Saturday, March 14, 2015

Lee's Ferry and the Spencer Trail

In the year 2015, the average American lives in a world of modern conveniences unimaginable to people of the late 1800's.  For instance, take the automobile and all of the attendant infrastructure that is associated with it, particularly the highways and bridges spanning the vast western landscape.

In our climate controlled vehicles we speed through arid and broken terrain without giving much thought to what it was like to negotiate a dry wash, a muddy plain, or to cross a river with a wagon and team of horses.  In the span of a few generations we have gone from giving heartfelt thanks for the ability to make 10 grueling miles a day to wondering why it takes so long to get anywhere, even at 70 miles per hour.

I often reflect on this and many of the other challenges faced by the unbelievably hardy folks who came to the region in the latter half of the 19th century.  A good place to come face to face with their reality is at Lee's Ferry along the banks of the Colorado River.  This isolated but incredibly important geographic location played a major role in establishing towns and cities to the south and east, and today is still one of only two places to cross the River for nearly 300 miles.

The Mormons

No single group of pioneers had more impact on the region than the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS).  After fleeing west in great numbers to avoid religious persecution in 1846, the emigrants arrived in the area of the Great Salt Lake and began establishing a new society that quickly expanded to surrounding areas.  Under the direction of church leadership groups of settlers were dispatched to all points of the compass to begin colonization of what was considered "unsettled" territory, although in most cases native peoples already inhabited much of the land.

Despite relatively harsh environmental conditions found in the southern region, LDS families faithfully heeded the call to wrest a living from the earth in whatever place a supply of water was available.  Communities were founded along what is today the Arizona - Utah border, with plans to push into northeastern Arizona and the Little Colorado River Valley.  One significant obstacle to this mission was the resistance of Navajo and Ute peoples who already called the region home.

Conflicts between Mormons and native peoples were fairly common in the early years, however leaders of the church were intent on continuing their expansion to the south and east.  In 1864 noted Mormon pioneer and scout Jacob Hamblin led an expedition to northeastern Arizona in a heavy handed attempt to intimidate tribal leaders, hoping to prevent further raids and harassment of the newly arrived homesteaders.

Travel in the region in the latter half of the 1800's was challenging at best, especially given the extreme vertical topography that characterizes much of the country.  A particularly vexing problem was finding a route where it's possible to reach the Colorado River from both sides.

Hamblin had found just such a place in 1858 where the the Paria River joins the Colorado.  Only in this spot did canyon walls lower enough to make an approach, and Hamblin realized early on that an outpost and ferry here would permit access into the Arizona Territory.  In 1864 he and the members of his delegation to the Navajos proved that point when they built a raft to transport themselves and their horses safely to the other side.
John D. Lee
John D. Lee

In 1870 Hamblin led another party into the region.  This group included LDS President Brigham Young, Major John Wesley Powell, and excommunicated Mormon leader John D. Lee.  The most significant outcome from this gathering was a decision by Young to establish a ferry at the river with the directive that Lee should be the one to make it happen.

At this point John Lee was a fugitive from federal authorities for his alleged involvement in the Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857, and he welcomed the opportunity as a way to stay out of sight.

John Lee's story is fascinating long before he arrives at the ferry that bears his name.  An early member of the LDS church and friend to founder Joseph Smith, Lee was a prominent figure in the early history of the Mormon church.  Although his role in establishing and operating the ferry on the Colorado River is a major milestone in opening up the territory, it is only one of many accomplishments in his lifetime.

Lonely Dell Ranch today
Lonely Dell Ranch

During an early visit to the area Jacob Hamblin had observed how fertile the land could be if properly watered.  He laid out where he felt a farm should be built including digging the first irrigation ditch to deliver water.
Hamblin also realized how isolated the area was, and is credited with being the first to refer to the site as Lonely Dell.

In late 1871 Lee moved his family (including two of his nineteen wives) to the mouth of the Paria and began the work assigned to him by Young.  Upon arriving at the desolate spot Emma Lee is said to have exclaimed "oh, what a lonely dell", perhaps echoing what Jacob Hamblin had declared several years before.

Paria River
Building an earthen dam across the Paria, Lee planted crops as well as an orchard in order to feed his family.  Unfortunately, the structures were inherently weak and repeatedly failed during floods, necessitating constant repair and rebuilding.  Irrigation channels often choked with silty mud after high flows in the Paria, and mucking them out was a neverending task.

