Human History: Pre-Park Era

Second Powell Expedition, party in boat ready to start and departing from Green River, WY. Photo courtesy of Grand Canyon National Park.

By Mike Anderson

Today, Phantom Ranch and adjacent Bright Angel Campground are much-appreciated havens to canyon hikers and river rafters. But this pleasant spot near the mouth of Bright Angel Creek has long been an important travel route and habitation site, much like Lees Ferry 90 miles upstream.

American Indians knew of the site for as many as 4,000 years. Note the twelfth-century pueblo ruins above the boat beach, and consider that the canyon’s first (Archaic Culture) split-twig figurines were discovered (in 1933) a scant nine miles upriver at Clear Creek. Access from the North Rim, a perennial creek, and ample natural resources along with land amenable to irrigation farming presented a paradise to subsistence peoples.

European-American trappers likely left their boot prints in the 1820s and 1830s. Although we have no record of their presence in the inner-canyon, these equally hard-living men rarely missed a southwestern stream to try their traps. We know that Dan Hogan, a Flagstaff resident and canyon pioneer, trapped forty beavers from Bright Angel Creek as late as 1890.

The first recorded visit by white men occurred on 15 August 1869 when John Wesley Powell and his rag-tag, heat-exhausted crew landed briefly at “Silver Creek” for a much-needed respite before continuing their epic first run of the Colorado River through Grand Canyon. Powell soon changed the name to “Bright Angel” to enliven his river narrative.

Prospectors like William Ashurst, John Hance, Buckey O’Neill, and the Cameron brothers prowled the canyon’s depths beside Bright Angel Creek from the 1880s into the twentieth century. They staked a few claims and even mined some copper here, but did not linger nor conjure any permanent use for the site. They crossed the river from the south side in lightweight canvas rowboats. In 1890-91 Dan Hogan used such a boat and prospectors’ paths to complete the first rim-to-rim hike through today’s central corridor.

A small consortium of dreamers envisioned a dam across the schist narrows at “The Box” above Phantom Ranch to generate hydroelectric power for the growing town of Flagstaff at the turn of the century, but nothing came of the scheme. Topographer Francois Matthes scratched out a path from the North Rim down Bright Angel Creek to the river in 1902 to facilitate the first topographic mapping of Grand Canyon.

Then came David Rust, an important but mostly overlooked figure in canyon history. Rust was the son-in-law of an ebullient entrepreneur of Arizona Strip tourism (and Mormon stake president), “Uncle Dee” Woolley. Uncle Dee and others formed the Grand Canyon Transportation Company in 1903, and then hired Rust to build a tourism trail down Bright Angel Creek. By 1907, Rust and his father-in-law had completed the trail, built a cabin at its head, established a tent camp at the site of today’s Phantom Ranch, strung a cable system across the river, and hacked a passage up the schist on the south side—the old “Cable Trail”—to the Tonto Platform.

Rust and Woolley thereafter operated a summer-seasonal tourism business until arrival of the National Park Service in 1919. They transported handfuls of adventurous visitors in wagons from Kanab up the Kaibab Plateau via Nail Canyon and cattlemen’s paths to their cabin. After catching their breaths, Rust guided them down the trail to camp where he had pitched a few tents with a connecting ramada and planted native willows and cottonwoods to afford a little shade! His guests, like today’s visitors, could sit around and pant in the oppressive heat, dip their toes in the icy creek or muddy river, or explore nearby attractions like Phantom Creek and Ribbon Falls. Or they could cross the river in Rust’s cable car and gain Ralph Cameron’s Bright Angel Trail, completing a rim-to-rim trip. (Rust and Cameron had a reciprocal agreement to use each other’s trails).

The years 1907 through 1919 were busy ones at the mouth of Bright Angel Creek. Rust’s guests rubbed elbows with die-hard prospectors and south-side tourists who had made their way to the river. Rust himself taught the Kolb brothers the fundamentals of river running here in a canvas rowboat,in preparation for their famous motion-picture trip of 1911-12. Residents of the Arizona Strip tromped through the corridor on up to the Grand Canyon Railway to visit the Coconino County seat at Flagstaff rather than brave Lees Ferry and the Honeymoon Trail in wagons. Melissa and Blondie Jensen and Uncle Jim Owens led tourists on horseback down to Rust’s camp. Hunters sometimes used Bill Bass’s trail corridor to the west to access the Kaibab Plateau from the south, then returned via Rust’s trail, cable car, and Bright Angel Trail to Grand Canyon Village. Even Brighty the burro (yes, he was real!) ambled down the trail each autumn on his own to winter near the mouth of Bright Angel Creek.

Rust’s camp was sometimes called Roosevelt’s Camp after Teddy’s visit here in the 1910s, because people visiting in winter from the south side mistakenly thought that Rust—who used it only in summer months—had abandoned the site. It was also known as Woolley’s Camp, but give credit where credit is due. Dave Rust did the work and entertained the first tourists here in the pioneer era, leading to larger developments of the 1920s.