoes. Or camping overnight in that terrain, even with modern tents, sleeping bags, and pads. I can’t fathom how they did what they did with the resources they had.

    Comment by lindberg — November 21, 2012 @ 11:46 am

  7. Mark,

    Going up that in the dark would be absolutely terrifying. I’d love to hear that if you ever find it.

    Thanks all for your comments. The first bridge on US 89 at Marble Canyon was built in 1927, same year as the Mesa Temple was opened, so it became easier to get across the Colorado at the same time that all those folks who had used the Honeymoon Trail no longer needed it. That first bridge is still there, closed to all but foot traffic, and a newer bridge built right next to it. You can see the bridge in the first picture.

    Comment by kevinf — November 21, 2012 @ 11:50 am

  8. I love hiking and backing, but deserts always make me very leery. This sounds like something I might hike with ten friends, as long as at least 3 or 4 have done it before. (I say that laying in bed unable to move because my spinal cord is swollen again. Lol. So I guess I should say, in the past or when I am recovered from all my spinal surgeries I would…..)

    I think it is growing up in western Oregon, although I loved the high desert area around Bend, but I can’t imagine choosing to live in an area that hot with so little green. I would visit, but wide skies wouldn’t be enough to tempt me. I definitely would have had to receive I calling to go there to live.

    Thanks for the great pictures, history and information!

    Comment by Julia — November 21, 2012 @ 1:53 pm

  9. Thanks, Kevin. I especially liked the old photo of Moencopi. I’ve been to several of the Hopi villages, including Moencopi, as part of my water law work with the Department of the Interior. Of course that picture must be in our files somewhere.

    Comment by Grant — November 21, 2012 @ 11:23 pm

  10. What a lovely post to see when returning from a trip out of town. Now, what can I possibly say. It’s a lonely spot, but a historical one, and there are few other places like it in the United States for star gazing.

    For some reason I thought my dad had a picture of Lee’s Ferry on 360Cities, but I can’t find one. Here’s a nearby spot (House Rock) and if you look further down on the page, there are pictures of surrounding canyons which show, pretty clearly in most cases, why they ended up crossing the river at this wretched spot. (Not to mention the Grand Canyon, the existence of which pretty much goes without saying…)

    And, harsh or not, this area has some of the most spectacular vistas and scenery anywhere. Here’s a colorful panorama of Canyon de Chelly (that last word is said “shay”) and the Grand Canyon is pretty much always photogenic. Oh boy. I just looked at too many of those pictures and now I’m feeling homesick. But thanks for the post anyway, Kevin. : )

    Comment by Amy T — November 22, 2012 @ 7:30 am

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