By Wayne Schmidt
Copyright 2017 – Wayne Schmidt
: My ebook is free. You are welcome to share it. This ebook may be reproduced or copied, in full or in part, provided its contents are not altered, authorship is included, and free availability is noted.
By Wayne Schmidt
Frank Mason Brown drowned in a whirlpool in the bottom of the Grand Canyon because he was sure he could build a great railroad through its depths and become rich and famous. He believed he could define reality. Although he died 127 years ago, his kind of hubris remains alive and well in America.
Brown was one of the first humans on earth to float a boat into the Grand Canyon. He never emerged from its maw because he thought he knew better than the experts. He was smart. He was rich. He had always gotten his way. But he didn’t respect the reality of the Colorado River. As a result, bits and pieces of Frank Mason Brown ended up feeding the fish from the Grand Canyon all the way to the Gulf of California – the very place where his fantasy railroad was to have ended, a thousand miles downstream.
Had the Grand Canyon not killed Brown, there is a good chance he would have wrecked the Grand Canyon – desecrating its sublime spectacle of pristine cliffs, rapids, waterfalls, and raw wilderness, that adventurers experience today. America came way too close to having a railroad blasted through the heart of the Grand Canyon.
In 1889, it had been 17 years since John Wesley Powell’s second-ever descent through the Grand Canyon. No one else had revisited the 300 miles of brawling river inside the Grand Canyon, or much of the 200 miles of wilderness canyons and forbidding rapids upstream in the upper Colorado River and its tributaries. At least, no one who had lived to tell about it.
This wonderful river after nearly four centuries of discovery and exploration still flings defiance at the puny efforts of man to cope with it, while its furious waters dash on through the long, lonely gorges, as untrammeled to-day as they were in the forgotten ages. Those who approach it respectfully and reverently are treated not unkindly, but woe and disaster await all others.
These words were penned in 1902 by Frederick S. Dellenbaugh, who was with Powell on his 1871-72 expedition. Dellenbaugh knew whereof he wrote.
Where most people saw frightful riverine obstacles, however, businessman Frank Mason Brown saw opportunity. He would turn the Colorado River into a money machine for himself and his rich East Coast backers.
Brown appears to have been born to privilege in Maine; he was a Mayflower descendant. He started college but didn’t finish. His father’s work for the Lincoln Administration likely helped him secure a job in Alaska, soon after the Civil War, with the U.S. Treasury Dept. In the 1870s, he ran a California mining company. That’s where he got himself elected as a state senator for a term, before moving to Colorado to run another mining company and speculate in real estate. He married the daughter of a Denver judge, and they had two sons. Brown seems to have been able to get anything in life he set his mind to. He had become wealthy and was looking for opportunity for new investments.
This was the era of Manifest Destiny – the belief in America’s God-given right to expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific and own everything in between. The first transcontinental railroad had already been running for two decades. Dwindling populations of Native Americans had been mostly stripped of their land, settlers and immigrants were flooding west, and railroads were punching into the last unclaimed wildernesses. Riches were free for the taking. Unfettered, rapacious development would make America great.
The idea for a railroad through the Grand Canyon started with a prospector named S.S. Harper, who had spent decades looking to strike it rich in northern Arizona. Harper watched new railroad lines being surveyed and pushed west and thought they were doing it all wrong. Why go mountains, he reasoned, when you could simply follow the Colorado River that cut the mountains? For years Harper talked up his pet railroad scheme to anyone who would listen.
After Powell’s expeditions, other men had come up with similar ideas about a water-grade railroad from the Rocky Mountains to California, but it was Harper who sold Brown on the plan. The two first met in Denver in January 1889. Brown loved Harper’s dream.
On paper, it seemed to make sense: build a river-level railway to ship coal cheaply from the mountains of Colorado to the mouth of the Colorado River and then on to San Diego to coal-hungry markets. Tracks would start in Grand Junction, near Colorado’s coal fields, and run river-side for 1,200 miles to the Gulf of California. Although Brown, 43 years old, had no experience in building a railroad, he was a hustler and a true believer in his own genius, able to overcome any obstacle, to ignore any inconvenient fact. A picture of Brown reveals a handsome, boyish face bedecked with ridiculous, black muttonchops, a facial fashion of the day. He was described as happy and cheerful, candid and full of self-assurance.
Brown and his partners set up the Denver, Colorado River & Pacific Railway Company. Now as company president, Brown took his fanciful plan east to raise money from starry-eyed investors, even meeting with the U.S. Secretary of State (from back home in Maine). All gave enthusiastic support for a railroad through the Grand Canyon.
He returned to Colorado with potential financial commitments for millions of dollars to build the railway, contingent upon a favorable on-site engineering report. Therefore, his first step would need to be a survey of the proposed route down the river, a daunting endeavor that Brown would organize and lead himself. To say that Brown was in over his head would be a terrible understatement, as well as an awful metaphor, given his watery fate. Nevertheless, it was true.
Brown knew little of the violence of the Colorado River’s rapids or the Grand Canyon’s mile-high cliffs. He knew little about equipping such an unusual expedition. Although he talked with Powell and members of his crew at length, Brown believed they exaggerated the dangers. After all, Brown must have been thinking, if the river was so bad, how had the one-armed, Civil War veteran Powell managed to boat through it twice without (as far as the river could be blamed) losing a single crew member? How dangerous could it be?
Brown was a man of action. Barely two months after first hearing of S.S. Harper’s crazy idea, by March, he was ready to go. He and two engineers he’d hired traveled from Denver to Grand Junction, 250 miles west. Minutes after arriving, Brown audaciously hammered into the dirt the first surveying stake for what he believed would become the greatest of America’s railroads.
Brown bought a leaky, 15-foot dory from the local ferryman, repaired it, bought some rations, and hired a crew. His men called him “President Brown.” They all took a test run together for a half-mile down the upper Colorado River (then known as the Grand River). At that point, President Brown waved goodbye, sent his survey crew on their way downstream, and headed back east to complete arrangements for his full-scale expedition, which would start a few weeks later from Green River, on its namesake tributary of the Colorado River. The tiny settlement to the west was on a train stop that Brown could reach with the five boats he was having specially built in Waukegan, Illinois, and shipped west.
First, however, Brown’s crew with their one little dory were to survey the upper Colorado River route for 160 miles downstream through steep, largely unexplored canyons and rapids from Grand Junction to the mouth of the Green River. Just the boating would have been challenging enough, but for these men, the boating was merely a means to an end. They were running a survey line on the river’s to determine the engineering feasibility of building a railroad alongside the river and past its 500 or so rapids.
