5. Exploration: Almon Thompson

THOUGH ONLY LIMITED REPORTS were made of it at the time, and though for many years, through Powell’s own fault,1 its experiences and results were badly tangled with those of the 1869 expedition, few exploring journeys have actually been so thoroughly annotated as Powell’s second trip down the Colorado. Powell, Thompson, Dellenbaugh, Bishop, Jones, Clem Powell, Steward, Beaman, and Hillers all kept diaries, and in addition Powell, Thompson, Jones, Bishop, and Steward made extensive field notes. First Beaman, then Clem Powell, then for a short time James Fennemore, and finally Hillers took hundreds of photographs with the toilsome collodion plate cameras.2 Clem Powell wrote letters to the Chicago Tribune; Dellenbaugh made sketches both scientific and scenic. Through lectures and newspaper writing he made himself a chronicler of the party, and his A Canyon Voyage, though not published until 1908, for a long time stood as the official story of the expedition.3 Instead of a dramatic tale and a series of imperfect recollections, the second expedition brought back data.

It involved hardships nearly as great as those of the pioneer journey. Exhausting labor and malnutrition brought Jones and Steward into Kanab on stretchers, in the fall of 1871, and the whole company was afflicted with beriberi, scurvy, and the ache of old war wounds. And it was a tremendous adventure to the young men who participated in it. Yet somehow it doesn’t make a story. It hasn’t the thrill or the suspense, the fear, the fateful climax, the ending muted by tragedy; it doesn’t come to us with either the terror or triumph of the first. The second passage down the river was not an exploration, but a survey; what rendered it scientifically important rendered it dramatically second-hand. Exploration like seduction puts a premium upon the virgin.

Before he ever started down it the second time, the river had lost much of its grip on Powell’s restless imagination. He was already looking beyond it to the unmapped hinterland, the great problems of physical geology, most of all the anthropological exhibits, the tribes both extinct and extant that awaited study. Pulled in a half dozen directions at once, he could not pretend even to himself that he was conducting a field party with a single concentrated purpose. He began delegating responsibility when he left to Jacob Hamblin the job of locating a route to the Dirty Devil; he continued in 1871 by unloading much of the conduct of the river party onto his brother-in-law, universally referred to as the Prof, while he himself shot off on other business.

From the start at Green River on May 22, 1871, Powell left the geographical work entirely in Thompson’s hands, but he himself commanded the party as far as the mouth of the Yampa, which they reached on June 25. By that time restlessness, anxiety about whether or not Jacob had found a way in, and worry about his wife, waiting in Salt Lake and six months pregnant, led him to row on ahead and go out overland to Salt Lake by way of the Uinta Agency. Thompson had the unenviable job of commanding the expedition while it waited in the heat and mosquitoes at the dreary mouth of the Uinta, and the equally unenviable one of leading it on down through Desolation and Gray Canyons at a snail’s pace and in laboriously low water after Powell, who had returned to Uinta briefly, rode off south to investigate Jacob’s reported failure to find a way from Kanab to the Dirty Devil’s mouth.

At Gunnison’s Crossing, having failed to find a route further south, Powell, Jacob, and two of Jacob’s sons met the party on September 3 with supplies, and while Jacob went back to try the Dirty Devil yet again, Powell took command of the boats down through Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons to the junction with the Grand, and on through Cataract Canyon. Where the Dirty Devil came in at the foot of Cataract, they found no traces of Jacob. Their food was very short, their photographic supplies used up. To save effort they cached one boat, the Cañonita, and again, as he had in 1869, Powell pressed down the easy water of Glen Canyon without having time for astronomical observations or examination of the barren country back from the walls. At the Crossing of the Fathers they encountered two packers, and Pardon Dodds, the former agent at Uinta, whom Jacob had sent to this point with rescue supplies.

Just here, on October 9, Powell elected to leave the river again, making up his mind so hastily that he would hardly wait for the men to write letters.4 After he left, Thompson and his ailing crew ran the leaky boats down to the mouth of the Paria, where John D. Lee had settled one of his several wives. At this place which Lee called “Lonely Dell,” later known as Lee’s Ferry, the party spent the last days of October caching the boats and supplies, and after an irritable interval of uncertainty assembled in Kanab for the winter’s topographical work.

