Damming Grand Canyon
The 1923 USGS Colorado River Expedition
Publication Year: 2007
In 1923, America paid close attention, via special radio broadcasts, newspaper headlines, and cover stories in popular magazines, as a government party descended the Colorado to survey Grand Canyon. Fifty years after John Wesley Powell's journey, the canyon still had an aura of mystery and extreme danger. At one point, the party was thought lost in a flood.
Something important besides adventure was going on. Led by Claude Birdseye and including colorful characters such as early river-runner Emery Kolb, popular writer Lewis Freeman, and hydraulic engineer Eugene La Rue, the expedition not only made the first accurate survey of the river gorge but sought to decide the canyon's fate. The primary goal was to determine the best places to dam the Grand. With Boulder Dam not yet built, the USGS, especially La Rue, contested with the Bureau of Reclamation over how best to develop the Colorado River. The survey party played a major role in what was known and thought about Grand Canyon.
The authors weave a narrative from the party's firsthand accounts and frame it with a thorough history of water politics and development and the Colorado River. The recommended dams were not built, but the survey both provided base data that stood the test of time and helped define Grand Canyon in the popular imagination.
Published by: Utah State University Press
Download PDF (29.4 KB)
Download PDF (28.7 KB)
Download PDF (37.4 KB)
As a graduate student thirty years ago, I chose for my thesis a stretch of buckled rock along the Colorado River within Grand Canyon that could only be reached by boat. I carried the most up-to-date equipment—kapok-filled Mae West life preservers, a pocket calculator that could actually determine square roots, and plan-and-profile maps...
Download PDF (53.2 KB)
Our interest in the 1923 expedition in Grand Canyon came from several sources. First and foremost, this U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) trip was the first that our agency sponsored in Grand Canyon. This is a notably poignant reason given that some USGS scientists, including the authors, have spent much of their careers in the challenging environment...
1. Water and the Colorado Desert
Download PDF (143.9 KB)
At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the Colorado River well deserves its nickname as “the American Nile,” fi rst suggested in the early years of the twentieth century.¹ One of the most regulated watercourses in the world, and certainly in the United States,² each drop of Colorado River water is reputedly reused five times before it reaches the ocean.
2. Where Should the Dams Be? : Politics, the Colorado River Compact, and the Geological Survey’s Role
Download PDF (87.1 KB)
The 1905 disaster and the subsequent need to reestablish the irrigation network in the Imperial Valley focused national attention on the lower Colorado River. The ongoing fl ood troubles held that attention, even through the turbulent years of World War I. It greatly helped that the Los Angeles Times, a hardly unbiased newspaper given its owners’...
3. Prelude to an Expedition: Washington and Flagstaff
Download PDF (356.0 KB)
In 1922, at the insistence of Arthur Davis, the U.S. Reclamation Service staked its reputation on a dam site in Boulder Canyon, putting all water into one reservoir. Elsewhere in the Colorado River basin, the surveying of potential dam sites fell to USGS, with financial and logistical support provided by private power companies, notably Southern California Edison...
4. A Cumbersome Journey: Flagstaff to Lee’s Ferry to the Little Colorado River
Download PDF (386.6 KB)
On July 18, 1923, Claude Birdseye, the members of his expedition, and an extended traveling party left Flagstaff en route to Lee’s Ferry.¹ They had spent several days sorting groceries, packing equipment, and loading the new boat on a truck, well padded to minimize damage during transit over the rough dirt road. They started their trip before noon, taking three...
5. Surveys and Portages: Furnace Flats through the Inner Gorge
Download PDF (409.8 KB)
On August 13, 1923, the 1923 USGS expedition camped at Crash Canyon, a small tributary on river right at river mile 62.6. This small canyon became infamous in 1956 after two commercial airliners collided over Grand Canyon and the debris spread over this drainage and several smaller ones nearby. Just downstream, the Colorado River corridor opens into a reach fondly known...
6. Of Flips and Floods: Bass Canyon to Diamond Creek
Download PDF (323.3 KB)
In early September, the 1923 USGS expedition found itself out of the Inner Gorge and away from seemingly continuous rapids, but all was not well within the crew. Although Birdseye had placated Kolb, who chose to remain with the expedition after his mutiny at Hermit Rapid, Birdseye faced an undercurrent of bickering. Word, who had the ready excuse of eye problems, would leave...
7. Feeling Their Oats: Diamond Creek to Needles
Download PDF (362.7 KB)
They faced down a fl ood and managed to pull through without losing any equipment. Their head boatman fl ipped his boat in what until then was an unnamed rapid. Their original cook, who had eye problems but also could not stand the incessant squabbling among the crew, left at Havasu Creek and was replaced by a man who was illiterate and spoke poor English. In some ways,...
8. Aftermath: Politics and the Strident Hydraulic Engineer
Download PDF (220.9 KB)
Upon returning to their homes, the members of the 1923 USGS expedition to Grand Canyon were drenched in a maelstrom of hyperbole. Just as Blake and Dodge felt when they saw themselves on the movie screen in Needles, everyone must have found the attention both astonishing and amusing. Dozens of newspapers and magazines across the country...
About the Authors
Download PDF (27.2 KB)
Diane Boyer is an archivist working for the U.S. Geological Survey overseeing the Desert Laboratory Collection of Repeat Photography in Tucson, Arizona. She has a degree in animal health science (B.S., University of Arizona, 1983). In 1986, she began working as a photo archivist at the Arizona Historical Society; later, she joined the staff of Northern Arizona University’s...
Download PDF (50.2 KB)
Publication Year: 2007