10. Interlude: “A Prosperous Passage ahead of Us”

IT IS TIME to return for a few minutes to Captain Samuel Adams, last seen carrying his dudgeon onto the Union Pacific cars at Green River. He had not been idle since. On July 12, four days before the Powell party reached the junction of Grand and Green, Sam Adams was raising the curtain on a new scene of his low-comedy subplot. At Breckenridge, a mining camp on the Blue, on Colorado’s western slope, he had made himself solid with a congenial group, of a mentality to suit his own. They were predisposed for the spiel he gave them, eager for the news he brought of riches and opportunities along the river, willing to play a long shot - or as they appeared to conceive it, a sure thing.

They fitted Sam Adams out with four boats, built on the spot out of green lumber, undecked and with no air compartments, and they enlisted in his expedition to the number of ten men.1 They equipped themselves (for there is no reason to believe that Adams could have equipped them) with Spencer muzzle-loading rifles and two hundred rounds of ammunition apiece, and with a good many hundredweight of assorted supplies. For the flagship the ladies of Breckenridge made a flag upon which was inscribed, “Western Colorado to California, Greeting.”

Adams’ purpose, conceived after his rebuff by Powell, was to descend the Blue to its junction with the Grand a few miles southwest of Gore Pass, and from there float on down this unobstructed waterway to California. It was not quite clear how far away California was horizontally, but it was a cinch that from Breckenridge, at an altitude of ten thousand feet, it was almost two miles vertically.

Breckenridge gave him a large sendoff, with speeches and cheers, at the launching place two and a half miles below town where two of the boats pushed off. (The other two were hauled down twelve miles by wagon, and launched there). So full was Adams’ heart that in his journal that day2 he recorded a long paragraph in praise of Summit County, where “upon the extreme limits of civilization I had unexpectedly found a community which in intelligence, enterprise, and moral worth were superior to that of any other I had ever met.”

Down a creek which Adams describes as falling 80 to 120 feet per mile, they ran nine miles. With scientific care Adams noted the width and depth of the river, leaving blanks for the figures to be filled in later, and that night in a jovial camp they dined upon the homemade bread of the wife of Judge Silverthorn, presented to them at parting. There had been no difficulty that day, Adams says, though his boat was twice upset.

Next day there was a new launching, after the wagoners who had brought the other boats had left. Judge Silverthorn made a speech and presented Adams with a dog. What ever happened to that miserable animal in the next month is one of the dark and tantalizing silences of history.

The experiences of the next day, July 14, might have given Adams a hint of what was coming. In what his journal calls Rocky Canyon they bounced around a corner full upon a bad rapid. Within seconds Adams, Waddle, Day, O‘Connor, Twible, Lillis, Decker, and everybody else in the expedition except the occupants of the last boat were hanging onto rocks in midstream, trying to make themselves heard over the roar of water. Their “instruments,” whatever those were, as well as Adams’ box of papers, including his letters of “authorization” from the Secretary of War, went down the Blue. The fall in Rocky Canyon Adams estimated at over 250 feet in a mile and a half.

On Sunday, July 18, somewhat quenched by the ducking, and in need of repairs, they sent Mr. Lovell by land back to Breckenridge for more “instruments” and matches. Adams does not state what instruments would be available in the mining camp of Breckenridge; it is allowable to believe that it was the matches he really needed. As the rest of the group hung around Pacific Park waiting for Lovell’s return they began to show the first signs of failing enthusiasm. On Tuesday, July 19, Adams’ diary notes that they raised thirty dollars and gave it to Mr. Ricker and sent him back home as a “common nuisance.”

Others had also begun to doubt, but Adams talked them into going on, saying that he would proceed though no one accompanied him. Heartened and with dry matches, they pushed off again, but had gone only a short distance when the boat of Lillis and Decker hit a rock and was demolished. Somewhat forlornly they stopped for the rest of the day to fish out of the rocks downstream whatever could be salvaged. Minus his instruments, Adams remained at a scientific disadvantage, and again had to leave a blank in his diary: “Distance by water from Breckenridge, — miles.”

By Thursday, July 22, dissension had begun to rend the little group of explorers to its foundations. O‘Connor, Foment, Decker, and Frazier gave up and started back, as Adams’ diary says contemptuously, “to tell of their heroic actions &c.” That was the same camp where, looking around him with the eye of fantasy, Adams , saw growing in great abundance crops of wild oats, wheat, rye, barley, clover, and timothy, in places and at altitudes where only the protecting hand of God could have let them grow.

The day after the great desertion, Mr. Waddle showed up temporarily missing, so that Adams had to run his boat alone. He swamped only once, when he drove under a fallen tree. For eight miles, according to his record, he had smooth and easy sailing to the junction with the Grand. There the party camped, fifty-five miles and twelve days out of Breckenridge, and one boat and five members fewer than they had started with.