In Kanab, as on the river, it was more Thompson’s party than Major Powell’s. Powell came back on November 30, 1871, escorting his wife and three-months-old daughter Mary, a Mormon nurse girl, and Mrs. Thompson and her dog Fuzz. Their camp was at Eight Mile Spring, their entertainment the dances in the Kanab branch ward house and an occasional jug of wine made in the Mormon “Dixie” around St. George. For a while, with the ladies, the baby, the dances, the contacts with gawky Mormon girls, leathery patriarchs, credulous and hardy young men, “aunties” with broods but without visible husbands, the Powell Expedition had a reasonably social time. They got to see Brigham when he made his annual visit. They kidded the Paiutes who squatted near town. They traded horses for blankets with the Navajo who rode in under the safe-conduct Jacob had arranged the year before. They met John D. Lee, rumored to have been the chief murderer at Mountain Meadows, and Isaac Haight, almost as deeply involved, and found both men so ordinary it was hard to believe that bloody fanaticism of 1857. Haight even made a hard forced march to bring them supplies when he thought they were stranded without food at Lonely Dell.

These were the diversions. The work of triangulation went on steadily from the nine-mile baseline they measured on the Kanab Desert, but with this topographical work Powell had little to do. He was already toying with the notion of returning to Washington to see about another appropriation, either for a survey of the valleys of the Sevier and the Virgin, or for the publication of the reports of their explorations up to now. Having once or twice sniffed the powder of that redoubt at the end of Pennsylvania Avenue, he could no more have stayed on the Kanab Desert while Congress met than he could have jumped the Grand Canyon. He asked Thompson if he would work for nothing for a year, if it proved necessary, while arrangements were made. Thompson was willing; he was a man who liked to get a job done. On the first of February, 1872, the Powells were gone.

With single-minded placidity the Prof carried forward the triangulation south to the Canyon, east to the Paria, west to the Beaver Dam Mountains. He worked through and around a good-sized gold rush set off by the stories of Riley and Bonnemort, two of his packers, that there was color in the Colorado sandbars, and when the excited outburst of ill-equipped fortune hunters ebbed as fast as it had risen, Thompson was still there serenely locating stations and plotting the map of the river. What had always been his expedition was his uninterruptedly until August, 1872, when Powell finally returned after an irritatingly long and uncertain delay.

In that time the amateur party had hardened to its more enduring elements and made its enduring contributions. Beaman was gone, too lazy and too ambitious for personal gain to be of real use. Steward was gone for reasons of health. Bishop, bitter and humor-less, had quit after he finished plotting the river map, but his bitterness sweetened as he made good friends among the Kanab Mormons, and shortly he would be marrying a Mormon girl in Salt Lake, joining the Church, and settling down to teach at the University of Deseret. Hattan, Clem Powell, Jones, Dellenbaugh, and Hillers remained; there was also a frail young photographer named Fennemore whom Powell had hired at Savage’s 5 in Salt Lake to replace Beaman. And there were some local Mormons — Adairs, Hamblins, Johnsons. On May 30, 1872, having been continuously in the field for more than a year, Thompson and his party started from the little settlement of Johnson to make a fourth try at the Dirty Devil route. The Cañonita needed to be brought down with the other two boats at Lonely Dell and readied for the second leg of the river run, through Marble and Grand Canyons. While it was being brought down, its crew could photograph and examine the previously skimped reaches of Glen Canyon.

This trip was the Prof’s personal triumph, for the methodical topographer succeeded where Powell, Hamblin, and Pardon Dodds had all failed. From Johnson northward to Swallow Park was an easy two days, with the flaming broken edges of the Paria Amphitheater beginning to show ahead on their right. The third day they struggled eastward across a plexus of canyons below the White Cliffs, passed the spot where a young Mormon named Elijah Averett had been killed by the Red Lake Utes six years before, and camped in the valley of the Paria. On the fourth day they worked up the Paria and its Henrieville Fork, crossed the divide between the bold jut of Table Cliff and Kaiparowits Peak, and found themselves in a valley sloping strongly south and east. This was what the Mormons called Potato or Spud Valley.6 In it now is the remote little hamlet of Escalante.

Here they halted, hampered by rain and confused by the topography. Down the southwestern edge of the valley ran a line of bold cliffs, unbroken until they ended abruptly on the unseen rim of Glen Canyon opposite Navajo Mountain. These cliffs formed the eastern edge of a tableland that as Wild Horse Mesa would figure largely in the writings of a then-unborn hack writer named Zane Grey. Thompson would ink it on his map as the Kaiparowits Plateau. But the creek that headed here puzzled him. It should be the headwaters of the Dirty Devil, and it should flow down this valley and around the flank of the Dirty Devil or Unknown Mountains into the Colorado. But this creek canyoned so abruptly that they could not follow down its perpendicular slot, and though he rode ten miles south, with a wide view ahead, he saw not a trace of the Dirty Devil Mountains.

