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The AMERICAN EXPERIENCE
The Film & More
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Narrator: In the spring of 1869, the Union Pacific was making its first runs on the new transcontinental railway. On May 11th, a geology professor from back east stepped off the train at Green River, Wyoming. A crew of western drifters was expecting him. They'd spent the previous week with the locals, trying to drink all the whiskey in Jake Fields' saloon. Now, under the professor's direction, they set to work unloading four wooden boats he'd brought in from Chicago. The small, one-armed man seemed an unlikely boss for this gang.

But John Wesley Powell often defied expectations. He was a man of words and action... a self-taught scientist... tough, curious, and driven. And at the age of 35, he was about to lead an expedition into the last uncharted territory in the United States. Three hundred miles downstream the Green River merged with the Grand to form the Colorado. From that point on, the map was blank...a trackless desert of towering, inaccessible canyons. Somewhere deep in that wilderness was the Grand Canyon -- a place more of rumor than fact, glimpsed from the rim 200 years before by Coronado's soldiers, but shunned ever since. The only way in was by boat. But whether boats could get them out again, Powell didn't know.

John Wesley Powell (v.o.): The old prospectors say the river cannot be run. Stories are told of travelers overwhelmed in the abyss of waters... of great falls...and of underground passages into which boats had passed, never to be seen again.

Michael Ghiglieri: There were only a couple of great unknowns and the greatest of all the unknowns was the Colorado River system. And, it was a plum to be plucked. It was a mysterious entity, it was a lost world. It was a matter for mere speculation. No one knew. And it was a gamble. If you failed, you might be dead, but if you succeeded, you would be the hero of the decade.

Narrator: Powell's journey would launch him to national prominence, and ultimately, into a bruising battle over the future of the American West. But in 1869, his only concern was the unexplored wilderness downstream. On May 24th, Powell and his crew pushed off from Green River. The boats were packed with enough flour, bacon and coffee for ten months. They had guns for hunting and to ward off hostile Indians... scientific instruments to map the terrain and measure their progress...and the crew -- all volunteers -- brought beaver traps and gold pans, hoping to strike it rich along the way.

John Wesley Powell (v.o.): I have a party of men anxious to enter the Great Unknown with me. The current of the Green seems eager to bear us down through its mysterious canyons. We are just as eager to start, so off we go.

Michael Ghiglieri: Powell was blessed by a combination of ambition, optimism and ignorance. I think had he known what was awaiting him in the series of canyons ahead, he might never have left. He just didn't know what he was getting into, which was a blessing.

John Wesley Powell (v.o.): "June 1st... Today we have an exciting ride. The river rolls down the canyon at a wonderful rate, almost railroad speed."

"Here and there the water rushes into a narrow gorge, and the boats go leaping and bounding over the waves like things of life."

"We are all in fine spirits. Now and then we whistle or shout or discharge a pistol, to listen to the reverberations among the cliffs."

Narrator: Eighty miles into the journey they got their first taste of how treacherous the river could be. As they approached a rock-filled cataract, one boat crew missed a warning signal from Powell, and lost control. The boat, with its full load of rations, tools, and instruments, was smashed to pieces on the rocks. Just two weeks out of Green River, a third of their food supply was gone.

Michael Ghiglieri: That crew had lost everything they owned. Everything was gone. And Powell, on the other hand, had lost even more, because he had three boats left on a four boat trip. One more boat gone and that meant that everyone who started out on this trip would be in half the boats. They wouldn't fit, it wouldn't work, there wouldn't be enough supplies, the expedition would be over. It was probably not a happy time in camp that night.

Donald Worster: Powell blamed the men in that boat for not having paid attention to his signals. They said, he didn't give them a signal and it was his fault. And I think from that point on in the trip, whenever tensions would get high, there would be a snide comment made here or there.

Don Fowler: Disaster Falls is the beginning of the discontent of practically everyone. And it festers for the rest of the trip. So, it's well named. They named it Disaster Falls and it changed the entire complexion of what the trip was all about.