Here for a week there is a gap in Adams’ journal, perhaps because he was too busy to write, perhaps because his pencil floated off to join his instruments. Presumably they rested. Not impossibly, in this week the unhappy dog met his fate, whatever it was. At last on. July 30 they started again and ran five miles, stopping at the mouth of what Adams calls the Grand Cannon. It appears to have been Cedar Canyon, where in 1867 Powell had first looked at white water and dreamed of hunting down the secrets of the unexplored plateaus. 3 Camped here for two and a half days, the party washed clothes, cleaned guns, brought journals up to date, and waited for Twible and Lillis to carry out dispatches to Hot Sulphur Springs and bring back newspapers and more matches. Adams totted up the river he had run and estimated the fall as 3500 feet. These figures gave him cause for self-gratulation when in a copy of the Rocky Mountain News that Lillis brought back he read Howland’s letter written on the Yampa. “It was well written,” Adams admitted to his journal, “but rather extravagant respecting the speed they made in going down a river of 15 fall per mile. Had their party come over a continued rapid of over 3000 feet in fifty five I do not think it would be attended with so much permanent excitement as that spoken of in the letter of my friend Howland.”4

He wrote this on the bank of a calm river slipping through the level of Middle Park. Next day, when the boats entered the “Grand Cannon” through a slot “fifty feet in breadth,” they had to line over several very bad stretches where Adams said he leveled and found the fall to be thirty-four feet in four hundred yards. Never on the Colorado had he seen such water, he said. Undoubtedly he hadn’t.

Only a few hundred yards into the canyon one of the boats being lined swung out of control over a fall, filled with water, and was badly damaged. They lost a hundred pounds of bacon, a sack of flour, an axe, a saw, an oven, two canteens of salt, thirty-five pounds of coffee, and other articles. When they took stock after laboring past the bad spot they found that they had left two hundred twenty-five pounds of lumpy flour, fifty of bacon, and fifteen of coffee and salt.

Undaunted, they persevered. On August 3 they made paddles and repaired their boats and lined down an additional three hundred yards. Next day, lining with great difficulty through a roaring rapid, they found a slab of their lost bacon lying unhurt among the rocks, and were cheered as by an omen. It was the only good thing that had happened to them since they left Breckenridge.

By now they were deep in the gorge, with a huge domed mountain before them as if to stop the river, and the walls overhanging them so alarmingly that they began to wonder what they would do if Indians ambushed them from above. It was impossible to run, all but impossible to line or portage, difficult even to go back. The fall, Adams estimated, was fifty feet in five hundred yards, about the slope of a good coasting hill.

On August 5 one of the boats filled and swamped and was caught by its line among the rocks. They worked all morning to free it, only to see the line part in the afternoon and boat and load rush down into the falls and disappear forever. They had been four days of panting work making three quarters of a mile, and now, with one damaged boat remaining, they were faced with a seemingly impassable chute. But whatever Sam Adams lacked — ability to see, willingness to tell the truth, capacity to think straight — he lacked neither courage nor persistence. It gave him enormous satisfaction to assume that they were descending at the rate of one hundred twenty feet to the mile, for though the descent caused them great difficulty, they approached that much more swiftly the near-sea-level reaches that would give them smooth sailing. On August 6, stiffening their courage for trouble ahead, the members of the party threw away all extra clothing and equipment and stripped down for passage in the one boat. Adams says that he gave to the waves his box of papers (lost once already, on the second day out) and abandoned his instruments (which except perhaps for a hand level and a thermometer he had never had and wouldn’t have known how to use) and on the seventh day they struggled from difficult portage to difficult portage until after the fourth round the boat swamped, broke its line, and rushed in disintegrating wreckage to join the other three.

Other men might by this time have begun. to entertain doubts about the water route to California. By now the brave flag with its greeting from the ladies of Breckenridge was snagged in some rapid or driftwood pile, and all four inadequate boats were on their way to the Gulf of California in splinters. But Captain Samuel Adams was a dedicated man. With his five companions he built a raft and floated the skimpy remains of their provisions around a perpendicular corner, where on August 9 they sifted and dried their flour, of which they had one hundred twenty pounds left, along with twenty of bacon. Waddle, Lovell, and Day, musing over the stores and contemplating the river ahead, decided that day to start back by land. It was like the nursery rhyme of the ten little nine little eight little Indians. Adams now had left, besides himself, only two little Indian boys. The three indomitables went on, packing their stuff three miles down the canyon, passing en route the rocks strewn and plastered with discarded clothes that they had tossed overboard higher up. On August 10, square-jawed, they built a raft five by fourteen feet out of drift logs and took to the water again.