Next day he and Pardon Dodds climbed a southeast ridge and sat their horses looking out over one of those grand, lonely, colorful panoramas that the plateau country offers in abundance and that are seen nowhere else. Northward was what Thompson called, in ignorance, the Wasatch Mountains. It was so marked on Lieutenant Warren’s map, though later exploration by Powell’s parties would show that the Wasatch proper ended at Mount Nebo, ninety miles south of Salt Lake, and that what reached down into southern Utah was not a mountain range but a complex of very lofty plateaus.7 He might have seen, with drifts of snow even yet unmelted on their cliffs, the southward thrusting edges of the Aquarius, Thousand Lake, perhaps even distant rims of the Fish Lake and the Wasatch Plateaus, basalt-topped, flame-edged where they were eroded into cliffs. Eastward, below the lower slopes of the Aquarius, was a painted waste of rock and sand, crossed by a comb of sugary-white. He saw chocolate strata sculptured like organ pipes, a crumbling talus of blue-green shale, gray cliffs streaked with yellow, fierce outbreaks of red. In that maze cliffs swung and meandered and appeared far off hazed with distance across hollow valleys of unmitigated stone. And across those badlands, forty miles by airline and looking like near neighbors, were what Thompson had been looking for: the peaks that Powell had seen from the river rim in 1869 and called the Unknown Mountains. There they were, gray-green peaks incongruous in this country of mesa and abrupt cliff, a range almost as high as the great timbered plateau northward, the surface looking at that distance like sage-colored velvet.

“Can see only three, or counting the little one, four,” Thompson’s journal says. “East of them can just see the tops of mountains thought to be Sierra la Sal, and further east the Sierra Abajo.”8

Both ranges were close to a hundred and fifty miles away. But it was the stream which interested him most. He traced it down Potato Valley into its slotted canyon, and saw that after a little distance it turned straight eastward through the ridge, cutting into it with as little regard to topography as the Green cut into the Uintas at Flaming Gorge. From his point of vantage he saw it emerge on the eastern side and after about ten miles turn southeast in almost a straight line to the Colorado, joining it just a little above the mouth of the San Juan. This was the stream both Jacob and Dodds had tried laboriously to traverse, and failed because of the impassable narrow canyon of its lower reaches. On the outspread relief map below them Dodds showed Thompson a place where he had climbed out. He said that all the way down, whenever they could get a bearing, they had seen the Dirty Devil Mountains to the left and back of them.

It was clear now why they had all failed. Thompson put it down in his diary and then underlined it. “Is not the Dirty Devil.” The stream that he now tentatively called Potato Creek was a tributary of the Colorado, all right, but one that both the 1869 and the 1871 river parties had entirely missed. Its mouth was not even shown on his own map.9

That was the last river added to the map of the United States. Thompson called it the Escalante after the first white man known to have crossed that wilderness, not quite a hundred years before. The gray-green peaks he thought of as the Dirty Devil Mountains were the last mountain range to go onto the map, also; the name they would finally bear was that of Powell’s first and most helpful friend in Washington, Joseph Henry.

In some writings, Prof Thompson is given credit for the discovery of Bryce Canyon. The credit is probably not deserved, though his party could not have missed a distant view of the eroded edge of the Paunsagunt Plateau as they came up to the Table Cliff divide from Clarkston. They passed close to Bryce, but neither Thompson’s nor Dellenbaugh’s nor Clem Powell’s diary makes any special mention of the canyon, and their route would seem to have swung them south and east of it, across the open end of the Paria Amphitheater in which Bryce is a detail.

But there seems no doubt that the Prof’s party was the first across the back of the Aquarius, and that was Darien enough. To reach the headwaters of the Dirty Devil from Potato Valley they had to swing far north across the mountain. As they worked their way up a creek and out onto the back of that noble tableland that Captain Dutton later said should be described in blank verse, even the laconic Thompson was diverted from topography to scenery.

There are five lakes in sight from a point above camp. The aspens grow very thick. Pine and fir trees also. Found the bear-berry in blossom. Strawberries just in bloom.... Traveled 10 miles by 12M over an open country with groves of aspen and pine.... The landscape from the divide which we came over is beautiful.... Creeks every mile or two. Often groves of aspen and pine and clear meadows. Is a perfect paradise for the ranchers....10

It is a perfect paradise for anybody — still is. The present road from Escalante to Bicknell across the southern shoulder that Thompson was traversing in 1872 is the only one. Until 1929 the town of Boulder on its roof got mail by packmule. The Hell’s Backbone Trail that branches off to serve Boulder now would bring the lights of most drivers clear to the roof of their mouths. Until jeeps started taking fishing and hunting parties in about 1946 there had never been a wheeled vehicle on much of its northern end. Wooded clear across its 11,500 foot top, studded with a hundred lakes, it offers from any part of its periphery not only the charm of its own mountain scenery and climate, but views to take the breath: southeastward to the Henry Mountains on the edge of the Colorado; southwestward over the desert to the knife-edge of the Kaiparowits; northeastward across the toothed comb of the Waterpocket Fold to Thousand Lake Mountain climbing from its red base courses to its crest of dark lava and darker spruce.