They walked the shore, scrambling over boulders and around cliffs, wading in the river, while dragging a measuring line, driving stakes every 200 feet, and using a transit and level to map precise elevation and direction changes. They planned to do this for 1,200 miles, identifying places where tunnels would have to be blasted from the steep canyon walls, cliff benches leveled and widened, slopes flattened, river channels moved, and bridges built.
Brown’s survey crew reached the mouth of the Green River, relatively unscathed, in early May. To get upstream for their rendezvous with Brown, however, they then had to pull their boat with ropes against the current for 120 miles, under the broiling desert sun. After ten days, they arrived exhausted and famished. The expedition’s sufferings had barely just begun.
These were serious men on a serious mission backed by serious investors. And, despite the skepticism of many, including Powell, Brown and his men had no doubts about the practicality of their mission. Brown’s chief engineer, Robert Brewster Stanton, who started with the party in Green River, never wavered, still claiming more than a decade later, despite the expedition’s tragic outcome: “That the proposed [rail]road is feasible and practicable, and at a reasonable amount of cost, is beyond question.”
[A note to the reader: In the following narrative, I’ve relied on the references cited at the end, particularly Stanton’s hand-written journals. Most quotes are directly from those frank and revealing pages. A few quotes – marked (M) – are from his memoirs (Stanton 1965), written some 20 years later. Except as noted, photos are public domain images from the New York Public Library Digital Collections.]
On May 25, 1889, Brown’s full expedition pushed off into the Green River, flush with the spring’s mountain snowmelt, and headed downstream to the Colorado River and their fateful encounter with the Grand Canyon. They were a crew of 16 men, including Stanton, Brown’s newly hired chief engineer, and six ridiculous boats, including the “Brown Betty,” the leaking old dory that somehow had made it all the way from Grand Junction and would serve as the cook’s boat.
The five boats that Brown had ordered from back east had suffered during their jostling rail trip from Illinois to Green River. He’d designed them to be light for ease and speed during portages, but that made them fragile. His priority was getting the survey finished quickly, for reasons he would not confide to Stanton until weeks later during one of the expedition’s many crises.
President Brown’s worldview as a can-do businessman blinded him to the fatal consequences of his ignorance, bad planning, and impetuous decision-making. Here they were, about to embark on an epic journey into a poorly-known wilderness, and their puny boats, no bigger than small canoes, had already proved so frail that two had split nearly end-to-end on the train ride and had to be fixed before they could leave.
At his first sight of their boats, Stanton’s heart sank. He confessed to his journal:
I was awfully disappointed when I saw them. They are light brittle cedar hunting & pleasure boats, totally unfit for the work they will have to do down the Colo. River. I shall say nothing now, for my position & association with Mr. Brown will not permit of it & I will go with these boats. This I think it really unsafe.
Under Brown’s direction, Stanton bought provisions and went about hiring a crew from the local talent. Since he had carefully read Powell’s reporting of his earlier expeditions, Stanton knew that he needed experienced boatmen to handle the boats for when the rest of the men were ashore and surveying along the riverbank. Brown, though, believed he knew better. He had brought with him from Denver two “guests” to accompany the expedition. He told Stanton not to worry, that he and his guests would serve as boatmen. Stanton was “thunderstruck”:
‘Guests’! on such an expedition! And they, two charming and genial young lawyers and clubmen of Denver, to handle the boats down the River that Major Powell’s sturdy frontiersmen had found such a task!
Both, presumably, were investors. One was the company’s attorney. The other was the company’s secretary, whose incompetence in that role helped save the Grand Canyon from Brown’s railroad, as a disgusted Stanton would discover months after the expedition’s end.
Neither guest brought discernible skills to an immensely perilous expedition. Brown’s poor judgment in bringing along these greenhorns convinced Stanton that his new boss, while a great promoter, was “utterly incapable of appreciating the nature of the undertaking he was going into, or the dangers to be encountered, and, especially so, to scoff at the idea of any danger to himself.”
Brown’s sense of invincibility took on mortal stakes over the issue of life preservers, which he refused to buy. Members of Powell’s expeditions had warned Brown of the necessity of wearing life preservers on the unpredictable river. Stanton, who had a bum arm and couldn’t swim, argued with Brown until “the air turned blue,” but it was no use. The expedition would carry no life preservers.
Once their delicate little boats were launched into the shallows of the Green River and loaded up, they floated so low that their sides were only an inch above the water. The problem was the heavy, water-tight zinc boxes for storing gear that Brown had ordered. So they removed the five boxes and lashed them together as a raft, to be towed behind. This make-shift contraption carried a third of their supplies and all the extra oars and rope, “a most unwise arrangement from every point of view,” as Dellenbaugh later sniffed.
Finally, after a breakfast of trout with strawberries and cream at the little Green River hotel, they were ready to go. Everyone in town came out to cheer as Brown’s ill-fated expedition drifted away in the crystalline current.
Almost immediately, the boats had to pull over to calk fresh leaks in the heavily-laden Brown Betty, using a concoction of flour and lard. Five miles later in the first shallow rapid, one of the new boats scraped over rocks and opened three holes in its bottom, which were repaired.
Yet after their problem-plagued start, for the next four days the party floated without serious incident down to the Green River’s junction with the Colorado River. Their placid boat ride was the calm before their living nightmare ahead. They entered the Colorado River and resumed their on-shore engineering survey.
Disaster didn’t delay. Just two miles downstream, the crewmen in the boat towing their makeshift cargo raft beached at the head of a particularly dangerous rapid, as Stanton had told them to do if they got into fast water. But Brown, who had set up camp on the opposite side of the river, yelled over to the men and ordered them to row across. Who knows why? Maybe he wanted some food from the storage boxes.
Despite their fears, the men tried to obey. He was, after all, the boss. Rowing across the powerful current with all their might, they started losing the struggle and being swept toward the rapid’s chaos. To save themselves, both jumped overboard into the shallow water and cut loose the cargo raft. They saved their boat, but the five precious supply boxes vanished downstream along with a third of their gear (some was later recovered).
Stanton gives no hint that Brown took any blame or apologized.
The next day, June 1, the men headed into the frenzied waters of the 44-mile-long Cataract Canyon, with its dozens of near-continuous rapids, some with drops of 20 feet, and spent much of the day portaging cargo around rapids, wading in icy water up to their necks, and lowering the boats by ropes from shore (called “lining”) through the worst of the raging waters – “the hardist (sic) day’s work I’ve known for years,” Stanton recorded. As one of the boats was being lowered, with Stanton’s assistant aboard to ward off boulders, it was caught by a giant wave, sucked into a whirlpool, and spun about like a top for several minutes before being safely spat out of the deadly vortex.