John Wesley Powell (v.o.): Maybe we shall come to a fall in these canyons which we cannot pass, where the walls rise from the water's edge so that we cannot land, and where the water is so swift that we cannot return. How will it be in the future?

Narrator: His greatest fear -- perhaps his only fear -- was that this expedition might fail. But for John Wesley Powell, giving up was never an option. Young Wesley grew up on the American frontier when it was still well east of the Rocky Mountains. He was born in 1834 to Joseph and Mary Powell -- English immigrants raising their family on a succession of small farms in New York, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Illinois. Joseph Powell was an evangelical Methodist preacher -- a strict, inflexible man at home, and a crusading abolitionist in the community.

Donald Worster: As Wes was growing up his family experienced persecution, ridicule, his father stood on the steps of the courthouse and denounced the slave owners in the midst of a community full of southern sympathizers.

Narrator: Joseph Powell expected his son to follow him into the ministry. But Wes, who'd been hounded out of the schoolhouse in Jackson, Ohio, found a different calling. A neighbor introduced him to the nearby woods and streams, and taught him how to collect plants, fossils, and Indian relics. It was the beginning of a self-education in natural history that would consume his life. During the long months while his father was away from home preaching on the frontier circuit, Wes and his brothers managed the family farm. And at night he read whatever science books he could find, along with literature and poetry from his mother. His father continued to push Wes to enter the ministry... and he continued to resist. Straining the relationship even more, Wes began to court his first cousin, Emma Dean, whom he would marry over objections from both his parents. With her encouragement, Wes pursued his love for science, collecting shells and fossils up and down the rivers of the midwest. At the age of 23 he took a solitary journey down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to the Gulf of Mexico... a prodigal son resigned to his father's disapproval.

Michael Ghiglieri: Everything John Wesley Powell ever wanted, from who he married, what he did with his time, what his career would be, everything was against adversity. Having chosen a path of science, completely aside from and against his father's wishes and his mother's wishes, he was engaging on a path where if he failed, it would be the classic, 'I told you so, God did not intend for you to be on this path.' I'm sure the specter of his parents and their thoughts about religion, God, and the meaning of life were never far away.

Narrator: Fifteen years later the preacher's son found his own religion in the layered walls of stone rising along the river.

John Wesley Powell (v.o.): The canyon is a Book of Revelations in the rock leaved Bible of geology. All around me are interesting records, and I can read as I run.

Curtis Hinsley: This is not Methodist scripture. This is God's handwriting in the rock. This is another basis for faith. In many ways what Powell's doing is saying, 'I have the right to know this world on my own terms - not my father's terms, not my mother's terms, my own terms, not Methodist terms, but the terms of Charles Darwin, the terms of secular evolution, the terms that his world presents to me that I'm seeing out here. I will know this world.'

Michael Ghiglieri: It became all too obvious that the world was a very ancient place. Maybe not even just millions and millions, but tens of millions, hundreds of millions of years old.

Stephen Pyne: The discovery of earth time was a great revelation. And it's not simply one restricted to geology. It's really fundamental to people's sense of how they sit in the great scheme of things. Who are we? What is our identity as a species? Why are we here? What is the world in which we live? What are the principles that organize it? The discovery of the great antiquity of the earth is fundamental to all of these issues.

Narrator: Every afternoon while the crew set up camp, Powell explored the canyon walls. High in the cliffs he found traces of people who had come and gone long before. To know the canyonlands he would someday have to know their story, as well.

Curtis Hinsley: And then he climbs up out of the canyon, and he sees this vast landscape, this vast canyon land around him, and he in a sense, sees God.

John Wesley Powell (v.o.): "What a world of grandeur is spread before us. Cathedral shaped buttes towering thousands of feet... ledges from which the gods might quarry mountains... and canyon walls that shrink the river into insignificance."

Donald Worster: The word that they used in the 19th century to describe landscapes like this was sublime, and this was the most sublime place on earth. Sublime meant it, it evoked feelings of terror and wonder at the same time, almost religious feelings.

Narrator: Powell's trip through the canyons was far more than a science expedition. It was a journey of personal salvation. Eight years earlier, at the outbreak of the Civil War, J.W. Powell had enlisted in the Union Army. By 1862 he was a Captain in the 2nd Illinois Light Artillery.