From the salient angle of the plateau the party worked down a branch of Pleasant Creek, scared up a band of Paiutes who were finally induced to come back and smoke a pipe and give directions, passed over a divide, and reached the headwaters of Pine Alcove (now Bullfrog) Creek, on the slope of the Dirty Devil or Henry Mountains. For several days they climbed among the peaks, one of which Thompson named Mount Ellen for his wife, before they circled the north end of what would be called Mount Pennell, sorted out Trachyte Creek and Crescent Wash, both running in deep canyons, from the true drainage of the Dirty Devil, and just before noon on June 22 passed down the long-sought waterway to the Colorado. The trip had taken them close to a month; they had been in completely unexplored country much of that time.

At the river the party split. Dellenbaugh, Hillers, Johnson, and Fennemore ran the Canonita down to Lee’s Ferry, and Thompson returned with the others back across the Waterpocket Fold and the high, cool, beautiful whaleback of the Aquarius to Potato Valley, where Clem Powell and a supply train had been awaiting them. On July 7, 1872, they were back in Kanab.

That trip was Thompson’s most spectacular, though probably not his most important, contribution. During August and September he gave up the command again to Major Powell, who had during the six months of his absence from the party negotiated an appropriation for the fiscal year 1872-73, bought a house on M Street in Washington, scotched some bogus claims for federal compensation by Captain Sam Adams, resigned from Normal University and arranged the sale of his house in Bloomington, and confirmed himself in the resolution to make his career in the survey of this part of the West.

In what they reported as exceedingly high water the boat party ran the Marble and Grand Canyons from Lee’s Ferry to the mouth of Kanab Wash. By the time they arrived there on September 7, they were badly battered and pretty shaky, and after a consultation with Thompson Powell decided to leave the river.

Probably they lost something by not going on down, but not a great deal. Ives had mapped the south side of the lower Grand Canyon, and Thompson was sure he could map the north side as well by land as by water. The packers who brought food in at Kanab Wash brought news from Jacob Hamblin that the Shivwits were angry again and threatening to kill Powell’s party if it came through. The brief gold rush to the Colorado’s sandbars had destroyed the goodwill that Jacob and the Major had generated. And there may even have been in the back of the Major’s mind the memory of Lava Falls, or of the rapid where the Howlands and Dunn had given up. He might have remembered the wild water where Bradley’s boat jerked its sternpost loose and shot down like a chip with tough little Bradley desperately hurling his weight against the sweep. The water now was higher than it had been then; all the rapids, though they held fewer dangers from rocks, were of an unbelievable violence. The talus and shore needed for lining were gone in some places; the water foamed against nearly vertical cliffs. Shivwits, high water, used-up boats, tired men, fear of the river, or plain good sense — or a combination of these — ended the adventuring at Kanab Wash on September 9, 1872. Not a single diary indicates regret.

From that point on, while Powell turned his restless attention to the Southern Paiutes (he would spend much of the next year as a special commissioner for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, investigating the condition of the Utah and Nevada tribes) Thompson took over the field work again. With Jones, Dellenbaugh, and later a recruit named John Renshawe, he plotted and drew the map incorporating their explorations from Green River to the mouth of the White, and later with other assistants the successive atlas sheets covering the country from the Grand Canyon northward into the plateaus and westward to the Great Basin where they could be hooked onto the atlas sheets of the King and Wheeler Surveys. It was Thompson who ran Powell’s errands, distributed government goods to the Paiutes as Powell got more and more involved with the Indian Bureau, stalled off Powell’s creditors, cussed out his brother-in-law in downright language when Powell left him stranded without funds or instructions. His map was a good map; for its time it was an exceptional one. For some parts of the region it covered it is still, after eighty years, the only map available. The geographies and atlases and government map makers still draw on sheets that Thompson, Dellenbaugh, and Renshawe finished in a tent in Kanab in the winter of 1873. Though Thompson later, as a geographer of the Powell Survey and of the United States Geological Survey, would prepare many more maps, covering almost the whole Plateau Province clear to Fort Wingate in New Mexico, none would have so much of himself in them, and none would reflect so real a pioneering.

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