Cataract Canyon & one of the expedition’s frail boats
Two days later, while the men were ashore surveying, one of the tied-up boats swung into a rock and sank. They saved the boat but lost its cargo, including all the clothes and bedding of two men. Stanton noted dryly, “The damage to our stores from the swamping of one boat is quite serious.”
The next day it was Brown’s turn to suffer, along with his two pampered guests. The three started off alone while the crew was still packing up camp. Downstream, their boat capsized in a rapid and they were tossed out. Clinging to the sides of their boat, they were carried a mile downstream before they were able to scramble onto some rocks, where they were stuck overnight.
Meanwhile, upstream, as the other boats were being lined past a rapid, one boat, with a man aboard, broke loose but managed to survive its harrowing ride through the cascades. Next, the cook boat, the Brown Betty, broke loose and was demolished. At this point, the expedition had lost nearly all its cooking supplies and much of its food. In camp that night, with the boss and his guests stuck downriver on the rocks overnight, the crew groused freely. Stanton noted:
Talked to Several of the men & find a good deal of dissatisfaction among them as to the way Mr. Brown is managing the expedition & the way Hughes & Reynolds [the guests] try to boss the handling of the boats.
Morale was dismal. Food had run perilously low and what little was left (flour, bacon, sugar, dried fruit, coffee) constantly got soaked and had to be dried in the sun, with much of it ruined. All this time the men were seldom actually riding in their boats, but were lining them past rapids as they negotiated on foot the rocky beaches and sheer cliff faces. And, of course – the reason for their agonies – the crew’s engineers, mile after mile, were still carefully surveying and mapping the route for Brown’s mythical railroad.
The next chance for supplies was still many days downstream at Dandy Crossing, a camp where gold miners were working the river’s gravels. (That spot today is flooded beneath the upper waters of Lake Powell, two miles downstream from the bridge on Utah Hwy 95.) In camp on June 5, Stanton had a heart-to-heart with his boss about their desperate straits and his worries that the crew was going to abandon the expedition. He recommended that Brown, his two guests, and one crewman (who Stanton called “utterly worthless except to eat our grub”) should take one boat and push ahead to Dandy Crossing and obtain supplies. Stanton and the survey crew would catch up as soon as possible. But Brown objected, worrying that it could slow down the expedition. They argued into the night with no agreement.
Two days later as the survey struggled along, the boat now serving as cook boat was upset, and the remainder of their cooking supplies was lost to the river.
Sunday, June 9, was Brown’s 44th birthday, and they took a rest day to recuperate and dry out supplies as best they could. Several climbed the cliffs to find more pine resin to repair their leaky boats.
For the next days they moved through their surveying like the walking dead; sore beyond belief; gear, clothes, and bedding constantly soaked; boats swamped; leaks continually being patched; and more food and equipment lost in the worst rapids they had yet encountered.
At week’s end, Stanton confronted his boss about their critical situation. Brown “was very much surprised and seemed dazed,” noted Stanton. But Brown finally agreed to split up the party, with Stanton and five men moving ahead on foot to continue surveying, while the rest stayed behind to repair boats and catch up later. As Stanton’s group moved forward, he wrote:
Our rations being very short we lunched today on three lumps sugar and plenty of river water. For supper I took 1/6 of my [bread] loaf with a cup of hot water & Condensed milk.”
Meanwhile, upstream, the tribulations of Cataract Canyon continued for Brown and the rest of the crew. One boat, the “Mary,” had to be dismantled for material to repair the other boats, prompting Brown to cry in front of his men, since the boat had been named after his wife. What must his frontiersmen-crew have thought of their boss weeping over a broken-up boat?
By Sunday evening, the two parties were reunited, but they were still 37 river miles from their hoped-for relief at Dandy Crossing and nearly out of food. The hungry crew was threatening mutiny. Brown’s expedition faced its worst challenge yet – starvation.
Stanton, now “thoroughly disgusted with the way things were going,” made an executive decision without asking his boss. He ordered every morsel of food to be cooked, then divided everything into sixteen equal piles, one for each man, on a log: “1½ loaf bread about 12” in diam & 1” thick, with no baking powder or salt. One can condensed milk, a little coffee, a handful of beans. [The men] seem Thunderstruck.” Each took his meager allotment.
Stanton recounted in later years a “most curious” complaint that one of his men made long afterwards concerning this egalitarian food distribution: “[H]e thought I treated him harshly and unfairly… He thought, and so stated, that, because he had the greater appetite and capacity for food, he should have had more than the rest!” (M)
One way or the other, Stanton was determined to continue the survey with as many as would stay to work with him. He insisted that Brown and a few men quickly press downstream to Dandy Crossing to get food and bring it back while they carried on the railroad survey.
In the middle of trying to salvage their expedition, that evening, Brown confided to Stanton for the first time the real reason why he was in such a rush to complete the survey:
After Supper, Brown Called me aside & said he intended to have a confidential talk with me & he believed this was the proper time. He then explained why he was in such a hurry to get the survey through…, saying that he was under an engagement to be in New York by Aug. 15th to meet a syndicate of N.Y. men, who represented $50,000,000, who had agreed to take hold of the building of this [rail]road if the Engineer’s report was favorable. That they had agreed to wait in NY till Aug. 25th before going on their Summer trips in their Yachts & hence it was of utmost importance on reaching Dandy Crossing to drop the instrumental Survey and push on… so that I could make an ‘eye Survey’ of the remainder of the route.
It’s unclear how much, if any, of the New York syndicate’s $50 million (equivalent to $1.3 billion today!) that Brown was counting on. Or, for that matter, how much he may have exaggerated his plan’s popularity with his investors. In any event, it wasn’t lack of money that kept America from wrecking the Grand Canyon with a railroad grade blasted through its lonely depths.
Early the next morning, Stanton faced a revolt from his hungry crew, who wanted to flee downstream together to find food. They pleaded with Stanton to abandon the survey, but he would have none of it. Just four men, including “our two colored boys, [Henry C.] Richards & [George W.] Gibson,” who had been servants to Stanton’s family for many years, agreed to stay with him to continue the survey through Cataract Canyon. Shortly after 7 a.m., “Brown & all the Scared men,” as Stanton sneered, eleven in all, departed, “running from hunger to grub.”
