Modern history


Canyon Dreams and Schemes

The blank spots on the map of the West were filling up. In 1889, as the Santa Fe was preparing to whisk Nellie Bly across the continent, the Denver and Rio Grande pushed its Tennessee Pass line westward down the Colorado River to Rifle, Colorado. Save for a link through the San Luis Valley built the following year, this 27-mile extension was the last narrow gauge construction the Denver and Rio Grande undertook on a main line. The remaining 62 miles between Rifle and the railroad’s existing narrow gauge tracks at Grand Junction were laid as standard gauge in 1890.

That same year, the Denver and Rio Grande added a third rail to its line from Salida, Colorado, to Leadville and converted the remainder of its track from Leadville over Tennessee Pass to Rifle to standard gauge. The result by November 1890 was that Grand Junction was served by both the Rio Grande’s original narrow gauge line over Marshall Pass and its new standard gauge line over Tennessee Pass. West of Grand Junction, William Jackson Palmer’s Rio Grande Western was making a similar conversion to standard gauge all the way to Ogden. The dream of a line straight west from Denver still had not been achieved, but Colorado was not yet out of the transcontinental contest.1

All this railroad attention directed toward Grand Junction was enough to give certain people pause. Admittedly, the logical gateways through the Rockies and across the Colorado Plateau were bustling with tracks, but there was one major passage to which little attention had yet been paid.

Early in 1889, a real estate speculator named Frank M. Brown fixed on a dream to build a railroad along the snow-free water grade of the Colorado River all the way to California—through the Grand Canyon. Such a line would be a pipeline between the immense coal deposits on Colorado’s Western Slope and energy-starved Southern California, which in the days before hydroelectric power and oil and natural gas production was importing coal from as far away as Australia and British Columbia. For additional revenue, the route’s scenery was apt to rival if not surpass the Denver and Rio Grande’s Scenic Line of the World. The logical starting point for such a line was Grand Junction.

On March 25, 1889, Brown and an assortment of business partners incorporated the Denver, Colorado Canyon, and Pacific Railroad Company. Brown wasted no time in hiring a mining engineer, Frank C. Kendrick, and an assistant for him, Thomas Rigney, and hurrying with them to Grand Junction by Denver and Rio Grande train. Arriving there at a quarter to four in the morning on March 28, Brown nonetheless immediately led an impromptu procession down to the banks of the Colorado River.

There Brown thrust a survey stake in the mud and for the benefit of several newspaper reporters proceeded to give Kendrick and Rigney grandiose instructions for their survey of the westward route of the Denver, Colorado Canyon, and Pacific: straight down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. This media event complete, Brown caught a train back east and prepared to lure investors with the news that he already had a survey crew in the field. Kendrick and Rigney loaded supplies into a fifteen-foot dory christened the Black Betty and pushed off downstream.

In that spring of 1889, the recorded history of the Grand Canyon was still sparse. When Lieutenant Amiel W. Whipple surveyed west from Albuquerque along the 35th parallel in 1853, he kept well south of the canyon and never considered introducing railroad tracks into its depths. William Jackson Palmer, while on his 1867 Kansas Pacific survey, speculated about bridging the gorge, but did so without any first-hand knowledge.

Some of the unknown changed in 1869. That spring Major John Wesley Powell left the Union Pacific tracks at Green River, Wyoming, and floated the Green and Colorado rivers through Flaming Gorge and the canyons of Lodore, Cataract, Glen, Marble, and the Grand. Powell returned for a second trip during 1871–72, and by the time his maps and journals were published, he had filled in one of the remaining blanks on the map of the West. The major did not, however, say anything encouraging about railroads following his route. Indeed, twenty years later, no one had.

Kendrick and Rigney floated the Colorado downstream to its confluence with the Green and then surveyed up that river to the Rio Grande Western tracks at Green River, Utah. When they reported to Brown in mid-May 1889, Brown was busy organizing the next phase of the trip. Rigney agreed to join him, but Kendrick opted out, confiding to his diary, “I have given up going back, as I think a man’s place is near home and those he loves … even if he does not make so much money or gain as much glory.” As it turned out, money and glory would both soon be in short supply.2

Brown led a diverse party of sixteen others back to Green River, Utah, by train. There were six surveyors, including photographer Franklin Nims; five boatmen, including Rigney; two would-be investors traveling as Brown’s guests; two cooks; and the newly appointed chief engineer of the Denver, Colorado Canyon, and Pacific. This was none other than Robert Brewster Stanton, who had already proven with the Georgetown Loop that he was not one to shrink from an engineering challenge no matter how seemingly insurmountable it first appeared.