Conditions at Lonely Dell were harsh despite relatively easy access to water.  At an elevation of 3200 feet, summer temperatures regularly exceed 100 degrees, and in winter can drop well below freezing.  The climate is dry and dusty, with average rainfall of just over 6 inches, much of that often coming all at once in sudden thunderstorms.

High flows on the Colorado also presented a danger to the ferry, and vessels were frequently lost or damaged when spring snowmelt swelled the river to epic proportions.  Flash floods also ravaged the landscape in summer, wreaking havoc on trails and carving deep muddy channels that were difficult to negotiate.

The nearest communities of any size were many days ride distant, and self sufficiency was the only reliable resource.  Despite the adversity, the Lee family and others who followed managed to make a life for themselves while engaged in developing, maintaining, and operating the ferry for over 50 years.

Lee's Ferry 1873 - 1928

Typical ferry crossing
The first craft to transport passengers across the river was launched in 1873.  Aptly named the Colorado, it had a short lifespan as floodwaters on the river washed it downstream later that year.  A new barge was soon constructed and the crossing became a focal point for Mormon pioneers and other hopeful immigrants.

Over the next several years, settlers continued moving into new lands to the south, while couples heading in the opposite direction to seal their marriages in the Salt Lake temple made a difficult journey along the Honeymoon Trail.

The Honeymoon Trail
Tensions with native peoples nearby resulted in the construction of a fortified building called Lee's Ferry Fort in 1874.  Although the relationship remained uneasy between the Mormons and their Navajo and Ute neighbors, no major conflicts occurred, and the fort eventually became a trading post.

John Lee remained a free man until 1874 when he was arrested and held on charges of murder stemming from the Mountain Meadows incident.  His first trial ended with a deadlocked jury, in part because prosecutors attempted to implicate Brigham Young in the crime.

John Lee awaiting execution in 1877
A second trial focused only on John Lee's part in the attack, and the jury convicted him of first degree murder.  He was sentenced to die, and in March of 1877 he was taken back to Mountain Meadows where he was executed by firing squad.  His last words can be found here - the sentiments of a man betrayed by those he held in great esteem.

Emma Lee continued to operate the ranch and ferry for several years after John's arrest and eventual death.  The LDS church bought the rights to the ferry and surrounding lands in 1879, granting them to a succession of families who continued the operation.

This practice continued until 1928, when the existing ferry sank causing the death of three men.  By this time, the Navajo Bridge across Marble Canyon was nearing completion, and it was decided not to rebuild the ferry.

Original Navajo Bridge
For a period of six months there was no effective way to cross the river, forcing travelers to make an 800 mile detour to get around the canyon.  This lengthy bypass illustrates how important the ferry was to anyone who needed to traverse the region, and highlights what a vital link the existing bridge is today.

Lonely Dell Ranch

Dugout or root cellar at Lonely Dell Ranch

Interior of dugout

Orchard planted in 1965 at Lonely Dell
Charles H. Spencer

The settlement of the western frontier was as much about exploitation of resources as it was making a life on the frontier.  History is littered with examples of those who came to make their fortunes, or in some cases to take the fortunes of others while promising a hefty return on the investment.

One such individual was Charles Spencer, an entrepreneur and would be mining magnate who believed the shale formations around Lee's Ferry held vast amounts of recoverable gold.  In 1910 Mr. Spencer formed the American Placer Mining Company with the intention of using hydraulic sluicing to strip away the soil.  He employed his apparently considerable power of persuasion to raise a great deal of capital, and proceeded to purchase and assemble boilers, dredges, flumes and an amalgamator at the remote site.

One of the challenges was the need for coal to fire boilers, which generated steam to operate equipment.  Unfortunately the nearest available supply was located 28 miles upstream at Warm Creek, a tributary of the Colorado.  The early answer to this problem was construction of an overland trail to be traversed by mules or burros, but in reality the trail was simply too long and difficult to ever be practical (see Spencer Trail section below).

Since money was apparently no object (at least not where Charles Spencer was concerned - that's what investors were for) a better solution to the energy problem was to transport the coal via the river, hence the need for a steamship.  Commissioned in 1912, the Charles H. Spencer was a 12' paddle wheel steamer with a 110 horsepower boiler.  The ship was built in San Francisco, and shipped piecemeal to Utah where it was loaded onto wagons and transported to Warm Creek for assembly.

