For a River Heritage Museum at Grand Canyon National Park

Nellie Powell

In October, 1938 river runners Julius Stone and Russell Frazier accompanied rancher Leo Weaver to a burned pile of stubble in his field at Lees Ferry, where the Colorado River enters Grand Canyon. After searching the weeds, Weaver pulled out fragments of what he said had been, until that morning’s brush fire, a boat. The following May, Park Naturalist Edwin McKee confirmed that the men had found the only known remnants of one of Major Powell’s boats.

John Wesley Powell had made history with his voyage of discovery down the Colorado in 1869. In 1871 he launched a repeat voyage, wintered his boats at Lee’s Ferry, then continued downriver the following summer. They left behind one boat, the Nellie Powell. Had Stone and Frazier arrived a little earlier, the collection at Grand Canyon National Park might include the complete Nellie Powell instead of a few charred fragments.

Powell’s 1869 voyage brought the Colorado River and Grand Canyon to the American consciousness. He not only discovered terrain, he studied and interpreted it, many of his concepts of geology becoming cornerstones of modern theory. Likewise his discussions of water in the arid West remain prescient even today.

Powell’s boats and most of those who followed over the next few decades were of a design that evolved in New York Harbor. Called Whitehall boats, these sleek, keeled cutwater boats were ideal for fast travel in relatively smooth water. They were powered by one or two men pulling downriver while facing upstream, and steered by a man in the stern with a sweep oar, or rudder. Unfortunately, the Whitehalls were poorly adapted to shallow, rocky rapids, so Powell and those who followed ended up portaging around most major rapids or lining their boats along the shore with ropes. By the end of the 19th century the Whitehall had all but vanished from the Colorado.

Join Our Mailing List

Donate Here