For a River Heritage Museum at Grand Canyon National Park

The Boats

The history of whitewater boating in Grand Canyon is rich with colorful characters, from one-armed Major Powell to the daring Kolb Brothers; from the pioneers of motorboats to the entrepreneurs that developed visitation on a grand scale. Yet nothing tells the story of these innovators better than the boats they chose to challenge America’s biggest whitewater. River running’s evolution follows the modification of boats and techniques developed for this unparalleled fastwater proving ground.

Grand Canyon was first explored and described from the bottom up, beginning with John Wesley Powell’s riveting tales of exploring—and surviving—Colorado River. Later river runners contributed to the lore of the river with descriptions of their voyages, each of them challenging the river with the next in a unique series of boats—some vessels imported from coastal waters, others home-grown along the shores of the Green and Colorado. By the mid-twentieth century the river was being run far more predictably and successfully (although still eventfully) in a wide variety of wooden and neoprene craft, powered by oar, paddle, and motor. Meanwhile river trips grew from a rugged expedition for the few and daring to an accessible and life-changing adventure for common citizenry. Throughout this evolution, many of the seminal craft of each type has found its way to the Grand Canyon National Park collection, providing an unparalleled record of the growth of an iconic American experience.

The story of Grand Canyon boating continues today as new materials are incorporated in rowing rafts, motor rafts, and dories; quieter, cleaner engines and new composite oars propel them, and new techniques of running rapids continue to push river running into an ever-safer and more enjoyable future. Yet as exciting as today’s world of whitewater is, it is made far richer by preserving, interpreting, and understanding the boats and the boaters that brought us here.

Follow the links to these craft for a more detailed view of the story of Grand Canyon and whitewater adventure.

Whereas most of the boats in the Grand Canyon collection are safely protected and preserved on the South Rim, a few remain in the Canyon. These present a conservation challenge to the Park Service and those who value the history of the Colorado. Should they remain where they were abandoned, a continuing landmark and story point, yet slowly dissolving into the desert slopes? Or should they be removed to the Rim for stabilization and preservation for future generations to appreciate? There are strong arguments on both sides. Until decisions are made, however, these boats are an invaluable part of the river experience. Two in particular stand out, both, oddly enough, built by the same man.

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