Stanton and his small crew returned to their survey work, while the retreating group worked through the rapids downstream. Did Stanton take secret satisfaction as he watched one of their three boats swamp, losing several of the men’s last sacks of food? Stanton’s contempt drips from his journal page:
This [accident] seemed to frighten them more & they threw away almost everything they had, blankets, clothing etc. etc. and started down the river like scared dogs with their tails between their legs!!
Their fright was understandable. Earlier that day, the near-starving men had come across part of a wagon floating in the river, a body still attached and reduced to a skeleton.
As they worked, the survey party survived on next-to-no rations. Their breakfast and dinner consisted of three ounces of bread, with a little coffee and milk. No one complained.
Late on the third day, rescue arrived with a boat loaded with food returning from Dandy Crossing. Stanton, though, was still stewing about their abandonment, and grumbled: “[Crewman] Howard is in great glee over plenty of ‘Grub’ but I feel sore over what passed last Monday & so remark that I don’t care so much for Grub as I do for other things, which offends Howard.” After Stanton’s passive-aggressive insult, Howard sulked all the next day.
The night before they reached Dandy Crossing, while camped at some “magnificent sulphur [hot] springs,” Brown came upstream and rejoined Stanton. He was worried. The men were demoralized, he told Stanton, and, with nothing to do, were complaining amongst themselves. Stanton said he would straighten everything out if Brown would give him the authority. Brown agreed.
The expedition completed its survey to the Dandy Crossing placer mining camp one week after the group had split up. With everyone reunited and well fed, Stanton talked with each of his men. The upshot was that two left the survey. Stanton replaced them with a local miner who was an experienced boatman.
Brown reminded Stanton that he had to be in New York in less than two months to meet his investors. So they agreed that a small crew of five would remain behind to continue their engineering survey along the relatively calm waters of Glen Canyon, that stretch of river from Dandy Crossing to Lee’s Ferry, 170 miles downstream. Brown, Stanton, and the remaining men would take three boats directly to Lee’s Ferry, then continue through the Grand Canyon and on to Needles, California, to complete an “eye survey,” basically a reconnaissance engineering report.
The plan was foolhardy, Stanton knew, given their disaster-plagued trip thus far – “unwise in the extreme,” as he described it later. And they hadn’t even reached the Grand Canyon’s violent waters. But, he explained, “I considered it my duty to remain with my superior officer.”
With their boats repaired and strengthened, both crews pushed off through Glen Canyon, one group slowly continuing the survey, and the other moving ahead to Lee’s Ferry.
We can never see the sights that greeted these men as they floated and rowed through Glen Canyon. That once-magnificent landscape lies buried under the waters of Lake Powell, since completion of the Glen Canyon Dam in 1963. Stanton recalled his impressions:
In our journey through Glen Canyon, we stopped to examine and enjoy many of the beautiful glens, and the great chambers and amphitheatres (sic) that have been carved out of the massive sandstone, by the action of the River, in which there are often springs and streams of clear water, with moss covered walls, and banks streaked with black by the weather. The red is not in itself brilliant, but the effect of the morning and evening sun shining upon the cliffs, through the peculiar atmosphere of that dry country, produces a most startling effect, till the whole side of the Canyon seems ablaze with scarlet flame. It is difficult to understand how this effect is produced. In the late evening, as one is looking up the River at some massive wall that seems, in the shadow, to be black rather than red, suddenly the sunlight flashes out in living fire, so bright, so startling, as to be unreal, for it is the color of the sun’s rays, not the wall; but the wall is needed to bring the color to your eye, and it stands out as if painted in veritable scarlet. (M)
During their idyllic float through Glen Canyon, Stanton and Brown’s friendship deepened. They discovered they were members of the same fraternity, and sang familiar college songs in the river’s echoing alcoves. Stanton later confessed that he loved Brown, calling him “a most delightful companion, kind and genial.” The new bonds would make their pending tragedy all the more poignant for Stanton.
The men emerged from Glen Canyon and reached Lee’s Ferry on July 2nd. Unbeknownst to them, just eight days away, death waited.
In early days of the non-Indian settlement of the Southwest, predominantly by Mormons in this region, Lee’s Ferry was the sole crossing of the Colorado River for hundreds of miles in either direction.
When Stanton and Brown’s crew arrived in 1889, nearby was the ranch of Warren M. Johnson “and his Mormon families.” The Johnsons welcomed their unexpected guests with feasts from their produce and livestock. After six weeks closeted in the river’s canyons, the men marveled at the Johnsons’ well-kept fields of alfalfa and corn, trees ripe with fruit, and lush gardens. Their favorite treat: all the buttermilk they could drink.
Warren M. Johnson families – Lee’s Ferry
A rough wagon-road connected Lee’s Ferry with Kanab, Utah, 80 miles to the west. The morning after the group arrived, Brown borrowed a horse and rode to Kanab to buy fresh provisions. While he was gone, Stanton met an old miner who gave him a list of local Indian names, which Stanton intended to use to name local railroad stations along the tracks he was certain would soon be coming right through Lee’s Ferry.
Five days later, Brown returned with a wagon load of supplies. On July 9, the expedition’s reduced crew of eight was ready. Off they rowed in three flimsy boats, still without a life preserver among them.
Today, Lee’s Ferry is the starting point for recreational rafting trips through the Grand Canyon. In just eight miles, rafters hit the first of the Canyon’s thrilling, world-class whitewater – Badger Creek Rapid.
Three miles later, Soap Creek Rapid treats rafters to a soaking-wet, roller-coaster-like ride. Exciting as it is, changes to the Colorado River in the past century have actually made this rapid less dangerous than for those first explorers. Certainly, few of the screaming, beaming, modern-day river runners know the morbid history of Soap Creek Rapid. Even before Brown met his deadly fate near there, the rapid had earned a bad reputation.
During Powell’s second expedition down the Colorado River in 1871, his party had halted for the winter at Lee’s Ferry, caching their supplies, and intending to return in the spring. A month before they got back to resume their river journey, a group of ten prospectors discovered the cached supplies and decided to steal what they wanted, then build themselves a raft and check out the Grand Canyon. These idiots made it as far as Soap Creek Rapid, which demolished their raft and marooned them in Soap Creek Canyon. With the river upstream running against vertical cliffs, they had no way to get back to Lee’s Ferry. Using driftwood for ladders, they eventually climbed out of the canyon and made it back.
When Powell’s party came by that same spot a month later, Dellenbaugh gloated:
We made a portage at the place and enjoyed a good laugh when we looked at the vertical rocks and pictured the prospectors dismally crawling out of the roaring water with nothing left but the clothes on their backs. Our opinion was, they were served just right: first, because they had stolen our property, and, second, because they had so little sense.
