For a River Heritage Museum at Grand Canyon National Park

WEN & Mexican Hat

Norman Nevills began running whitewater on Utah’s San Juan River in the 1930s. Designing and building his own plywood boats, Nevills, based in the hamlet of Mexican Hat, offered tours down the San Juan and Colorado Rivers through Glen Canyon.

When botanist Dr. Elzada Clover sought Nevills’s advice on studying cactus in the area, Nevills expanded the idea into a grand expedition down the Colorado River. To tackle the major rapids of Cataract and Grand Canyons, Nevills devised a new boat, modeled, he said, after boats his father saw on the Yukon. Called Cataract boats, they were much wider than the traditional Galloway boats then in use on the Colorado. And using modern marine plywood, they were far easier to build. With the help of Don Harris, a local stream gager, Nevills built a fleet of three boats, naming his own WEN after his father, W.E. Nevills. Harris named his boat after their town, Mexican Hat.

Nevills launched from Green River, Utah on June 20, 1938. After a week of arduous lining and portaging around major rapids, the expedition arrived late at Lee’s Ferry to a minor media frenzy about the lost expedition. After replacing some crew and resupplying with food, they pressed on. Dr. Clover brought her assistant Lois Jotter on the trip, the two becoming the first women to traverse Grand Canyon.

The success of his 1938 expedition launched Nevills to national fame as America’s top fast water man. He continued to run trips on the Green, Colorado, San Juan, Snake, and Salmon Rivers until his untimely death in a plane crash in 1949. At the time of his death he had run Grand Canyon seven times—the previous record was two—without a fatality or upsetting his boat. Nevills had brought Grand Canyon boating from the era of expeditions to a commercially viable tour. His boat design lived on another twenty years before succumbing to more modern craft. The WEN and the Mexican Hat are part of the Grand Canyon collection.

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