The veteran Black Betty—now renamed the Brown Betty—was joined by a flotilla of five fifteen-foot boats specially commissioned by Brown and built out of light wood with narrow beams, rounded bottoms, and pointed bows and sterns. They all eased down the Green to its confluence with the Colorado and then poured into the boulder-strewn mill-race of Cataract Canyon. The result was disaster.

The narrow, round-bottomed boats behaved like easily rolled kayaks, but with open decks. The Brown Betty fared little better and soon jammed under a boulder and stuck fast. Precious supplies, including much food, were swept away, and soon survival became paramount to surveying. Frank Brown saw his railroad dreams fading and opted to strike downstream for the placer mining camps in Glen Canyon and then quit the river.

Stalwart Stanton, who, like John Wesley Powell, could neither row nor swim well because of a childhood injury to one arm, thought otherwise and resolved to stay behind with one boat and four companions to continue the survey. Brown and the others pushed on to seek help. By the time that Stanton’s party emerged from lower Cataract Canyon and paddled into the placid waters and cottonwood-studded beaches of Glen Canyon, a little bit of food and talk about gold, cattle, and timber had rekindled Brown’s speculative appetite. Forget Cataract Canyon, Brown told Stanton. His railroad could reach Glen Canyon directly from the north and be making money from this booming paradise even before its tracks entered the Grand Canyon.

Reinvigorated, Brown headed downriver with Stanton on the Colorado’s lazy, muddy current through Glen Canyon. At Lees Ferry, Arizona, Warren Johnson, a Mormon operating the ferry there, wished them luck without knowing just how much he was to see of Stanton in the next year.

On July 9, 1889, three kayaklike boats splashed through the riffle at the mouth of the Paria River just below the ferry and headed into Marble Canyon. They portaged the rapids at Badger Creek and started to do the same at Soap Creek a few miles farther downstream. But evening was upon them, and before the Soap Creek portage was complete, they set up camp for the night beside its ominous roar. In the morning, Brown and boatman Harry McDonald decided that Soap Creek rapid’s tail waves could be run without further portaging, and so they put their boat in and pushed off.

Almost immediately Brown doubted the wisdom of the decision and ordered McDonald to pull for shore. But as the round-bottomed boat swung into a powerful eddy at the foot of the rapid, the opposing current rolled it over like a breaching whale. McDonald swam clear, but Brown was nowhere to be found. For all the gear he had packed, life jackets were not included. When the capsized boat was recovered 1.5 miles downstream, there was still no sign of Brown, and his body was never found.

Few would have blamed Stanton if he had simply walked out of the canyon and back to Lees Ferry, but he did not. Despite Brown’s death—or perhaps because of it—Stanton was more determined than ever to complete the survey. Five days later and 14 miles deeper into Marble Canyon, the tipsy boats caused another accident. Peter Hansbrough and one of Stanton’s servants rolled a boat after it was pinned against a cliff. Both drowned.

Now even Stanton had his doubts, but not, it appears, about the railroad route itself. He led the remaining men up South Canyon to Kanab, Utah, paid them off with funds borrowed from the local Mormon bishop—Brown had been carrying the expedition’s cash—and then headed for Denver to plead his case with the directors of the Denver, Colorado Canyon, and Pacific.3

The directors were increasingly skeptical and very reluctant in their allocation of meager funds, but five months later Stanton was back on the river. After Christmas dinner at Lees Ferry with Warren Johnson and his family, his party once again floated downstream into Marble Canyon in newly built, flat-bottomed boats. Each man now wore a cork life jacket, but this time disaster struck on the canyon walls.

On New Year’s Day 1890, just below the rapids that had claimed Frank Brown, Franklin Nims fell twenty feet from a rock while taking a photograph, breaking his jaw and one leg and rendering himself unconscious with a concussion. While Stanton returned to Lees Ferry to ask Warren Johnson for help, the rest of the party laboriously hauled the injured Nims up to the canyon rim. Mercifully, Nims remained unconscious for most of the bone-jarring trip.