Seventeen years later, with little more common sense than those fool prospectors, Frank Mason Brown resumed his expedition’s journey from Lee’s Ferry down the route of his imaginary railway. The men were rested, their bellies full, and spirits were high.
Stanton’s Journal – July 9, 1889, Plans to blast through Soap Creek Rapid
Their first night, they camped just below Soap Creek Rapid, which they had safely portaged. Surely, Brown must have known the story of the rapid’s treatment of the ten thieving prospectors. Perhaps that, and the ceaseless thunder of the rapids, is what spooked him and kept him up late. Or was it a premonition? Brown seemed lonely and troubled, talking to Stanton about home and his family, travelling in Europe and so very far away. Stanton made up Brown’s bed for him, “as he seemed unable to do it, and divided my blankets with him, for he was cold and unhappy.” That night, Brown’s final dreams were of bad rapids.
They arose the next, fateful morning at 4:00 a.m., ate breakfast, and at 6:23 pushed away in their boats into the short stretch of heavy waves and whitewater below Soap Creek Rapid.
It happened in a heartbeat and was over in 90 seconds. Brown’s boat in the lead capsized. He was tossed from the boat, sucked into a whirlpool, and vanished. The notebook from his shirt pocket shot out of the vortex – the only trace of Brown they could find, despite a desperate search. Stanton mourned his friend:
In the depths of this lovely canon and beside the roaring water, which leaped & lashed & foamed without easing, we sat for hours utterly paralyzed. We watched eddy & …searched the banks for a mile & a half on either side in hopes of at least finding his body & giving it an honored burial place on the top some high cliff, but all in vain. It is a common expression of those who know it, ‘This river seldom gives up its dead.’
The one indispensable item the charming, know-it-all President Brown had neglected to include in his expedition was life preservers. One would have saved his life. But Brown had poo-pooed Powell’s warnings of the Grand Canyon’s dangers. Maybe he thought life preservers would be in the way and slow their work. Maybe he just didn’t want to spend the money.
Ironically, long after Brown’s death, Stanton tried to blame Powell for Brown’s own shortsightedness in not bringing life preservers. As if Brown was a victim of others’ bad advice, rather than a casualty of his own hubris. At the moment the Colorado River’s muddy water flooded his lungs, was he surprised? Did he die blaming someone else?
The crewman steering Brown’s boat also had been thrown into the rapid, but he was swept past the whirlpool and survived. Their boat was recovered undamaged and its contents intact, a mile downstream.
For the next three days, the sobered crew soldiered on, shooting or portaging rapids, and lining through the worst. Stanton threw himself back into his “observational survey” of the future railroad line, writing descriptions of his recommended alignment in more detail than ever. He noticed, however, that since Brown’s death, one of his crewmen, Peter Hansbrough, was growing increasingly morose and worrisome, and sleeping little.
Saturday, July 13, started hot and muggy. Everyone was tired and sore from days of hard work in the oppressive desert heat. On Sunday, they rested. The day was rainy and gloomy, foreshadowing the next tragedy about to strike the foolhardy expedition of the now-dead Brown. Stanton later recalled in his book, under the heading “Some Facts, With No Explanation,” how crewmen Hansbrough and Richards spent their last full day on Earth:
The occurrences of this day are not related here as evidence for the Society of Psychic Research; but as facts that happened on a railway survey. – I leave to others their explanation…
fter our Sunday breakfast, [Hansbrough]came to me and sat near me, or walked with me around camp, the whole day, talking of his past life, of death, of Heaven and his trust in a future state. I tried to cheer him up. Although no thoughts of coming danger came into my mind I entered into the spirit of his talk and read to him several chapters from the Bible, which seemed to comfort him.
The two Negro boys [Richards & Gibson] had their camp some distance away, so I hardly saw them all day; but learned later from Gibson, that Richards spent the whole time, and the greater part of Sunday night, talking to him in the same way as Hansbrough had to me, of the River, of death, and the future life to come. (M)
Monday morning they were back on the river, facing another series of dangerous rapids. They portaged the first, then decided to run what is known today as 25 Mile Rapid. Immediately below the rapid, the current swept left into cliffs that overhung the river by several feet. From the beach above, the men assessed the best route through. The first boat made it safely. As Hansbrough and Richards got into the second boat, Richards remarked, “That’s a bad place to smash a boat, but of course there’s no danger to us.”
Stanton pushed them off to their doom, a moment he would remember the rest of his life, warning them to stay in the current away from the cliffs. “Yes, we will,” Hansbrough replied.
But the river had other designs, and pulled their boat left, smashing them under the overhanging cliff. As Stanton watched helplessly from upstream, both men struggled to push away from their trap, but suddenly the boat flipped over.
[Richards] sank in what was swift but perfectly smooth water. Hansbrough we never saw from the time we saw the boat upset. [We] ran over the cliff but by the time we got there all was quiet and both men gone forever. What an experience. I am too much affected to write further.
The tragedy of Brown’s flawed ego had claimed two more lives. As with his own death, life preservers would have prevented the drownings.
At this point, Chief Engineer Stanton, who was now in charge of the remnants of their expedition, knew they were beaten. For two more days, the men worked their way downstream, looking for a side canyon where they could scramble up cliffs to the plateau and escape the murderous river.
On the morning of the second day, they found their exit in what today is named South Canyon. They pulled onto the beach and explored the area, including a unique spot of greenery where springs gush from high on the cliffs, which Powell had named “Vasey’s Paradise.”
From it we gathered ferns and flowers and took them to our camp where we expected to spend our last night in the Canyon. The little flowers, in their innocence and beauty, seemed to speak to us of better things, still the sad thoughts of the past few days crowded in upon us.
It’s no wonder they were sad. As they returned to camp with their handfuls of wildflowers, Stanton spotted what looked like a large bundle floating down the river. Then he recognized Brown’s coat. They chased the body downstream, hoping they could give their President Brown a proper burial at Vasey’s Paradise, but the corpse vanished around the big bend where the river swings in a hard-left turn.
Stanton named the promontory across the river at that bend, Point Retreat. It’s a spot that captures the contradictory nature of this man and his times. Stanton was genuinely awed by the point’s magnificence, as well as the natural beauty of Vasey’s Paradise.
On the other hand, he was a man on a mission. Even while he marveled at his glorious surroundings and mourned his friends’ drownings, he continued to work. Point Retreat, he concluded, would require blasting a mile-long railway tunnel through it. The “easy exit” on the lower end would have put the railway tracks on the cliffs right above Redwall Cavern, one of the most iconic spots in the Grand Canyon, where today rafters stop to lunch, play Frisbee on the broad, pristine beach, or simply marvel at the immense cavern. It would be a perfect spot, Stanton observed, to build a railroad bridge to cross the river.