Donald Worster: He was a gung-ho soldier, no question about that, wanted to fight in the worst way. He believed in the cause, but I think also, it was exciting, it was daring. Like a lot of people at that point who had never had the experience and the tragedy of war in their lives, he could only see the romantic and the glorious side.

Narrator: In his first action, at the Battle of Shiloh, Captain Powell raised his hand to lead a charge, and a rifle ball shattered his right arm. Two days later he joined the ranks of the permanently maimed. His arm was amputated just below the elbow. After such a loss, he could have retired. Instead, Powell returned to the battlefield and served three more years. By the end of the war he'd been promoted to the rank of Major. He'd undergone two operations on his arm, weighed just 110 pounds, and now had to find a new life as a civilian.

Donald Worster: He sort of drifted from that point, looking for something that he could do. His father told him to be a teacher. He said, "you're a maimed man, you're not going to be fit for anything else in life, go into teaching." And so he tried that.

Narrator: He took a job as a professor of geology at Illinois Wesleyan. But he soon rebelled against the confines of the college classroom. In the summer of 1867, he and Emma took a group of students on a field trip to the Colorado Rockies. In the wildest country he'd ever seen, Powell was reborn.

John Wesley Powell (v.o.): When he who has been chained by wounds to a hospital cot until his canvas tent seems like a dungeon cell... when at last he goes out into the open field, what a world he sees!

Narrator: One night a mountain guide spoke of the vast canyonlands of the Colorado River -- the last unexplored territory in the West -- a prize waiting to be claimed.

Michael Ghiglieri: The idea that the Colorado River system could be run and explored, that it was possible for the person with the courage to do it, probably was for Powell, the door opening. Were he to pull it off, he would establish himself in no uncertain terms as an accomplished scientist, explorer, a man who could get things done, a man who could get the impossible done.

Narrator: That winter he traveled to Washington D.C., hoping to raise funds for a scientific expedition. But on Capitol Hill he found no interest in the remote canyons of the Colorado River. Ten years earlier, the Army had sent a steam wheeler upstream from the mouth of the Colorado. It ran aground at the first rapid.

Stephen Pyne: So they had solved the question of how far the river could be navigated by steamship. Not very far. The minute they hit these major canyons that was the end of it. Which was another way of saying that this was a place that you want to avoid. This was not going to be a major transportation route. It was valueless for the fur trade. Nobody was going to farm there. There was nothing really to seek out.

Narrator: But Powell was convinced that the canyons were worth exploring, and that he was the man to do it. He scraped together a few donations back in Illinois, added his personal savings, and proceeded on his own. The unofficial and virtually unnoticed Powell expedition had been on the river a little more than a month. Running rapids was the fastest way to put miles behind them. But ever since the wreck at Disaster Falls, Powell had become more cautious, ordering the crew to carry the heavy boats and supplies around the worst rapids. It was backbreaking work that slowed their progress to a crawl.

Michael Ghiglieri: So, you could imagine at every single rapid there was tension between, "we know we can run it", and Powell saying, "I can't let you run it. The expedition may expire if you make a mistake." It was horrendous work. Their boots turned into rags, and they're beat up, and they'd fall down and smash their faces and have cuts all over them and they were just working like they probably never worked in their life, and they portaged a hundred times, a hundred rapids. It was hideous work for the men.

Narrator: Boatman George Bradley kept his own journal. "Have been working like galley slaves all day", he wrote. "Have been wet all day, and I have nothing dry to put on."

"The Major as usual has chosen the worst camping ground possible. If I had a dog that would lie where my bed is tonight I would kill him and burn his collar and swear that I never owned him."

Everyone now realized that a leisurely, ten month trip was not possible.

Don Fowler: Disaster Falls, of course, changed the picture of things. They knew there'd be rapids, they knew they'd have difficulties, but they didn't count on losing the boat. That made it a race against time, because they had simply lost so much of their food.