Stanton and Johnson met them with a wagon, took Nims to the ferry, and arranged with some passing Mormons to transport him to the Santa Fe railroad station at Winslow, some 185 miles to the south. Nims arrived there on January 21, battered but miraculously alive. Later, Nims wrote bitterly that the fledgling railroad company had “cut my salary off January 1, 1890, the day of the accident” and failed to pay any of his expenses.4

Once again, Stanton returned to the river. Downstream from where they had cached their boats, the party came across Peter Hansbrough’s remains near what is now called Hansbrough Point. It was a grisly find made recognizable only by the remaining shreds of his clothing. More trials awaited them at the mouth of the Little Colorado, where a surprise winter flood swept down the aquamarine stream and tossed their boats about like driftwood.

Whatever Stanton now thought of a railroad route through the Grand Canyon, there was evidence that other railroads were making it easier to reach the canyon. Since its completion through Arizona in 1883, the Santa Fe had accommodated prospectors and even a few tourists in reaching the South Rim from the general vicinity of Williams. Below the mouth of the Little Colorado, Stanton’s party encountered a trail built by prospector Seth Tanner that dropped down from the rim near Desert View. John Hance had built a similar trail down from near Moran Point.

Soon Stanton’s flotilla was in the Inner Gorge, and there was little option but to continue. The next escape was at Diamond Creek, still 127 miles ahead. In between were raging rapids, including the foaming melee of Lava Falls, which was carefully portaged. Finally, the boats pulled into the mouth of Diamond Creek with their exhausted occupants.

Could a railroad negotiate what they had just come through? Stanton was optimistic, but now what mattered most was that there was a railroad close by. A 23-mile hike up Diamond Creek and Peach Springs Canyon led to the Santa Fe stop at Peach Springs. They made the hike, replenished supplies, and—reluctant to quit—returned to the river.

Late in February 1890, they ran Separation Canyon, where Stanton was thrown from his boat for the first time. Even this dunking couldn’t diminish his awe. It must have been a particularly grueling undertaking, yet Stanton wrote repeatedly of the canyon’s beauties. It was, he noted, “a living, moving being, ever changing in form and color.”5

By April 9, the surveyors were safely at Fort Mojave near Needles, feasting on roast beef. Two weeks later they reached the river’s mouth on the Gulf of California. Backtracking to Yuma, Stanton hopped on the Southern Pacific and headed east. False starts and tragedies aside, in roughly a year he had accomplished a remarkable feat of surveying and documented the canyon route with reams of engineering calculations, construction estimates, and twenty-two hundred photographs—all to prove that the dream was feasible. Despite this, Stanton met with a cool reception, in part because recent oil discoveries in California were reducing the market for Utah and Colorado coal.

John Wesley Powell, the one man who might have best appreciated Stanton’s achievement, turned a cold shoulder, perhaps out of jealousy that anyone else might dare to travel “his” canyon. Stanton went to see “the Major” in Washington in 1892, but he recorded in his diary that “not one word did he express of compliment at my final success—but rather sneered at any value in my work.”6

A year later, Stanton shared a podium with Powell at an irrigation conference in Los Angeles. Under a banner proclaiming, “Irrigation: Science, Not Chance,” Powell nostalgically recalled his 1869 trip. Stanton hoped to link his railroad venture with the growing irrigation movement, but he took Powell to task for focusing on past glories rather than future potentials. Powell was not dreaming big enough, said Stanton. With Thomas Edison’s assistance, Stanton proposed to construct a dam in the Grand Canyon complete with a dynamo to generate electricity with which to power a railroad. “When your great irrigation empire is completed,” Stanton told the assembled delegates, mining and railroading would provide “the foundation to stand on.”7

As it turned out, not a single foot of track was ever laid on the Denver, Colorado Canyon, and Pacific. Palmer’s Rio Grande Western and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe would be the only railroads to cross the Colorado Plateau near it, although in time the Santa Fe would bring tourists to within a few yards of the South Rim.

