Grand Canyon celebrates 100 years as a national park in 2019
The first European American who reached the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon marveled at what was before him. It was an astounding system of canyons. It had profound fissures and slender spires. They seemed to totter from their bases.
The scenery wasn't enough to convince Lt. Joseph Christmas Ives that anyone would visit. That was after his group set out in a steamboat. They were on an expedition in 1858.
"Ours has been the first and, doubtless, will be the last party of whites to visit this profitless locality," he wrote. "It seems intended by nature that the Colorado River along the greater portion of its lonely and majestic way shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed."
That clearly wasn't the way things worked out, as it is a much different story in 2019. That's when the Grand Canyon will celebrate its 100th anniversary as a national park.
A federal government shutdown has closed other U.S. national parks. But the Grand Canyon has remained open. That's because Arizona decided to supply money. The money keeps trails, shuttles and restrooms open.
The Grand Canyon now draws more than 6 million tourists a year. They peer over the popular South Rim into the gorge a mile deep. They navigate river rapids. They hike the trails. They camp under the stars.
Early explorers came by boat. They came on foot or on horseback. They often traveled with the help of Native American guides. The wealthy traveled by stagecoach. It was a two-day trip from Flagstaff to the southernmost point on the canyon's South Rim. That was in the 1880s.
The first passenger train rolled in from Williams in 1901. But the railroad was more interested in mining copper than carrying tourists. The automobile became the more popular way to reach the Grand Canyon. That was in the 1930s.
Early entrepreneurs charged $1 to hike down the Bright Angel Trail. It had been used by the Havasupai people. Their current-day reservation lies in the depths of the Grand Canyon. Early entrepreneurs developed camping spots and built hotels. Tourists paid for drinking water. They also paid to use outhouses and for curios in a tent pitched at the South Rim.
Ralph Cameron was a prospector. The Navajo Nation community of Cameron is named for him. He was one of the major opponents of naming the Grand Canyon a national park. He saw how much money could be made from tourism.
President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation to create the park in 1919. But Teddy Roosevelt is credited for its early preservation as a game reserve and a national monument.
He famously said: "Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it. And man can only mar it."
Centennial events will include Roosevelt impersonators. Events will also include a historical symposium and a living history week. Efforts will be made to get visitors beyond the South Rim by showcasing lesser-known sites. They will show them on social media. The park's actual birthday is Feb. 26. A celebration is scheduled at the South Rim. Other events at other locations are programmed for later in the year.
Vanessa Ceja Cervantes is one of the centennial coordinators. She said the park will broadcast ranger talks and the founder's day event. It will also share other virtual tours throughout the year.
"A lot of our visitors come for the day. They're drawn here for this amazing landscape," she said. "But we really want to give them reasons to stay. We want them to learn about the geology, the natural resources, cultural or historic because there's something here for everyone."
Visitors might even learn about the Apollo 11 astronauts. They trained at the Grand Canyon. They can learn about a spotted skunk who does a handstand when it feels threatened. They can learn about a commercial airline crash that spurred the creation of the Federal Aviation Administration. They can hear the story of a heart-shaped rock. It was embedded in a wall for a hotel waitress.
Before Grand Canyon became a national park, the land was home to and visited frequently by Native American tribes.
As the story goes, Spanish explorers reached the canyon in the 1540s, led by Hopi guides. They descended into the canyon. They misjudged its depth and vastness. They turned back before they could reach the Colorado River. Their reports likely deterred others from exploring the region for centuries.
Gertrude Smith works in the cultural office for the Yavapai-Apache Nation in Camp Verde. She said tribes continue to revere the Grand Canyon as a place of emergence. It is where they foraged for plants and nuts, and they hunted before it became outlawed.
"People do forget the Native people were the first people to dwell in these places and use the resources," she said.
Wayne Ranney is the immediate past president of the Grand Canyon Historical Society. He moved to Phantom Ranch to work as a backcountry ranger in 1975. It was a job that would create a bond with his paternal grandfather who first visited Grand Canyon National Park in 1919. He worked for the railroad and could get a roundtrip ticket for $5, Ranney said.
In the years after World War II ended, the National Park Service began to modernize places like the Grand Canyon. The gorge hit 1 million visitors annually in 1956. This number has only grown since that time.
"Its popularity is never diminished," Ranney said. "For most people, even though it may be crowded when they visit, they still come away with a feeling of awe."