Moffat County celebrates 150th anniversary of John Wesley Powell expedition |

Moffat County celebrates 150th anniversary of John Wesley Powell expedition

Spectators gather around for historian Ray Sumner's recounting of explorer John Wesley Powell's time on the rivers of Northwest Colorado. This week marked 150 years after Powell and his crew discovered the confluene of the Yampa and Green rivers near what is now Dinosaur National Monument.
Clay Thorp

His journal spoke of the journey in painted language, of the nightly heavens hovering over towering canyons, of disastrous setbacks at the hands of Colorado’s raging rivers. He bounced his voice off Dinosaur National Monument’s canyon walls at Echo Park, giving the park its name and its place on an accurate map for the first time more than a century ago.

And on Monday and Tuesday, John Wesley Powell might have been looking down from those same heavens as folks from across the country gathered at Echo Park to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his expedition.

“In 1869, the maps of the United States, of southern Utah, Southwest Colorado, Northern Arizona, Northwestern New Mexico are just labeled ‘unknown,’” historian Ray Sumner told a small crowd of about 30 Echo Park visitors Tuesday. “All they really had were a few expeditions of Americans and Spanish trappers and missionaries who had transected rivers, but no one had really mapped going down tributaries.”

Sumner said he dedicated much of his academic career to studying Powell’s expedition as he’s the great-great-grandson of Jack Sumner, a boatman on the expedition.

“They really had no idea what they were getting into,” Sumner said.

The journey begins

By April 1869, Powell had amassed a cache of supplies and private funds enough to begin his journey. He’d also purchased several 22-foot wide-bottom boats for the trip down the Green River — which officially set off May 24, 1869.

“They were not designed for whitewater rafting,” Sumner said of Powell’s boats. “They didn’t have the rear tillers that you see on the later photos.”

By June 7, Powell made it to the Gates of Lodore, but the journey has been grueling. Those in Powell’s expedition must unload and safely carry their hefty vessels over craggy riverbanks, bypassing the dangerous rapids and falls that cut the canyon still awaiting Powell’s discovery.

“That was a really rough day for them,” said Amanda Wilson as she prepared to read from Powell’s June 8 journal entry at Echo Park Monday.

As an interpretive ranger with the National Park Service at Dinosaur National Monument, Wilson and others brought campers on a moonlight hike Monday night to commemorate the sesquicentennial.

After a hard day on the river, Powell was inspired to write what he saw the night of June 8, 1869.

“Lying down, we look up through the canyon and see a little bit of the heaven above,” Wilson said as she read Powell’s journal.

Powell described a bright star to the east that moves out of the canyon, onto the edge of a canyon wall until it appears to jump off the cliff into the canyon.

“It soon occurs to me this star is Vega,” Wilson read from Powell’s journal.

Powell wrote about Lodore Canyon in his journal with colorful language, describing how “sun shines in splendor on a million walls,” and watching as the canyon finally “opens like a beautiful portal to a region of glory.”

But, harsh conditions awaited Powell at Disaster Falls.

“They named the Gates of Lodore as they left the canyon, but they named the canyon here when they got to Echo Park,” Sumner said. “They probably should have named it Disaster Canyon because of their experiences in it. It’s really where they hit a lot of their early bumps as they began to come down the canyon.”

On June 17, Powell’s scout boat was out ahead to signal the larger boats behind when they came upon the rapids at Disaster Falls.

“One of the big boats goes ashore, but O.G. Howland in the third boat, one of the big boats, didn’t see the signal and by the time he does, he can’t maneuver out of the rapids,” Sumner said Tuesday. “He smashes into a rock and splits the boat in a disaster, the three guys in the boat nearly drowning.”

Many of the maps used by the expedition were lost that day. The expedition might have been over were it not for the discovery of the boat’s wreckage containing cutting-edge barometers from the Smithsonian Institute.

“Powell remarks in his journals how remarkable it was they found the boat and the men started cheering as they were pulling out barometers,” Sumner said. “But then he quickly notes the real reason they were cheering is they had found two-gallon jug of whiskey which was probably the last whiskey or alcohol they had on the expedition. He actually then goes on to remark that he was not a drinker, Powell himself, but he was actually quite happy they had found it because after that experience, they could all use a shot or two of whiskey.”

Powell’s journey would continue its historic mapping of the American West, naming many of the landmarks and geological uplifts along the Colorado and Green rivers, including Flaming Gorge, Glen Canyon and the Gates of Lodore.

The National Monument was established almost 50 years later in 1915, six years after fossil beds were discovered in what’s now the western portion of the park, according to the National Parks Foundation. In 1938, the monument’s boundaries expanded into the canyon lands it now occupies on the border of Colorado and Utah.

Preserving not just a landscape, but experiences

After 150 years, Echo Park looks much the same as it did when Powell passed through. You can look out from a ledge above the confluence and watch the river wind around the “foot of a rock about 700 feet high and a mile long,” as Powell described the rock in his journal. And still, just as Powell wrote, “willows border the river, clumps of box elder are seen and a few cottonwoods stand at the lower end.”

“These are words that were written 150 years ago, and we still have the ability to go back into very specific locations and see the direct inspiration for those words, and in many places, especially within Dinosaur National Monument, there are very little changes,” said Sonya Popelka, a park ranger at Dinosaur.

“We can still experience the same experiences as well,” she continued. “Not just standing in the same place, but hearing the bird choruses. Seeing stars in the canyon. Hearing our words echo off those same rocks. Having that thrill and danger of rapids. That’s something I think is really powerful. It’s not just the words. It’s the experiences of 150 years ago that have also been preserved here.”

Steamboat Pilot and Today’s Eleanor Hasenbeck contributed to this report.

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