Robert Brewster Stanton, however, could never shake the pull of the river. In 1897 he returned to Glen Canyon with a plan to extract the fine gold that had stymied earlier placer operations. Backed by eastern capital, Stanton assembled a giant gold dredge about 4 miles above the mouth of Bullfrog Creek. The 46-bucket, 105-foot-long dredge was shipped piecemeal and hauled in wagons from the Rio Grande Western at Green River. The fine gold proved elusive even to this monster, however, and submerged sandbars and river silt further impeded progress. Stanton’s first cleanup of $30.15 in gold—after more than a $100,000 investment—was indicative of things to come. Stanton finally abandoned the dredge in 1901 in mid-river, where it sat until entombed by the rising waters of Lake Powell.8

About the same time as Robert Brewster Stanton was laboring through the depths of the Grand Canyon in pursuit of railroad dreams, a band of unsavory characters was descending on nearby Cañon Diablo in pursuit of a far less noble scheme. Train robberies in the West were part of the price of pushing steel rails across great expanses of territory. Many were bungled attempts that made off with little of value, but they caused quite a sensation nonetheless.

Train robbers had harassed the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe since its early days on the plains of Kansas. Bat Masterson’s dogged pursuit of Dave Rudabaugh’s gang outside Dodge City in 1878 set the precedent that the company would vigorously pursue and prosecute such mischief. That was to be the case across New Mexico and Arizona on both the Santa Fe and the Southern Pacific.

Between 1875 and 1890, there were ninety-nine successful stagecoach robberies in Arizona Territory alone. By the late 1880s, these numbers were in decline, and a spate of train robberies began. The reason for the switch was the proverbial “because that’s where the money is,” as stage traffic declined and railroads became the transport of choice for money, mail, and other valuables.

The first train robbery in Arizona occurred on the Southern Pacific line east of Tucson on the night of April 27, 1887. Using a red lantern to signal the engineer to halt, the outlaws made off with about $3,200, although the Wells Fargo agent managed to hide another $3,500 in gold in the express car’s stove. Later that summer, the same train with the same Wells Fargo agent on board was held up about a mile east of the first robbery site. The Southern Pacific was hit a third time when two men boarded a train near Steins Pass on the Arizona–New Mexico border and made off with about $700.

The Santa Fe’s Atlantic and Pacific line between Albuquerque and Needles was also the target of attacks. On September 16, 1887, five masked men built a bonfire on the tracks near Navajo Springs, east of Holbrook, and as the train chugged to a halt, they were bold enough to fire shots at the crew before taking a small safe from the express car. An abortive attempt on another train occurred a year later west of Flagstaff when three robbers uncoupled the locomotive and one car and ordered the fireman to pull a mile down the track. Too late, they realized that they had captured the baggage car and not the sought-after Wells Fargo express car.

Despite gunfire in at least two of these robberies, no one was injured. But the increasing brazenness of train robbers—six bandits killed two men and seriously wounded two others in a holdup south of Nogales in Mexico during this same period—convinced the Arizona Territorial Legislature to pass a bill making train robbery a capital offense punishable by death. Three weeks later, on March 20, 1889, three—or as time would tell, probably four masked men—boarded an eastbound Santa Fe passenger train as it paused at the station at Cañon Diablo.

By all accounts, the initial act was a relatively low-key affair. The robbers demanded that the Wells Fargo agent empty the safe, which he did, although the luck of the draw made for a take of only about $1,000—less than normally carried. No one was hurt, and apparently the passengers were blissfully unaware of the act. The desperadoes then rode off in a snowstorm and left fresh tracks in about three inches of snow. Enter the newly elected sheriff of Yavapai County, William O’Neill.

“Bucky” O’Neill, so nicknamed for his early ability to stay on wild broncos, became the centerpiece in a dogged pursuit. O’Neill, a Wells Fargo special agent, and two deputies from Flagstaff went east by train and arrived at Cañon Diablo two days after the robbery. Some criticized O’Neill for dawdling, but he patiently trailed the outlaws north to Lees Ferry, where they had gotten the drop on Warren Johnson and forced him to ferry them across the river. That there were four outlaws at this point seemed certain.

O’Neill and his posse trailed the quartet across southern Utah and all the way to a densely wooded canyon near Beaver in the southwest corner of the territory. By one account—and they vary greatly—some forty shots were fired in a frantic gun battle before the four surrendered.