Narrator: With each passing day they lost more of their rations to mold and rot from constant soaking in the boats. The hunters sometimes added fresh meat to the diet, but deep in the canyons game was scarce. Powell was preoccupied with his own work.

Donald Worster: He put himself clearly on another plane from these men. He was the Major. He was used to military ways, of course so were they, many of them had been Civil War veterans. But he asked them to serve him his meal. The cook would have to bring over his plate and serve him up.

Narrator: The crew may have grumbled, but no one challenged the authority of Major Powell.

Curtis Hinsley: There was nothing you could question about Powell's courage. He was man's man. Men just gathered to him, knowing his strength and took strength from him. I think that this was one of the most courageous men of the 19th century.

Narrator: His lack of fear sometimes got him into trouble. Climbing to the rim one day with Bradley, Powell got stuck hanging by his one arm high above the river.

John Wesley Powell (v.o.): I find I can get up no farther, and cannot step back. If I lose my hold I shall fall to the bottom. At this instant it occurs to Bradley to take off his drawers and swing them down to me. I hug close to the rock, let go with my hand, seize the dangling legs, and with his assistance I am saved.

Narrator: It would not be the last time that Powell misjudged his own limits. Toward the end of June, the telegraph lines out of Utah carried a shocking story -- the Powell party had been sucked into a giant whirlpool on the Green River and drowned. On July 3rd, the Chicago Tribune published an account of the tragedy given by a man named Risdon, who claimed to be the sole survivor. It was the first time most readers had even heard of the expedition. Emma Powell doubted the story. Her husband had never mentioned Risdon. But she couldn't be sure.

Unaware of all this, Powell reached the last point on the river where it was possible to make contact with the outside world. He trekked 40 miles out to an Indian reservation to mail letters home -- to Emma and to the Chicago Tribune --telling the story of the journey so far. Unwittingly, he created a publicity bonanza, unmasking the fraud and turning his obscure expedition into front page news. It would be two months before he was heard from again.

On July 21st, the 59th day of the journey, they passed the point where the Green River merged with the Grand. They were now on the Colorado. From here on, there was no way out -- no settlements, no chance to re-supply, nothing, until the end of the canyons, hundreds of miles downstream. The rapids were bigger and more perilous than ever.

"We have run 13 miles today in which we passed 35 rapids," wrote Bradley. "The constant banging on the rocks has begun to tell sadly on the boats. They are growing old faster, if possible, than we are."

They patched the boats with pine pitch, but could do nothing about the rot and mold that had, by now, destroyed most of their food.

Michael Ghiglieri: The rations were dwindling, they were on half rations and then they were on less than half rations, and mostly this meant eating dough balls of flour. And the prospect of actually starving to death was real.

Narrator: "The sun is so hot we can scarcely endure it, "wrote Bradley. "It heats the canyon walls like an oven. A walk out to civilization would be almost certain death."

Michael Ghiglieri: Every single day was a little worse than the day before. And, of course, they didn't know where they were. So, they didn't even know how bad it would get.

Narrator: By the middle of August, they were more than a mile deep in the earth. It was brutally hot, no game to hunt, no fish in the muddy river. This was the Grand Canyon. Barely ten days of rations remained. Even Powell was starting to worry.

John Wesley Powell (v.o.): We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not. The great river shrinks into insignificance as it dashes against the walls and cliffs that rise to the world above. We are but pygmies, lost among the boulders.

Narrator: "If ever men did penance for their sins," recalled one boatman, "we did a-plenty for the next two hundred miles. The gloomy black rocks drive all the spirit out of a man. But we had to move on or starve." There would be no more mapping or geologizing. The only goal now was survival.

Newspapers again reported that the Powell party had disappeared. Lost in the Grand Canyon, the men thought they had. On the 97th day they stopped above a rapid that appeared worse than any they'd seen. It could not be portaged. And to the half-starved, demoralized men it looked nearly impossible to run. That night the accumulated stress of the journey finally erupted. Three of the crew announced that they would rather try to hike out than continue down the river.

Don Fowler: Powell thought, based on his calculations and what not, that they were near the end of the trip, but he wasn't certain. And the men, at least the three who left, were even less certain than he and they simply didn't want to do it anymore.

