The Promise of the Grand Canyon: John Wesley Powell's Perilous Journey and His Vision for the American West
by John F. Ross
Historian John Ross in his new book takes up a story from the annals of American history so grand and irresistible that it's drawn many many other historians over the years. The tale of the explorer John Wesley Powell and his 1869 expedition to descend the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon was retold by the great Wallace Stegner in his 1954 book Beyond the Hundredth Meridian. In more recent years, Donald Worster told it again in 2000 in his A River Running West. The following year Edward Dolnick told the story again in Down the Great Unknown. And of course all possible retellings toil in the shadow of Powell's own 1874 book, The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons, which of course lacks the historical rigor and perspective of its successors but nevertheless manages to give them all a run for their money when it comes to narrative power and gift of expression that the 19th century yields to no other era in human history.
As Ross must have known before he ever set down a word, a new account of the Powell expedition should try some kind of new angle. Not to stint the story – Ross' new book The Promise of the Grand Canyon captures the various dramatic characters wonderfully, particularly Powell himself, a fierce, diminutive dynamo who, in his prime, commanded every room he entered. Ross has read Powell's writings about the Expedition carefully, and it's endlessly interesting to watch those close readings play out – as when, in an August 5th, 1869 entry, Powell and his men actually enter the Grand Canyon itself:
Although unaware they they had entered the Grand Canyon they certainly understood that something was up. “With some feeling of anxiety we enter a new canyon this morning,” recalled Powell. “Below us are the limestones and hard sandstones which we found in Cataract Canyon. This bodes toil and danger.” Powell cold now read the canyon walls with increasing sophistication. Horizontal rock layering, he noted, often meant an absence of rapids. When those same layers tilted downstream, they generally signaled that the river would flow faster, although probably not arousing any serious whitewater. But when layers inclined upstream, the river often turned violent.
But The Promise of the Grand Canyon stands out from the other accounts on the Powell bookshelf by emphasizing the ecological ramifications of the Expedition's discoveries. This is no anachronism; Powell was intensely concerned with something most of his contemporaries scarcely saw at all: the fragility of the wondrous lands he was opening up for Westward expansion. He wanted to inform the public, to warn that these new lands should be respected and preserved rather than pillaged for resources. “Few scientists of his era,” Ross writes, “if any, could extol these realities with such specificity, yet while wrapping each one in the noble mantle of science.”
He was obviously only partially successful. Over 5 million people visit Grand Canyon National Park every year under the watchful eyes of eco-conscious park rangers, but vast tracts of the rest of the American West are suffering in many of the ways Powell imagined, and with environmental protections under increased assault, it's easy to imagine this situation only growing worse in the next decade. The Promise of the Grand Canyon reminds readers of the stunning hardship and heroism of Powell's expedition down the Colorado, but it also reclaims Powell himself for a battle he would almost certainly be waging if he were alive today.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.