Separated from the county seat at Prescott by some 300 miles and the obstacle of the Grand Canyon, O’Neill chose to take his prisoners to Ogden and then by train east on the Union Pacific to Denver. From there, they went south on the Santa Fe to Trinidad en route back to Flagstaff and eventually Prescott. Somewhere near Raton Pass, however, one of the prisoners, J. J. Smith, loosened his leg shackles and jumped out a window.

The train ground to a halt, but Smith was not to be found. Two deputies got off and combed the nearby mountains for him while O’Neill and the third deputy took the remaining three prisoners on to Prescott without further incident. By the evening of April 15, almost a month after the robbery, three of the train robbers were secure in O’Neill’s jail. Their mood turned increasingly somber as it became clear that sentiment favored making them the first example under the recently enacted capital crime statute.

Faced with the death penalty, the trio quickly agreed to a plea bargain whereby they would plead guilty to a robbery charge in exchange for dropping the train robbery indictment. This they did, and by the end of July, they began serving twenty-five-year sentences at the territorial prison in Yuma—from which they could hear the daily whistles of the nearby Southern Pacific locomotives.

But what about J. J. Smith? He had been indicted along with the others but was not captured until some weeks later in Texas after an exchange of gunfire that left him with a bullet in his left thigh. O’Neill arrived on the scene, and Smith was extradited back to Prescott in time for the October court term.

Common sense suggested that Smith would simply follow his partners and avoid the noose by pleading guilty to the lesser charge and hoping that the judge would overlook his escape. Instead Smith chose to plead not guilty to everything and stand trial. Robert Brown, the defense attorney who had engineered the original plea bargain, became his aggressive representative.

After some procedural smoke screens, Brown attempted to create doubt as to whether the Wells Fargo agent on the night of the robbery had seen three men or four. And even if there had been four, could the agent be certain that under their masks one of them was Smith? For a time, it looked as if Smith’s imprisoned friends might be transported from Yuma to testify. Brown first objected that their testimony for the prosecution might be biased in exchange for a reduction of their sentences, but then the prosecution itself decided not to put them on the stand after they appeared ready to swear that Smith had not been involved with the robbery. Despite attorney Brown’s efforts, Smith was found guilty of the simple robbery charge and sentenced to join his cohorts in Yuma for a thirty-year sentence. But that is not quite the end of the story.

Four years later, suffering from consumption, like a majority of his Yuma cellmates, Smith petitioned the territorial governor for clemency. He claimed to have fallen innocently in with the other three near Lees Ferry and escaped at Raton out of fear for his life. His role in two gun battles and evidence of Wells Fargo money on him when he was captured were quietly ignored. These facts aside, Smith’s petition was granted, and he was released from Yuma, having served less than four years of his sentence. 9

Bucky O’Neill’s dogged pursuit of these train robbers made him a celebrity in Arizona. He served three terms as sheriff and was elected mayor of Prescott. But his enduring fame came with Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Ignoring the pleas of his men that he seek cover, O’Neill strolled the lines in front of Kettle Hill. The Spanish bullet had not been made that could kill him, O’Neill boasted. A moment later, he fell dead with one through his head.

After the affair at Cañon Diablo, train robberies in Arizona decreased—perhaps in part because of the threat of capital punishment. But that did not stop two rough-cut characters from attempting to wreck a Santa Fe passenger train near the Johnson Canyon tunnel in 1893. An alert watchman thwarted their plans, and a posse from Flagstaff shot them dead on the banks of the Verde River several days later.

Four years later, three robbers held up a westbound passenger train at Peach Springs and ransacked the express car. Express agents shot one robber dead on the rear vestibule of the car, but the other two led lawmen on a wild chase that ended deep in the Grand Canyon near the mouth of Diamond Creek. When the ringleader, Jim Parker, was finally hung in June 1898, his last words—sincere or not—were reportedly, “All this hullabaloo has sure taught me a lesson.”10

There would be a few more train robberies in the Southwest—one of the last occurred on Marshall Pass in 1902—but they would be seen as rather fleeting and transitional events. Nothing else had stopped the railroads from their headlong expansion across half a continent, and a few outlaws with six-shooters could not do so. But just as the panic of 1873 had stalled most construction in the early years, there was to be an event that would bring all railroads to their knees. The boom could not last forever.

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