Black Canyon - Explorers: 1883 - Bryant Expedition

The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad was rapidly pushing its tracks from eastern Colorado, over the mountains, and through the Black Canyon on its way to Salt Lake City. The line reached Cimarron at a natural break in the cliffs of the canyon, and the engineers had a decision to make. One choice was to continue the tracks down the canyon and the town of Delta . The other was to take them over Cerro Hill and into Montrose. A bad choice could cost the company a great deal of money and time. Needing more information, they called upon Byron Bryant to conduct a survey to see if the line could be constructed through the middle and lower portions of the canyon and what it might cost.

Byron Bryant
Bryant was in charge of the "Uncompahgre Extension" of the railroad in 1881 and '82, which means they were surveying a 150 mile extension of the line. He received a telegram in December to explore the "Grand Canyon of the Gunnison," as it was known then, from Cimarron to Delta. He immediately began preparations, hiring a full compliment of men to accomplish the canyon survey and a pack train led by Charles Hall.

Braving the Canyon
They left on December 12th working their way along the north rim. Bryant rode the train to Cimarron and made his way downstream to meet the surveyors in the canyon. They ran a survey line down the canyon from Cimarron, expecting to be done in 20 days. Every morning they would climb down into the canyon a distance of 2,000 to 2,500 feet (when camped on the Crystal River they scrambled 2,800 feet). This scramble in the snow would take two to three hours each way, leaving perhaps 6 hours of work at the river in the shortened days of winter. The arduous work, hopping from ice flow to ice flow, risking wounds and injury, was enough to deter most of the laborers. When the party took a break to move the camp to the south rim of the canyon, all but three of the original surveyors and Hall, quit.

Seeing a Different Gorge
As the days dragged into weeks, the small crew drew closer to each other and to the canyon. Yet the canyon drew an effect on each of them, as well. One of the crew, transitman Harvey Wright, talked in his sleep, dreaming out the situations that impressed his imagination. Yet it was Wright who, later, wrote a most lyrical letter sharing his impressions of the beauties of the canyon.

"For some distance... we had noticed almost a perfect reproduction of the 'Goddess of Liberty,' and depicted on the silver dollars caused by feldspar seams in the darker rocks. The figure was colossal and was seated on her throne about two thousand feet above the river," he wrote of an upstream scene.

Or later on he wrote, "Hereto was unfolded view after view of the most wonderful, the most thrilling of rock exposures, one vanishing from view only to be replaced by another still more imposing. A view which could easily be made into a Scottish Feudal Castle would be followed by another suggesting the wildest parts of... imposing height and majestic proportions."

The party observed the standing needle on what would later be called "The Giant's Stairway." During an enforced break they went out to it. "While standing on the solid rock of the canyon wall absorbed by the overpowering majesty and solemnity of the scene some one suggested stepping across that empty space... to the top of the needle and did so. It appeared incredible that this sliver of rock should have stood so long, or that it could be so exactly balanced as to stand at all; and the experience of seeing it in such a situation and surroundings aroused the wondering and reverent amazement of one's being."

Black Canyon from South Rim.

Finishing the Work
They continued working until March when their survey came to a close. The report to the company suggested that it would be financial suicide to take the tracks further down the canyon. But Wright's words still linger in the air of the canyon, a place so impressive that it defies the written word. A description of his near the end of the letter reveals values in the canyon beyond what could be found for commercial gain and suggest that preserving the canyon for its wonder would be of greater benefit.

"The simplicities of life, the primal lessons of humanity, were there impressed on the inmost consciousness never to be effaced. The overruling of a power mightier than one's conception of a force greater than one's utmost effort, yet always for the uplifting of man was here so evident that nothing less could be imagined."

Last updated: February 24, 2015

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