John Wesley Powell remains one of the most legendary characters to pass through what is now Dinosaur National Monument. Even before his historic, early whitewater run through the entire Grand Canyon, Powell had already lead a full life. During the Civil War, Powell commanded a Union artillery regiment and lost his right arm after being wounded in the Battle of Shiloh. After the war, he joined in expeditions all over the southwest, becoming the first recorded hiker to summit Longs Peak in Colorado. It was on these journeys he learned of the unexplored canyon country of the Colorado Plateau.
On May 24, 1869 he began a journey for the ages as he led a company of men down the Green and Colorado rivers from Green River, Wyoming to St. Thomas, Nevada. They were not the first people to explore the Green and Colorado River canyons, but they were the first to float them in their entirety. Twice. On the first trip, in 1869, his men suffered through perilous rapids, losing an entire boat and a third of their supplies, rotten food, fires in camp, and fist-fights among the men. In the Grand Canyon, three men abandoned the expedition, fearing they could not survive the dangers of the river much longer and having lost faith in Powell’s leadership. They attempted to hike out of the Canyon but were never seen again.
Because the conditions were so difficult on the first expedition, with an unknown route, the group never took photographs. This made it necessary to mount a second venture to finish the work. Every photograph we have of the Powell expeditions comes from this second trip in 1871-1872. Many of these images were the first known photographs of the prominent landmarks along the river corridor. In addition, they made the first accurate map of the area.
Many of the now famous landmarks that river runners float past today still hold names given to them by the Powell expedition. Among so many other places, they named the Gates of Lodore, Winnie’s Grotto, Whirlpool Canyon, Rainbow Park, and Split Mountain. The ominously named Disaster Falls earned its moniker on the first expedition because one of the expedition’s boats - The No Name - was destroyed in its rapids. Another series of rapids within Lodore Canyon, named Hells Half Mile, provides not so subtle hints at the tough times the group had navigating certain sections of the Green River. And it wasn't just rapids that caused Powell trouble, Powell had another harrowing adventure when he attempted to climb what he called “Echo Rock,” which we now call Steamboat Rock. He and George Bradley were near the summit when Powell got stuck in a place where he couldn’t climb any further or go back down. While the loss of one arm in the Civil War did not slow Powell down in most situations, attempting to scale the rocky cliff of Steamboat Rock proved to be a dangerous challenge. Bradley realized that Powell was in trouble and climbed above Powell, using his pants as a rope to help Powell climb the rest of the way up the cliff.
Powell’s success on his journeys opened a huge area of the west to exploration and settlement. Many other explorers and river runners followed in his footsteps, leaving their marks on the history of the area. He also foresaw the difficulty of settling in the west, saying the land was mostly unsuitable for agricultural development, except for through careful use of scant water sources. Although he is sometimes a controversial figure, Powell represents a romantic vision of exploration of the unknown. This is something that visitors to Dinosaur still feel as they explore the same beautiful country he traveled through long ago.
Last updated: September 25, 2019