For a River Heritage Museum at Grand Canyon National Park

Music Temple & GEM

Inflatable rafts were fast encroaching on Grand Canyon boating by the mid-1950s, with ever fewer river runners opting for the wooden boats. But one former Nevills boatman, P.T. Reilly, felt a redesign of the old Nevills cataract boat would yield a superior craft. He narrowed the broad blunt stern to a point to punch through waves, and decked in the voluminous cockpit for added buoyancy. The boats ran a bit better but not good enough. After a few calamitous high-water trips in the late 1950s, Reilly scuttled his boats mid-Canyon and hiked out.

But in 1962 one of Reilly’s fellow boatmen, Martin Litton, a writer and ardent conservationist, wanted to take a group of journalists and politicians down the river to fight two proposed dams within the Canyon. He convinced boatless Reilly to try a radically different hull—Oregon’s McKenzie River Drift Boat. These flare-sided, high-prowed fishing boats—essentially dories—had evolved on Oregon Rivers for whitewater navigation. By using Reilly’s decking theories, and ballasting the boats with food and gear, the two men came up with what remains the ultimate hard-hulled whitewater boat, the Grand Canyon dory.

Although Reilly retired in 1964, Litton continued to run dories, soon expanding his hobby into a commercial operation. In the early ‘70s, Litton switched from the slightly unstable McKenzie River drift boats to the fuller-hulled Rogue River drift boat, the dory hull most prominent on whitewater rivers today.

Reilly named his original dory the Susie Too, after his wife. He later sold it to Litton, who renamed it the Music Temple, following his theme of naming boats for natural wonders destroyed by works of man. After many more river trips it joined the NPS collection, completing the tale of wooden whitewater boats. In 1999 Litton, at 82, became the oldest person to run a dory—or any boat—through Grand Canyon.

An interesting intermediary craft is the GEM. It was designed and built by one of Reilly and Litton’s fellow boatmen, Moulton Fulmer of Indiana. Fulmer had been to Oregon, seen McKenzie drift boats, and incorporated some of their flare into his homemade boat in the early 1950s. The GEM was well ahead of its time and like no other Grand Canyon boat of its day. In 1958, Reilly, Fulmer and Brick Mortenson scouted Lava Falls at extremely high water. Feeling the rapid was unrunnable, they took the highly original tack of simply kicking their boats off, hiking out, driving around to Lake Mead, and looking for them there. They found two out of three, but the GEM was lost. At least until 1964, when a ranger found its weathered hulk in a driftwood pile. The GEM, such as it is, is now in the Park collection.

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