For a River Heritage Museum at Grand Canyon National Park

Thinking Outside the Box…Of Boats

Ten years ago at this time, Brad Dimock was cajoling anyone who would listen that, “we gotta do something about those old boats.” There were then about a dozen river-running boats that have shaped the human experience in Grand Canyon and they were languishing in the Visitors Center courtyard.

“Save The Boats” became the rallying cry, and most of the ten-year period was focused on collection and preservation. Thanks to Brad and others who cared, those boats were saved, and others located and added to the collection. They are now in protected storage in the park; they’ve been cleaned, and hard-hulled boats have been placed on new cradles.

But doing something about the boats has never meant just putting them in a warehouse rest home. It’s now time for the next phase: a place for the boats and related artifacts to tell stories to park visitors, to be touchstones that connect the river with the rim, to relate how exploration and exploitation became transformed into adventurous recreation for park visitors.

The historic 1926 NPS laundry building has been nominated, and found feasible, for adaptive reuse as the Grand Canyon River Heritage Museum. In words and drawings, the feasibility study team has suggested exterior renovation and expansion consistent with the building’s original design theme. They have laid out a floor plan that will provide exhibit connectivity and security, and theater and retail facilities. State of the art interpretive displays and devices will draw visitors of all ages into the human history of the river and inner canyon.

There’s a saying, “Make no small plans, for they have not the magic to stir men’s blood.” It’s usually attributed to Daniel Hudson Burnham, who designed Chicago’s lakefront public park, and many buildings in Chicago, Washington d.c., and other cities. The Museum is no small plan. The feasibility report projects a cost of ten million dollars, of which about two mil- lion is for display, and interpretive design and layout. Another of Brad’s remarks—that this must be much more than “a box of boats”—soon led to the larger, more relevant, vision of a Grand Canyon River Heritage Museum. In addition to preserving and presenting the Park’s river heritage, the Museum can be the anchor project for the master-planned Village Interpretive Center that will one day renew the nondescript district presently dominating the view from the concourse of Bright Angel Lodge.

Several essential phases lie ahead. One is to create and sustain awareness and advocacy for the project; others are to raise the money for renovating and upsizing the building, and for the installation of the exhibits and interpretive systems.

The advocacy phase is well underway: for several years, commercial river passengers have been donating, through a trip reservation checkoff, to an outfitter- managed fund that gives grants to several causes, including the museum advocacy project. Last year, the Museum Coalition established an online donation system, and has received several donations. Coalition organizations such as GCRG, the Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association (GCROA), the Grand Canyon Private Boaters Association (GCPBA) and the Grand Canyon River Runners Association (GCRRA) are encouraging their members to provide association support. All totaled, these don’t amount to big broad-based support and publicity
money, but they’re upon which big money can be sought. For that phase, the Museum Coalition hopes to have a three-way project partnership with the Park, and the Park’s official fundraiser, the Grand Canyon Association.

Once the major fund-raising program is launched, we expect the Grand Canyon River Heritage Museum project to attract national and international donors. Philanthropy is still extant, as evidenced by recent news items about well-known billionaires and millionaires pledging to give away large portions of their wealth during their lifetimes, and encouraging others to do the same. There are Park Service programs that provide funding for adaptive reuse of historic national park buildings. There are funds and foundations that con- tribute to large projects of this nature. Some members of the Coalition have made personal donations to the advocacy phase, and expressed interest in helping fund the bricks-and- mortar phase with lifetime donations and end-of-life bequests.

Museum Coalition members are optimistic that the various funding sources can be melded into a phased matrix that will have the River Heritage Museum complete, and its doors open to visitors, within the next few years.

The Coalition’s exciting new website at has a wealth of information about developments so far, and about the boats and related equipage, photos, and writings that are already in the Park’s collection. You can also sign up for our mailing list as well as donate securely.

Copies of the new pamphlet These Boats Will Speak are available from the Museum Coalition at Box 936, Flagstaff, AZ 86004. GCRG also maintains a supply, as do most of the outfitting companies. This is admittedly an ambitious project. Support and encouragement are needed from river folks, and can then begin coming from all who care about Grand Canyon, wherever they may be. Please join us in spreading the word, and seeking potential funding sources. And please tell your friends and your river passengers about the Grand Canyon River Heritage Museum project.

Gaylord Staveley, executive committee chairman, GCRHC