Charles H. Spencer
This handsome vessel was the largest ever to ply the river north of the Grand Canyon, but it's career was remarkably short.  Despite the ability to transport 5 - 6 tons of coal on each trip it consumed more than it delivered, making it very inefficient.

Additionally, the hoped for gold bonanza never materialized due to problems with the amalgamation process, and by late summer of 1912 the investors bankrolling the project had lost patience.  They withdrew funding and the mining operation including the new paddlewheeler were abandoned.  The ship was beached and eventually sank during a flood in 1921.

Today all that remains of the American Placer Mining Co. are the Spencer Trail and rusting hulks of boilers, along with the submerged hull of the Spencer near the north bank of the River.

American Placer Mining boiler vessel

Hull and boiler of the Charles H. Spencer
The Spencer Trail

One enduring legacy of the attempt to extract riches from the earth at Lee's Ferry is the Spencer Trail, a steep, rocky 2 mile trail that climbs 1600' from the river's edge to the top of the nearby Echo Cliffs.  Built by hand in 1911, the path was intended to be a route to coal deposits located to the north.  But as a practical means of transporting fuel to the mine it was an utter failure, and was abandoned along with all other aspects of the operation in 1912.

Fortunately all was not forgotten, at least not completely.  While existing as a rough and neglected suggestion for much of the last century, the trail received new life when it was rebuilt by conservation corps trail crews a few years back.  Although still rocky and subject to slides, the trail is actually in pretty decent shape.

The beginning of the route is found to the east of the boat ramps and historic stone buildings, and is well signed.  Consisting of a series of undulating switchbacks the trail climbs swiftly, and offers increasingly sweeping views of the area.

Vermilion Cliffs reflected in the Colorado

Looking east - southeast across the River

Steps on the Spencer Trail

Views across the beginning of Marble Canyon

The Paria River Valley below the Vermilion Cliffs

Nearing the top of the Echo Cliffs

Tilted sandstone formations at the top
After many zig-zags and large steps, the path emerges onto the high ridge of the Echo Cliffs.  Views from the top encompass Navajo Mountain, Lake Powell, the Kaiparowits, and much more.  Wandering around to some of the higher vantage points on the ridge offers the best vistas.

Navajo Mountain rises in the distance

The last remnants of Glen Canyon

Sheer canyon walls cleave the plateau
Today Lee's Ferry is all but forgotten as a once strategic corridor into northern Arizona, and the role it played in frontier history is not a widely known story.  Most of those who know of it are more likely to be familiar with the Ferry as either a starting point for Grand Canyon river trips or as a blue ribbon trout fishery.

The launch ramp is the start point for river trips into Grand Canyon
I suggest the next time you're zipping across the seemingly empty landscape beneath the Vermilion Cliffs, you should consider taking a few hours to meet the ghosts of Lee's Ferry, the pioneers who blazed the way into the New West we live in today.  As you walk the grounds and peer through windows of dirt floored cabins imagine yourself toiling in the fields under the mid-day sun, or watching muddy flood waters threaten your crops and livestock for the third time in a year.

Cemetery at Lonely Dell
Take a walk through the cemetery, where 25 graves that span nearly 60 years are located.   Consider the large granite marker that memorializes the 4 Johnson children who died in 1891 during a span of 3 months.

They were unfortunate victims of a deadly diptheria outbreak that occurred when travelers arrived at the ferry with a sick child.  The Johnsons did what was common at the time, and offered their home to the ailing family, only to pay the ultimate price because vaccinations had not yet been invented, and people had little understanding of contagious diseases.

Or hike the rugged and exposed Spencer Trail, imagining you're the wrangler with a 20 mule train heading for Warm Creek almost 30 miles away.  There's no shade, little water, and it's a long and dusty trip in each direction.  Your reward for a day's work in the saddle will be a bedroll on the hard ground and perhaps some beans and salt pork for supper.  Your wages might equal a dollar a day, but it won't be hard to save money because there's no towns to spend it in.

Afterwords you'll be able to return to an air conditioned car that forms a protective cocoon around you when you've had enough.  But if you're like me you might just appreciate it a bit more after experiencing the blazing sun, austere landscape, parched air, and lack of anything remotely modern.  And you might not even mind that you're still at least an hour away from the next town - even at 70 miles per hour.

Orchard blossom at Lonely Dell Ranch

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