And so, the first phase of Frank Mason Brown’s ill-fated expedition ended ignominiously in South Canyon. The men cached their boats and equipment in caves above the high-water line before heading up the canyon. Despite everything that had gone wrong, Stanton had not given up on Brown’s hallucinatory dream of a railroad through the Grand Canyon. He left, vowing to return and complete his survey.
After a miserable climb up the half-mile-high cliffs, and an equally miserable hike across the plateau, the crew reached the Mormon settlements. In Kanab, the local bishop loaned Stanton $600 to get them home. (All the expedition’s cash had flushed downriver in Brown’s pockets.) Telegraphs went out from Stanton, informing the world of their tragedy, even while continuing to promote the Grand Canyon railroad scheme.
From the Kanab newspaper at the time:
[Stanton] reports that the railroad line down the Colorado river canyon is not only practicable as far as he has examined it, but can be much more easily and cheaply built that he expected before the survey.
After all, the 1,780-mile-long transcontinental railroad – laid entirely by hand – had crossed the treeless Great Plains, the Rockies, and the Sierras – including a 1,650-foot tunnel through solid granite at Donner Summit. Why should anyone doubt the engineering feasibility of conquering the Grand Canyon?
By July 29, Stanton was back in Denver, his head and notebook filled with plans return to the Grand Canyon and complete his survey. This time, with President Brown out of the picture, he vowed to do it right.
Though Brown was incompetent as an expedition leader, the man he hired as his chief engineer was a genius at it. Had Robert Brewster Stanton been in charge from the beginning, there’s a good chance that today there would be a railroad track running right through the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Robert Brewster Stanton
However, while Stanton proved to be a skilled expedition organizer and leader, he was no good at promoting and fundraising, barely able to raise enough, $13,500, to order new boats and supplies. That was but half needed for his renewed expedition, so he paid the rest himself.
After his harrowing experiences with Brown’s frail little boats, Stanton knew exactly what kind of sturdy crafts he would need to survive the Colorado River’s frightful rapids, and oversaw every detail of design and construction of three new boats at the Waukegan, Illinois, boat yard. Each oaken, 22-foot boat would carry 3,200 pounds of food and gear, plus four crewmen. Rear-facing men handled the eight-foot rowing oars; another stood in the stern with a twelve-foot steering oar off the back. Stanton ordered for everyone the “best cork life preservers,” also made to his precise design.
He mostly hired experienced, new men for the second phase of the railroad survey expedition, retaining only his assistant engineer, photographer F.A. Nims, and one other. He had a knack for finding men who could quickly learn the skills of wilderness boating. Reginald Travers, for example – a young stockbroker in New York City and “an amateur oarsman on Flushing Bay” – would earn Stanton’s praise as the expedition’s best steersman who “showed perhaps the greatest pluck and daring of any one of the men, in the face of every danger or misfortune he encountered…”
Another, Langdon Gibson, was working as a broker’s clerk on Wall Street, intending to become a banker. His father had met photographer Nims while travelling the West and climbing Pike’s Peak, and recommended that his son apply to work on the expedition. Gibson served Stanton’s survey admirably, and went on to work as ornithologist on Robert Peary’s 1891-92 expedition to Greenland.
Only four months after Stanton had arrived in Denver after the aborted first phase of Brown’s survey, he left for his return to the Colorado River. This time, he would by-pass the worst cataracts of the upper river, where they already had surveyed. But reaching the river, downstream of perilous Cataract Canyon, meant hauling everything in horse-drawn wagons from a railroad stop in Utah, across 120 miles of desert mesa. For the last half there were no roads or trails, as the wagons, teamsters, and expedition crew crossed gulches and barely fit through slot canyons, in constant rain and snow. They reached the river on Dec. 6, 1889.
The new boats had survived their cross-continental trip by train and wagon and “did not leak a drop,” Stanton bragged. After four days of packing, the crew of twelve pushed off, first retracing some 200 miles of their previous route across the mostly placid waters of Glen Canyon.
By Christmas the expedition had made it to Lee’s Ferry. The men celebrated with a great, outdoor holiday feast, dressed in jackets and ties, and fed from their own provisions and fresh foods from Stanton’s new friends, the Johnsons. After desserts, the men relaxed with Havana cigars and Turkish cigarettes.
Christmas dinner, 1889 – Lee’s Ferry (Stanton at far left), (Photo: National Park Service)
On Dec. 28, the expedition headed out on a beautiful, sunny morning. They planned to continue their detailed shoreline survey only at difficult points, while their photographer, Nims, would take a “continuous photographic panorama” of the entire, recommended railroad alignment. Those photos would be the crucial proof Stanton would need to convince skeptics that the railroad was practicable.
Our good friend Johnson and all his families, thirty-two members in all, came out to see us start, and gave us a cheer as we ran the long rapid. It was the first real rapid our new boats and new men had run. I was proud of them both. (M)
They portaged past Soap Creek Rapid and stopped at the same place they’d camped the night before President Brown’s drowning six months earlier. “Rather a sad place to camp in again,” Stanton noted. He hoped that the future railroad past the spot would be a monument to the memory of its first president.
Instead, perhaps in karmic justice to Brown’s foolish, preventable death, that relatively inauspicious spot in the Grand Canyon where he drowned is now named “Brown’s Riffle.” (Riffle: a ripple upon the surface of the water.) Some monument.
Stanton’s new boats enter the Grand Canyon
The renewed expedition, despite Stanton’s perfectionist attention to detail to make the journey safe and successful, only made it 15 miles downstream from Lee’s Ferry before tragedy struck again.
New Year’s Day, 1890, dawned bright, clear, and cold. At their first stop to allow Nims to document their descent, he clambered up a cliff in order to get a more artistic vantage point that would include the men and boats in the scene. Nims slipped and fell 22 feet, landing on his head and shoulders on the hard sand and rocks below. His right leg was broken above his ankle, and he was semi-conscious, vomiting, and bleeding from his nose and ear.
Stanton’s tactical brilliance and fortitude now came into play. Nims couldn’t continue, yet they were stuck downstream below vertical cliffs. Moreover, the success of the expedition depended on the “continuous photographic panorama” that Nims was making. No one else knew how to operate the complicated camera and Nims was in no condition to offer lessons.