Michael Ghiglieri: The option to hike out was no sure thing because it was miles and miles to anything like a settlement. And whether there were insurmountable obstacles, cliffs and so on, that would prevent them from getting out of the canyon itself, was unknown.

Donald Worster: Powell argued all night with them, went from bed roll to bed roll talking to these people. He was clearly deeply worried that his expedition was falling apart. At one point in the night, according to one of the journals, he himself was ready to give up.

John Wesley Powell (v.o.):All night long I pace up and down along the river. Is it wise to continue? But to leave the exploration unfinished, having almost accomplished it, is more than I can acknowledge. I determine to go on.

Narrator: The next morning three men said goodbye and began to climb out of the canyon. They carried half the expedition notes, and a letter to Emma Powell. In his journal that day, the Major wrote simply: "Boys left us." Then, six men in two boats pushed into the whitewater Powell would call Separation Rapid.

John Wesley Powell (v.o.):The men pull with all their power. We find that although it looked bad from above, we have passed many places that were worse. We are scarcely a minute in running it. We fire our guns as a signal to the men above, hoping they will follow us. We wait until it seems hopeless.

Narrator: He would never see them again. They would soon be dead -- murdered, allegedly, by Indians. Just two days later, on August 30th, Powell and his men reached the end of their journey. Over the course of 99 days and a thousand grueling miles, they'd filled in the last blank spot on the map. Now, they would now go their separate ways. But Major Powell would never really leave the Grand Canyon behind.

John Wesley Powell (v.o.):Though it has been a chapter of disaster and toil, the canyons tell a story that I hear yet, and shall continue to hear.

Michael Ghiglieri: I think it's really difficult to convey exactly how small one feels in Grand Canyon, how brief one's life becomes when you look at the overwhelming evidence of a couple of billion years, and how urgent it suddenly becomes to do something worthwhile with what's left of your life. It happens to everyone, and it was possible that Powell's future career was decided in that Canyon, in that he was going to make a mark for himself.

Narrator: In a few days Powell was on his way to Salt Lake City. The Deseret News broke the story which quickly spread across the country: "Major Powell, of the Powell Expedition, who has been lost, drowned, and resurrected a dozen times on paper, arrived here last night from the south in the best of health and spirits"

From Utah, he traveled east a conquering hero, reuniting with Emma, then beginning a series of lectures and public appearances. No longer the obscure professor, Powell was in demand everywhere including Washington, where Congress gave him $10,000 to establish a survey of the Colorado Plateau.

Stephen Pyne: So Powell returns in some ways as a kind of a war hero -- here a former Civil War veteran has emerged from the river and to great acclaim... In a sense there's a degree of adulation that we haven't seen in contemporary times, except perhaps with the Mercury astronauts.

Narrator: John Wesley Powell had been transformed. Now, he would remake the image of the Grand Canyon, as well. He returned with photographers and artists, and urged them to capture the unearthly spectacle as best they could for a public unaccustomed to such sights.

Stephen Pyne: This is not like anything in Europe. It's not like anything in the eastern U.S. or the southern U.S. It's really weird. It could come from another planet.

Narrator: Popular paintings like Thomas Moran's "Grand Chasm of the Colorado" helped turned the canyon into an object of national pride.

Stephen Pyne: The oddity of the place came to be seen to advantage. This is something Europe doesn't have and that's wonderful. Well, not only doesn't Europe have it, we have it on a huge scale. It's wonderful, it's revelatory, and it's ours.

Narrator: Powell launched a second expedition down the Colorado in 1871, to complete the map left unfinished during his first trip. And while his geologists unraveled the physical history of the plateau, he immersed himself in the language and culture of the southwest desert Indians. With photographer Jack Hillers, he documented a vanishing way of life. But he was not above an occasional theatrical flourish, such as dressing Paiutes in fake headdresses to make them look more like Indians.

Don Fowler: That's how Powell and Hillers made a fair amount of their money, by creating those kinds of photographs and selling them commercially. And, giving sets of them to the Congressmen every time the appropriation bill came around. It's PR.

