Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 21. Geological Surveys

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XIV. Travellers and Explorers, 1846–1900

§ 21. Geological Surveys

So far the explorer had merely examined the dragon’s teeth, but in 1867 Major J. W. Powell, a veteran of the Federal army, investigating the geology of the Territory of Colorado, conceived the idea of exploring the mysterious and fateful canyons by descending through their entire length of a thousand miles in small boats.

The same year an uneducated man, James White, was rescued near Callville from a raft on which he had come down the river some distance. His condition was pitiful. He was interviewed by Dr. Parry, who happened to be there with a railway survey party, and Parry told White that he must have come through the “Big” canyon. White therefore said he had, when assured that he had, although he did not know the topography of the canyons—neither did Dr. Parry, nor any one else. The White story was first told in General Palmer’s Report of Surveys Across the Continent in 1867–68 on the 35th and 32nd Parallels, etc. (1869). It was repeated in William A. Bell’s New Tracks in North America (1869) and quite recently has been republished with notes and comments by Thomas F. Dawson in The Grand Canyon, Doc. 42, Senate, 65th Cong., 1st Sess. (1917).

Mr. Dawson, like others who have not run the huge and numerous rapids of the Grand Canyon, believes that White went through on his frail little raft, but all who know the Canyon well are certain that White did not make the passage and that the story that he did rests entirely on what Dr. Parry thought. It is only necessary to add that White found but one big rapid in his course, whereas there are dozens in the distance it is claimed that he travelled. The river falls 1850 feet in the Grand Canyon, 480 in Marble Canyon, and 690 between this and the junction of the Green and Grand, or a total of 3020 feet in the distance White is said to have gone.

In the spring of 1869 Major Powell started from the Union Pacific Railway in Wyoming and descended, in partly decked rowboats, through the thousand miles of canyons so closely connected that they are well-nigh one, with a total descent of 5375 feet to the mouth of the Virgin. In 1871–72 he made a second descent to complete the exploration and to obtain the required topographical and geological data, prevented by disaster and lack of trained men on the first voyage. The account of the first voyage is given in Powell’s Exploration of the Colorado River of the West (1875), a report to the government. He did not include a narrative of the second descent, which is related in A Canyon Voyage(1908) by Frederick S. Dellenbaugh, a member of the party. The same author’s The Romance of the Colorado River (1902) tells the history of this unique river from the Spanish discovery in 1540, and gives a table of altitudes along the river. A recent experience (1911) in navigating the river which has been chronicled by Ellsworth Kolb in Through the Grand Canyon from Wyoming to Mexico (1914) furnishes valuable data.

In 1889 Frank M. Brown attempted a railway survey through the canyons from Gunnison Crossing down. He was drowned in Marble Canyon, as were two of his men. His engineer, Robert B. Stanton, returned to the task the same year with better boats and successfully completed the descent. He relates what befell him and his men in an article in Scribner’s Magazine for November, 1890, “Through the Grand Canyon of the Colorado,” and there are other magazine articles on the subject.

It is interesting to note that the first proper maps of the United States were made of Far Western territory, and this was due to the initiative of several energetic explorers. Clarence King inaugurated a geological survey with map work in conjunction with it, the results appearing in seven volumes, Report of the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel 1870–80. King wrote a charming volume, too, Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada (1871), and later that literary gem in The Century Magazine (1886), “The Helmet of Mambrino,” the “helmet” and the original manuscript being preserved in the library of the Century Association.

Powell’s Colorado River Exploring Expedition developed into the Rocky Mountain Survey, and Dr. F. V. Hayden conducted a series of surveys in Colorado, etc., called the Geographical and Geological Survey of the Territories. At the same time the army put into the Western field Lieut. George M. Wheeler, who conducted Geographical Surveys West of the 100th Meridian. Wheeler, in 1871, ascended the Colorado River as far as Diamond Creek. Seven volumes were produced by the Wheeler Survey, eleven by the Hayden, and a considerable number by the Powell Survey. At the same time they turned out topographic maps of excellent character, all things considered—in most cases better than any then existing of the Eastern part of the country.

In connection with the Powell Survey Captain C. E. Dutton studied the geology of certain districts and wrote several books that are almost unique in their combination of literary charm with scientific accuracy: Physical Geology of the Grand Canyon District (1880–81), Tertiary History of the Grand Canyon (1882), and The High Plateaus of Utah (1880).