I must confess, what worried me most was the fact that no one remained in the party who had ever so much as focused a camera. It was a matter of most vital importance. The Canyons of the Colorado had been pronounced impracticable, and even impossible, as a railway route… We could not take these doubters and the prophets of Wall Street to the Canyons, hence we must bring the Canyons to the prophets. How was it to be done? By Photography! (M)
Photographer F.A. Nims before his near-fatal fall
The next day, with Nims immobile, they floated downstream to the first side canyon (Rider Canyon), where they spent the night. In the morning, Stanton and two men started up the canyon, looking for a route to get Nims out, and reached the icy top around noon. After lunch, the two men headed back down and Stanton hiked off toward Lee’s Ferry, 35 miles away, to get help. He arrived by moonlight at the Johnsons’ ranch at midnight, a giant blister on one heel.
Up at 5:30 the next morning, and with Johnson and his young son on a horse-team and wagon, he headed back to rescue Nims. It was slow going, fighting a cold head wind across the trackless mesa, and they didn’t make it to the top of the side canyon before dark. That night it snowed.
Meanwhile, back at the river, eight crewmen had managed to haul the often-unconscious Nims – strapped to a make-shift stretcher made of canvas, oars, and driftwood – miles up the narrow canyon and steep cliffs to the top of the mesa, 1,700 feet above the river. The last 15 feet up a vertical wall, they used ropes to pull Nims over the sheer rock face. They were counting on meeting Stanton that same day, so had brought no blankets or provisions and had to spend the night shivering and feeding a fire of fast-burning sagebrush and tumbleweeds.
When Johnson’s wagon team finally reached the edge of the rim the next day, they loaded Nims onto a mattress in the wagon. Back in Lee’s Ferry, he was nursed by the Johnsons, then treated in Flagstaff, before getting home to Denver.
Stanton and his men returned quickly to the river and resumed their engineering survey. They passed Point Retreat, where they had ended their first expedition less than six months earlier, recovered their cached supplies, and pressed on to new waters. In camp about ten miles below Point Retreat, they discovered the bleached skeleton of Peter Hansbrough, one of the two boatmen who had drowned in 25 Mile Rapid, on the rocky shore where high waters had dumped his remains. They easily identified him by the shoes still on his feet, and buried him high on a cliff in a grove of sweet-smelling mesquite, overlooking a spectacular point opposite, which Stanton named Point Hansbrough, as it’s still known today.
Of the three men who drowned on the earlier expedition, only Hansbrough got a Grand Canyon landform named after him. Brown at least got a riffle, but poor Henry Richards got nothing. Richards, of course, was Stanton’s “colored servant.”
Hard men at noontime rest in the Grand Canyon
All through the winter, the surveying expedition continued on, each day a new adventure filled with peril and discomfort, most days spent cold in soaking wet clothes and nights wrapped in soggy blankets.
Stanton had mastered Nims’ camera, and successfully took several thousand photos, working many days in pouring rain. A mile above on the Canyon rim, snow piled ten feet deep. Mornings inside the Canyon often were so cold that a fire was needed to thaw the camera and survey transit. As they splashed through waves and rapids, they found themselves encased in a thin sheet of ice.
Stanton’s men had become experts at shooting the river’s ferocious rapids, portaging their tons of supplies, and lining their boats when absolutely necessary. Despite their skill and caution, one of their boats was smashed to splinters. Yet nothing seemed to phase Stanton.
On March 17, the expedition emerged from the Grand Canyon into the open, sunny landscape below Grand Wash. Though they still had 500 miles to go before reaching the Gulf of California, the life-threatening rapids were behind them.
One would think, after traveling through five hundred miles of these canyons, one would be satiated with beauty and grandeur, but in this fact lies the charm – of the five hundred miles no two miles are alike. The picture is ever-changing from grandeur to beauty, from beauty to sublimity, from the dark and frowning greatness of its granite walls to the dazzling colors of its upper cliffs, and from the roaring, tumbling waters of its cataracts to the peaceful stillness of its great lakes. I stood in the last few miles of the Grand Canyon, spellbound in wonder and admiration, as firmly as I was fixed in the first few miles, in surprise and astonishment. (M)
Five weeks later, the crew reached tidewater in Mexico. Stanton had brought his survey and crew safely down more than a thousand miles of the Colorado River, marred only by his photographer’s unfortunate fall and the loss of one of their three boats.
Stanton’s simple conclusion:
The [railroad] line as proposed is neither impossible or impracticable, and as compared with some other transcontinental railroads, could be built for a reasonable cost. (M)
So how come Brown and Stanton’s Grand Canyon railroad never got built?
Brown and Stanton’s vision of building a railroad through the Grand Canyon was never realized. That’s not, however, because it was a stupid idea or a sacrilege, though it was both. In fact, had Brown not drowned below Soap Creek Rapid, his knack for promotion and fund-raising, combined with Stanton’s genius for engineering and project management, might have forever changed the history and face of the Grand Canyon. Brown’s death was a critical loss to the railroad project. Without him, Stanton the engineer didn’t have the political skills needed to pull off such an audacious project.
Railroads were the tech industry of the time, the place where immense fortunes were to be made. It also was a cruder time – bribery of politicians, fraud, and conflicts of interest were blatant, and often tolerated. The nation-changing transcontinental railroad had been rife with corruption; one historian (Jensen 1975) opined: “Seas are not discovered by the scrupulous, nor continents conquered by mild churchgoers; there was risk at every step in building the [transcontinental railroad], and most of those who undertook the job did it with the hope of gain.”
Just months after Stanton completed, in April, 1890, what he had every reason to believe was a successful survey expedition, he ran into a bureaucratic snafu. Stanton had sent to the U.S. Dept. of the Interior his detailed survey maps of the proposed railroad route, requesting acquisition by his railroad company of right-of-ways along the 1,200 miles of the Colorado River. On Sept. 6, however, he learned from the agency’s denial letter that his company’s secretary, E.A. Reynolds, had never filed the necessary paperwork for the railroad to be recognized by the government. This was the same Reynolds that Brown had brought as one of his two “guests,” to Stanton’s considerable disgust, on the first phase of that ill-fated venture.
He sent a blistering, “I-told-you-so” letter to his railroad company’s president, H.B. Chamberlin:
I repeatedly asked the Sec. if all the necessary papers had been executed to establish the legal standing of the Co. & he assured me that they had. Still on my return to Denver last April, after having proved the entire feasibility of the route, I was not satisfied – although I did not dream of anything of this nature. I feared from the habits of the Sec. that the Co.’s papers were not in the best of shape. And at a meeting at your house early in April, you… will remember, that among other things, I urged the necessity of having a new Sec., giving my reasons, and asking that this change be made at once.
