For a River Heritage Museum at Grand Canyon National Park

Bert Loper’s Boat

Even during his lifetime, Bert Loper was known as the Grand Old Man of the Colorado. He was born in Bowling Green, Missouri in 1869 just as his later hero, John Wesley Powell was first exploring the Colorado. Essentially orphaned when he was four, Loper was on his own by the age of thirteen. He wandered west, working as a ditch-digger, mule-skinner, and hard-rock miner before finding himself on the San Juan River in 1893. He spent the next dozen years farming, mining, and serving in the Spanish American War. All that time, however, he yearned to return to the river.

In 1907 he launched on a voyage down the Green and Colorado Rivers in steel-hulled Whitehall boats, but circumstances prevented him from continuing into Grand Canyon. Instead, he towed his boat 165 miles back upstream in the dead of winter. For eight years he placer mined on the banks of the Colorado. In 1916 he left the river and married.

Later that year with Ellsworth Kolb, Loper was the first to boat through Utah’s Westwater Canyon. In the early 1920s he was hired as lead boatman for surveys of the lower Colorado, San Juan, and Upper Green Rivers. To his great disappointment he was not chosen as boatman for the 1923 Grand Canyon survey, and his dream was squelched once again.

In 1939, as Loper neared seventy, a young boatman named Don Harris sought advice on running Grand Canyon. Loper’s advice: Let’s do it together. They launched in July and became one of the first parties to run every rapid. They pledged to do it again ten years hence.

For his return trip in 1949 Loper built a new boat, the Grand Canyon, incorporating design elements of Galloway, Nevills, and his own ideas. He launched on July 7, three weeks shy of eighty years old, leading Don Harris and two other boats. The next day, Loper flipped in 24-1/2-Mile Rapid. Loper was last seen motionless, floating downriver.
That evening they found his boat and dragged it high on the shore near mile 41, where it lies today. A half-century of sun, rain, rockfalls, and tourists have not treated it kindly. What remains is extremely fragile. If you visit it, please do not touch.

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