John Wesley Powell Archive
One-Armed River Runner
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23 September 2002 was the 100th anniversary of the death of Major John Wesley Powell, who was a Civil War hero, an explorer of the American Southwest, and a government official whose work is even more relevant today than in his own lifetime. The featured picture above, by Earl & Gail Cook, is of Green River Lake, near the source of the Green River. The Green begins high in the Wind River Mountains on the west slopes, close to where seven of the largest glaciers in the Rocky Mountains are located. The picture comes from the Green River Rendezvous 2000 web site by Earl & Gail, which is highly recommended if you have any interest in the Old West, or even just enjoy a good yarn with pictures. Little Dale Lake is the official source, a lake that is half frozen most of the year. Powell was the first man to navigate the 1,500 mile length of the Colorado River basin, and his journey began on the Green, ending where the Colorado leaves the Grand Canyon.
[Smithsonian Institute: BAE Negative #64-2-13] Powell is pictured left, in a photograph by Wells Sawyer taken around 1886, sitting in his Adams Building office. The picture is courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute from their story of the founding of the National Museum. After a distinguished military career, he lost his right arm at the Battle of Shiloh, Powell returned to his academic life as a geologist.
Powell became an explorer, but his contribution to modern life was his work as the man who understood that the future development of the arid Southwest United states was wholly dependent on water supply. He measured water resources (the terms 'run-off' and 'acre-foot' were developed from his work), trained other water specialists, and took his ideas into high office. He became a victim of the political in-fighting of his day, and his fall from power was rapid. He is buried in Arlington Cemetery, as befits a war veteran.
Over the next two days we will retell his life story, and try to relate his work and ideas to a modern context. Powell is now attracting attention in a time when overstretched water resources, and the impact of water management of the environment, are becoming an increasingly urgent topic.
Men of Action
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This picture, courtesy of Philip Greenspun, was shot during a 1999 re-enactment of Major John Wesley Powell's epic exploration of the great river that drains the arid Southwest United States. A superb higher resolution version of the picture is also available if you have a big monitor, showing the boat shooting the Lava Rapids in the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. Philip is a modern day adventurer in the Powell manner: his Travels With Samantha is an Internet classic (winner of a Best of the Web '94 award), the story of an extended journey through America with a laptop computer, seeing places and meeting people. The web site eventually became a lavish book that arouses in me the sin of covetousness. You may check out the progress of Philip's current adventure, which is piloting a small airplane on a route from Boston to Alaska and back again… the long way.
The Grand Canyon expeditions, there were two of them in 1869 and 1871, established Powell's reputation. He was the first man to navigate the vast river system, and the first man to sail through the Grand Canyon: an earlier claimant, if in fact he managed to succeed, did so by floating down the river to escape capture. There are several excellent web resources available if you want to read summaries of Powell's life and achievements. Check out the John Wesley Powell Memorial Museum in Page, Arizona at the foot of the reservoir that was created when the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado was built, and named Lake Powell in his honor.
The Smithsonian has a page with other details, a picture of Powell's life preserver worn on the first expedition, and details about Powell's later fight to establish the now world famous USGS (United States Geological Survey). Canyon-Country.com has another biographical summary, with details of Page, Lake Powell, and the surrounding area. GrandHikes has the story of the passage through the Grand Canyon illustrated with some of the sketches from Powell's own account of the journey. The John Wesley Powell River History Museum, in Green River, Utah, has an excellent reputation, so may be worth a visit if you are in the area.
There is such an abundance of information about Powell on the web that I found it difficult to marshall it all into a readable account. One web site stands out as a way to get a sense of how the explorer went into the last uncharted territories of the new country that had become the United States: Bob Robokas' Grand Canyon Explorer details the journey in way that is succinct yet brings the story vividly to life. This is a very rich site, worthy of extended exploration, much as Powell himself would have done. For regular readers of this weblog the photo gallery is of special interest.
JWP's Bitter Harvest
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There are a number of pictures of John Wesley Powell to be found on the web. Earlier pictures show him as a young soldier with the extravagant whiskering of the day. Later pictures show him as a late 19th century administrator with a grizzled beard. However, these are my two favorite pictures of Powell. He was a driving force behind the institution that eventually became the 'Bureau of American Ethnography'. Lasting from 1879 to 1965 the Bureau was established under the Smithsonian Institution to sponsor and publish research about Native Americans. Powell must have met many Native Americans, and these two pictures seem to sum that up nicely. Both pictures, 'The Mirror Case' with Powell talking with a Ute woman Tau-ruv in the Uintah Valley, UT in 1873 or 1874 taken by John K. Hillers, and Powell on horseback speaking to a Native American, are courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.
