For a River Heritage Museum at Grand Canyon National Park

Ross Wheeler

High on the Colorado’s bouldery shoreline in the heart of Grand Canyon lies an old metal rowboat. For nine decades it has represented the highpoint of comic calamity on the river.

Charles Russell joined with his old partner Bert Loper in 1914  to film their whitewater trip down the Colorado. But in Utah’s Cataract Canyon, Russell sank his boat. Stashing Loper’s boat, the two made an arduous hike to civilization. Loper designed and built a third—and far superior—boat from galvanized steel. It was named for local steamboat pilot Roswell “Ross” Wheeler. After a disagreement, Loper dropped out of the expedition. Russell took the Ross Wheeler and a new crew and started the trip over. In Cataract Canyon they rescued their stashed boat, only to sink it. They had a fourth boat built and named it the Titanic II, after the recently sunken ocean liner.

As they entered Grand Canyon winter’s chill froze the river solid. They climbed out and waited, starting again in February. Then the Titanic II sank. The crew hiked to the canyon rim, ordered another boat, and wheeled it down the Bright Angel trail on an old wagon axle.

Russell rowed the new boat a few miles downstream to where they had stashed the Ross Wheeler, only to find a rockfall had smashed its bow. Out they went again to get repair materials. They launched again, but soon wedged the new boat in the rocks at Crystal Creek Rapid. They climbed out again for a block and tackle, and winched out the sunken boat. Casting off, they immediately sunk it—for good this time—in the same place they had just extricated it from.

Disillusioned, the three men floated another ten miles before abandoning the Ross Wheeler at the foot of the South Bass Trail. John Waltenberg, a miner working in the area, found the boat and winched it high on the slope, near where it lies today.

For fifty years the boat and its contents remained untouched. More recently oars, pulleys, and other artifacts have disappeared. The boat itself has been vandalized on at least one occasion. It is our hope that with better education, we can preserve this boat intact in its historic location. Should you visit it, please treat it with respect—it is the one surviving boat of Charlie Russell’s hapless voyage.

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