Narrator: Public relations mattered. Powell was competing with three other western surveys for continuing support from Congress. He needed to keep himself and his legend in the public eye.

Curtis Hinsley: I think he was very aware of the importance of writing his own myth, his own story. He controlled that narrative to good ends. He made himself a mythical hero.

Narrator: In 1874 Powell published a gripping account of his Colorado river trip. With its vivid illustrations and some dramatic license, the adventure grew into a powerful myth -- one well suited to a country obsessed with the promise and perils of westward expansion.

Stephen Pyne: The westward migration had been, and in many ways still is our great national creation myth. And the explorer was almost a kind of Moses figure, was often a sort of moral guide, leading people on and explaining it. Powell managed to combine the adventure, the national saga, and these other concerns uniquely.

Narrator: The charismatic Major Powell made a strong impression in Washington. He cultivated powerful friends, and by the early 1880's he was director of both the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian, and the new U.S. Geological Survey.

Don Fowler: So, here he is in 1881, running two Bureaus, two major scientific enterprises -- one focused on anthropology, but more importantly on Native American policy, and secondly, the U.S. Geological Survey, focused on public lands and the disposition of public lands and the mapping of the public lands, to properly open the West. If you're in a position to control the development of a third of the United States, that's a lot of influence.

Narrator: Major Powell would find the politics of western settlement more treacherous than the Colorado River. Waves of homesteaders were headed across the plains, lured by the promise an agricultural paradise. Powell knew that most of the West was too dry to farm. Only careful, scientific planning could assure fair access to what little water there was. He warned Congress that a hasty rush into the arid lands would be disastrous and no one knew better than John Wesley Powell how unforgiving the West could be.

Curtis Hinsley: He earned his new identity as a hero, as a pioneer, and, I guess, as a moralist... a man who could now come back and say, I have been there, I have suffered, I've been down there, and I have the right to instruct you about this world.

Narrator: In the late 1880's, Powell's dire predictions came true. A severe drought drove thousands of homesteaders off their land. Now, Congress had to act. They postponed further settlement until Major Powell's Geological Survey could devise a plan for irrigation. He was expected to move quickly. But Powell would not be hurried. He made it clear that no arid lands would be approved for homesteading until he had surveyed the entire public domain -- an area five times the size of Texas -- and that could take years. When Western politicians realized that a government bureaucrat had all but shut down the West, they were furious.

The revered John Wesley Powell was denounced as "a charlatan of science, a meddler in affairs of which he has no conception! " Powell stood firm. It was his duty, he felt, to guide Americans safely into the West, and he would not compromise.

Don Fowler: He firmly believed in the idea that humans are rational, and that they would act in their own best interests in a rational sort of way. But at the same time, he was sort of defining the rationality for them.

Narrator: Senator "Big Bill" Stewart from Nevada felt that Major Powell had become a law unto himself. Stewart vowed to destroy him, and began slashing away at his budget.

Powell fought back, lobbying friends in Congress and distributing photographs of himself to remind them, once again, of his heroic past. But it was too late.

Donald Worster: I think he was incredulous that these people could not see his point of view, that they didn't trust him as a scientist, and he couldn't take that, he couldn't handle it. So in a sense, that imperiousness that was there from early on, this driven sense the man had about his own ambitions and his visions in life was an Achilles heel.

Curtis Hinsley: Powell thought his authority would be sufficient to sway men to his way of seeing the future. And, he was wrong. And there's an irony in this because Powell was a man who spent his mature life dealing with the forces of nature. What he underestimated were the forces of human nature.

Narrator: Defeated at last, Powell resigned from the survey. He spent his final years on the coast of Maine, where he died in 1902, at the age of 68. A year after Powell's death, President Theodore Roosevelt visited the Grand Canyon, and declared it to be " a natural wonder absolutely unparalleled in the world... one of the great sights that every American should see." The Grand Canyon would come to be embraced like no other landscape in America -- a national shrine for pilgrims in the footsteps of John Wesley Powell.

John Wesley Powell (v.o.): We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not. With some eagerness and some misgiving we enter the canyon below.



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