Friday, September 27, 2019

Exploring a Legend: John Wesley Powell and the Grand Canyon

I am quite impressed with the Grand Canyon. I know I’m not the only one. All that rugged grandeur! The colors, the changing weather, the varying landscape as you descend. The silence, as if all of nature is holding its breath. But when John Wesley Powell decided to explore the Colorado River, through the Grand Canyon, the place was not much more than a legend.

So was he, truth be told. John Wesley Powell joined the Union Army as a military engineer, but he served in many positions during the Civil War and ended up a brevet lieutenant colonel. A minié ball blew off most of his right arm, but he continued serving until the war ended. Geology was always his greatest love, so he took a position as a professor at Illinois Wesleyan University in that subject. He’d led his wife and students on several journeys of exploration when he decided to tackle the Green and Colorado Rivers in 1869. And he nearly lost his life in the process.

Dangerous rapids, difficult portages, poor weather and flash flood would all plague the trip. They lost most of their boats; they lost most of their supplies. Three men gave up at one point to leave the expedition and hike out of the canyon. They were never heard from again. Four months later, the rest of the expedition made it out.

But the canyon had a grip on his heart and mind. Determined to make it all the way through, with photographic evidence this time, he set out again in May of 1871 with a group of hand-picked men, including photographer John Hillers. It took them eight months, but they managed to traverse the canyon safely, coming out at Kanab Creek. With photographs to prove it.

Powell went on to publish his report of both trips for public consumption, which went a long way toward instilling in the Nation a love for the area, ensuring its preservation as a national park.

His first expedition was commemorated 100 years later with a U.S. postal stamp.

Rather grand, isn’t it?

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