No attention was paid to this recommendation… This whole matter is a shameful piece of business from beginning to end.
Despite his pique, Stanton promised to resubmit the right-of-way maps as soon as the necessary paperwork was filed by a new company secretary. If those papers were ever filed, apparently nothing came of it.
Government red tape wasn’t the only reason, however, that the railroad scheme died. According to Dellenbaugh, soon after the time of Stanton’s survey, the California market for Colorado’s coal already was gone: “At present coal in abundance is to be had in the Puget Sound region, and this reason for constructing a Grand Canyon railway is done away with.”
Despite engineer Stanton’s insistence that the railway was feasible and affordable, the project was big and complicated. It had lost its talented promoter, and its profitability was highly uncertain.
Definitely a factor in the plan’s demise was the environmental impact of the proposal. Ironically, Brown and Stanton recognized the Grand Canyon as a unique, magnificent creation of God. Stanton agreed that by virtue of its whole, the Canyon was “the sublimest thing on earth.”
Nevertheless, they truly believed that a railroad would make the Grand Canyon even grander. That it also could make them wealthy beyond measure, as it had for other railroad monarchs of the day, would only be fair reward for their visionary genius.
Never, so far as I can tell, did either ask the fundamental question of whether a railroad be built through the Grand Canyon.
That would have been a heretical question for men of their time. Conservation was barely a concept. The Sierra Club was just being founded by John Muir in 1892. Not until 1903 did the Grand Canyon find a worthy champion, when President Theodore Roosevelt visited and the told the world:
The Grand Canyon fills me with awe. It is beyond comparison—beyond description; absolutely unparalleled through-out the wide world… Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is. Do nothing to mar its grandeur, sublimity and loveliness. You cannot improve on it. But what you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see.
America’s emerging conservation movement would grow and manage to block serious proposals to build dams in the Grand Canyon. However, other destructions of wild places that Brown and Stanton surveyed did follow – most notably, the Glen Canyon dam in 1963, drowning hundreds of miles of canyonlands and waters.
Brown’s railroad would have been a foolhardy and permanent desecration of the Grand Canyon, nearly everyone today would agree. But at the time, his dream no doubt was popular. It would have meant jobs for coal miners and construction workers, profits for investors, and potential tourist dollars to boot. Defilement of a sacred landscape didn’t matter back then.
And maybe not so much even now. Today, on Navaho land abutting the Grand Canyon, Indians are fighting Indians over plans to desecrate a place that is sacred to the nearby Hopi – their birthplace, the confluence where the Little Colorado River joins the main Colorado River. Plans include tourist facilities and a tram to carry 10,000 tourists a day from the rim to the river.
[ * ]
Exposed on the Grand Canyon’s cliffs and ridges are 1.7 billion years of geologic history. Its story will continue eons after man’s railroads, dams, and tourist trams have washed to the sea. None of which lessens our stewardship responsibility today. This place – the Grand Canyon – is sacred. It is universally acknowledged as the “last word in grandeur and sublimity” (Van Dyke 1920). It is sacrosanct.
Attitudes 127 years ago – exemplified by the story of the failed Grand Canyon railroad – seem today reprehensible, even if understandable. All the same, attitudes of today’s leaders towards our natural heritage probably will appear equally naïve, selfish, and indefensible, 127 years in the future.
The threat of a railroad through the Grand Canyon is now dead as Frank Mason Brown. But his kind of short-sighted ignorance and greed lives on. Men of such hubris concoct schemes and promise riches without regard to environmental consequences or costs to future generations. Some become president of more than a railroad. Like Brown, all will face their inevitable fate in unsparing whirlpools.
Daniels, Rudolph. 2000. “Trains Across the Continent: North American Railroad History.” Indiana University Press.
Dellenbaugh, Frederick S. 1902. “The Romance of the Colorado River.” Dover Publications.
“Find a Grave: Frank Mason Brown,” [+ http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=57608379+].
Jensen, Oliver. 1975. “The American Heritage History of Railroads in America.” Wings Books.
New York Public Library Digital Collections, Robert Brewster Stanton papers, 1851-1960:
Series V. Field Notes, Diaries, and Transit Books. Field notes of a survey for the proposed Denver, Colorado Cañon and Pacific Railroad from Green River, Utah, down the Green and Colorado rivers to the Gulf of California; incl. expense accounts, etc. 1889 May 10-1890 Apr. 30.
Series VI. Photographs. Grand Canyon and the Colorado. Denver, Colorado Cañon and Pacific Railroad Survey, 1889-1890.
Stanton, Robert Brewster. 1965. “Down the Colorado.” Dwight L. Smith, ed., Univ. of Okla. Press. [Noted above with (M) where quoted.]
Van Dyke, John C. 1920. “The Grand Canyon of the Colorado.” Kessinger Legacy Reprints.
Webb, Bob & Diane Boyer. 2001. “The Changing Rapids of Grand Canyon – Soap Creek Rapid.” Boatman’s Quarterly Review: .
Wayne Schmidt will be making his fourth raft trip through the Grand Canyon in 2017, along with several dozen old and new friends. He’s retired now, having worked as an environmental activist, newspaper reporter, and desert land developer. He and his wife live with their cats and chickens in a small town in Oregon’s lovely Willamette Valley.
Bare Naked Wayne
Life with Big Green: A Memoir
“Really!? A railroad through the bottom of the Grand Canyon?” Crazy idea, right? But in fact, it came closer to happening than most people realize. This is the little-known story of how hubris killed the railroad’s president and saved the world’s most beloved canyon. Frank Mason Brown drowned in a whirlpool in the Grand Canyon because he was sure he could build a great railroad through its depths and become rich and famous. He believed he could define reality. Although he died 127 years ago, his kind of hubris remains alive and well in America. Brown’s tragic expedition set out to survey the alignment of a railroad grade along the banks and cliffs of the Colorado River for 1,200 miles from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California. Its chief engineer, Robert Brewster Stanton, each day kept a revealing journal, which author Schmidt draws on heavily. In the midst of one river crisis after another, Stanton wrote frankly of his boss’s ignorance, incompetence, and mortally-bad judgment. Had the Grand Canyon not killed Brown, his railroad might have wrecked the Grand Canyon – desecrating its pristine cliffs, rapids, waterfalls, and raw wilderness, that adventurers experience today. This story of the failed effort to build a railroad through the Grand Canyon offers lessons on our changing attitudes toward sacred places of nature, and the fate of hubristic men who concoct such schemes and promise riches without regard to environmental consequences or costs to future generations.