At the end of three miles the raft hit a rock and spilled overboard all their salt, all but ten days’ ration of flour, and all their knives and forks, which were becoming fairly unnecessary anyway. They still had a camp kettle and a frying pan, but the raft was a wreck. When they had dried out they reconnoitered down the river. As far as they could see the water roared and pounded through one rapid after another. Reluctantly, on August 13, they decided to give it up and start back. The water-level route to the Pacific would have to wait a little while.

But to the eye of Sam Adams what he and his light-witted companions had come through had the look of a hard-won success. In the secondary and more polished version of his diary (figures are inked in, for instance), he wrote:

I am fully satisfied that we had come over the worst part of our rout in 95 miles we had descended about 4500 feet. The vallies were open up river, the mountains bee smooth the pine and cedar larger everything indic that a prosperous passage was ahead of us had we been in a position to have gone on. Three years before as I stated in my Report to the Sec of War, I looked up the Colorado River from a point 650 miles from its mouth and could then see a vally exten 75 miles to the NE. I could now look to the SW & almost see the narrow gap which divided us.5

That is to say, he was down, he had conquered all but the “narrow gap,” he had demonstrated the passability of the Colorado waterway. But his statements continue to be haunted by illusion and contradiction. In one paragraph he is standing at the foot of Middle Park, Colorado, and all but seeing across to Boulder Canyon, Nevada. In the next paragraph he estimates the distance from where his expedition ended to the Gulf of California as 1300 miles, though Boulder Canyon is only 650 miles from the gulf. He was thus looking at least 650 miles — in fact nearer 800. In William Gilpin, though there was extravagance, there was also logic, coherence, a show of sense. Adams was over that shadow line which divides the merely extravagant from the lunatic, and yet the distance between Adams and Gilpin looks to the eye of history far narrower than that “narrow gap” that separated Adams from his goal.

In the canyon which halted his hairbreadth and hairbrained plunge down the western slope, Adams’ straining eyes saw wild wheat more than six feet high. From first to last he demonstrated a mastery of things that were not there. The 4500 feet of fall which he thought he had navigated were actually between 2000 and 3000. The “prosperous voyage” from which he reluctantly turned away would have included stretches like the rapids along which Highway 50 now runs near Glenwood Springs. Anyone can drive it at any time during the spring runoff and test himself by imagining what it would be to put a boat or raft through that wildhorse current with its twenty-foot waves. That “prosperous voyage” would have involved, in the stretch past Grand Junction and Moab and down to the union with the Green in the Land of Standing Rocks, some fancy water in West Water Canyon and some stiff rapids below the mouth of the Dolores. And then would have come almost five hundred miles of river rough enough to daunt even the witless.

On August 13, the day when Sam Adams was turning back from the Grand below Cedar Canyon, assuring himself that he had passed the worst, Major Powell and his eight bearded, ragged, exhausted, snarling men were running through what Sumner called a “nest of rapids.” That day they ran thirty and lined three in fifteen miles, and looking ahead they were moved to ribald mirth at the thought of James White running that water on a lasso-bound raft. That was the morning when they had left the Little Colorado’s mouth, the River of Flax, and were just entering the 217 mile stretch, between walls that went up in places more than a mile, which would afterward be known as Powell knew it: The Grand Canyon, the real one. And that afternoon, as they camped at the head of a bad rapid, they saw rising from under the even sedimentary strata the black and ominous gneiss and schist that they miscalled granite. It seemed to come as if thrust out of the core of the earth, as in fact it almost did. It was Archaean rock, as ancient as any revealed in the world’s crust, packed and metamorphosed by billions of tons of pressure, millions of years of anchoring the globe. Its very look was black and ugly, and it would take them less than a day to learn that its looks were not deceptive.

Many times they had had what they thought’ bad rapids. They would learn that whenever they met that black rock coming up into the canyon’s bed the river would pinch in meanly, gather speed, burst and roll over buried boulders and uncorraded adamantine ledges, run sometimes a hundred feet deep and with waves ten or fifteen feet high.

Like Sam Adams, they had been interested in the amount of fall they had accounted for. In camp below the mouth of the Little Colorado they had figured their altitude with satisfaction and hope, for from Green River Crossing they had ridden down almost 3400 feet from their starting altitude of 6075, and this by measurement, with instruments that existed and worked. To the mouth of the Virgin, the known and easy reaches of the river, they had only around 2000 feet to fall. They were close to two-thirds of the way down.

But the further they went the higher the unclimbable walls soared up, winging back in wide ledges to remote, painted rims, or pinching in to the narrow congested granite. The deeper they went, the fiercer and wilder the river became, the more remote and lost they felt, like bugs swept helplessly along the bottom of a flooded ditch.

By Adams’ kind of observation, a prosperous voyage lay ahead.

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