In 1893 John Wesley Powell, addressing the International Irrigation Congress, said, "I tell you gentlemen you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over the water rights for there is no sufficient water to supply the land." The man who had measured the water flows, determined that an acre-foot of water was needed to support a family of four, was saying there was not enough to go round. The audience rose to boo and jeer at the man who was telling them something they did not want to hear. You may read and hear on the NPR website historian and land manager William deBuys talking about Powell's legacy, and how his work is relevant today. The Missoulian has an interview with deBuys about his book 'Seeing Things Whole: The Essential John Wesley Powell', a reassessment of Powell's life and work.
The Arizona Republic has a whole section devoted to drought topics. There are declared emergencies in several states, but still the spirit of free enterprize demands that restrictions are not placed into legislation. Instead the authorities 'turn up the volume' on public service messages. Charles F. Hutchinson is a professor in the Office of Arid Land Studies, College of Agriculture, the University of Arizona, and has a page on the Cosmos Club website (Powell was a founding member) about the legacy of the rush to exploit the arid west. The Biography of America website tells how the 1862 'Homestead Act' spurred on the notion of 'Manifest Destiny' so that Powell's warnings were ignored, leading to his retirement, a defeated man.
In 'A River No More: the Colorado River and the West'
(1981, now out of print) author Philip L. Fradkin had this to say:
"The Canyon Ditch is the first diversion of water from the Green River. It is the highest man-made interference with the natural flow of the Colorado River system and thus of great, although virtually unnoticed, significance to the seven states in the watershed. From the headgate of the ditch, it is almost 1,700 miles to the last diversion of water from the river - the headgate of a similarly unlined ditch the Mexicans have dug through the sands of the delta to divert the last flow of the river north into Laguna Salada. Between these two ditches, dug with the same knowledge available to ancients - that water runs safely downhill if the incline is steady but slight - is gathered the most technically complex assemblage of waterworks in the world, run by such complex gadgetry as computers and laser beams and all girdled by a dense network of treaties, laws, and administrative decisions of such talmudic proportions that they are known only to a few."
Gruesome Gift To Aid Researchers
CREDITS: © Bruce Dale/National Geographic
Thumbnails links to source pages; [T] to feature text page; [P] to full picture.
On 26 September 2002 (repeated above in the last item), we published the third, and final part of a trilogy respecting the life and work of John Wesley Powell. In his will Powell left his brain to researchers, and it is now preserved in the Smithsonian Institution. The picture comes from the NGS (National Geographic Society) feature POD (Photo of the Day) for 2 Feb [T] [P] 2002.
One day earlier on 1 Feb [T] [P] 2002, the NGS featured POD was Powell's favorite spot, Dutton Point in the Grand Canyon, a magnificent viewing platform that may be seen in our second picture. As Powell is quoted as saying, "You cannot see the Grand Canyon in one view, as if it were a changeless spectacle from which a curtain might be lifted ", and if anyone should know that, then it would be Powell.
All four ODAAT articles in this series have now been gathered together for convenience in a John Wesley Powell archive. The articles appear in chronological order (ie the reverse of this presentation). We have only skimmed the surface of the available Powell information, and barely scratched the arid surface of the issues raised by his work. Below are some links that readers may like to follow to learn more: the order does not indicate excellence or importance.
Click the appropriate blue bullet point to visit any of these web resources:
• The Powell Museum in Page, Arizona
• DesertUSA.com web site presentation
• Songbird.com web site presentation
• University of North Texas - repository of fascinating resources in PDF format
• Canyon-Country.com web site presentation
• NPR feature 'The Vision of John Wesley Powell'
• One of Susannah Abbey's 'Explorer Heroes' on the MyHero.com web site
• Margaret S. Bearnson's article on the 'Utah History To Go' web site
• PBS feature 'Lost in the Grand Canyon', part of 'American Experience'
• Grand Canyon National Park photo gallery on Powell
• Epilogue from 'The Romance Of The Colorado River' by Frederick S. Dellenbaugh
• Burial details from the Arlington National Cemetery web site
• Smithsonian presentation '150 Years of Adventure, Discovery, and Wonder'
• Photo portrait of Powell on the 'American Memory' web site
• Powell section of 'Grand Canyon Explorer' on Kaibab.org
What if we could only choose one item? Our personal selection is the resource created by Luke Griffin, currently maintained by Valerie Glenn, on the University of Texas web site. Though not instantly accessible as web pages, the downloadable PDF 8.8Mb file 'Images from Exploration of the Colorado' contains a wide selection of contemporary illustrations that we thought gave a connection to those times: although relatively low resolution, in some ways this adds to their effect.
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Jules Laforgue (1860-1887)
"Ah! que la vie est quotidienne."
Oh, what a day-to-day business life is.
'Complainte sur certains ennuis' (1885)