Crossing the Colorado River
Down river from Glen Canyon Dam, the historical town of Lee's Ferry lies in the break between Glen, Marble and Paria canyons. A natural corridor between Utah and Arizona, Lee's Ferry was named for, and settled by Mormon John D. Lee, who established the first Colorado River crossing at this site.
Until the Navajo and Glen Canyon Bridges were built in the 20th century, Lee's Ferry benefited from a circumstance of geology. Due to the shale deposits which slope gently to the river here, it was the only place to cross the Colorado River for 260 miles. Everywhere else along the Colorado, from Moab, Utah to Laughlin, Nevada, the Colorado has cut through limestone and sandstone which creates vertical cliffs and gorges as it erodes, thus making it impossible to ford.
The Dominguez-Escalante Expedition
In late October of 1776, Franciscan Friars Atanasio Dominguez and Velez de Escalante, turning back from a futile and punishing 10-man expedition to find a route from the old missions of New Mexico to the newer ones of California, attempted to cross at the site. Faced with the coming winter and plagued with hunger and exhaustion, they felt a strong sense of urgency in their drive to return home, back to New Mexico.
Giving up at the Lee’s Ferry site, Dominguez and Escalante led their expedition upstream, struggling over cliffs and through side canyons until they finally found a safe ford at a place that became known as Crossing of the Fathers. Travelers would favor the Crossing of the Fathers for most of the next century. It now lies beneath the waters of Lake Powell.
The Mormon Expansion
In the 1860s, the Mormons, fired with the spirit of Manifest Destiny, eyed the Lee’s Ferry site as a gateway to expansion southward from Utah into northern Arizona. In 1860, Mormon frontiersman and missionary Jacob Hamblin attempted to cross the river by raft at Lee’s Ferry, but he decided to abort the effort after he lost an animal to the swirling waters. In 1864, he returned with 14 men to attempt another crossing, this time to warn the Navajos to stop raiding Mormon settlements in Utah. After all, the reasoning went, the Mormons had come there entitled indeed, obligated! to appropriate and settle the land and invest it with democracy and liberty. They thought of Navajos, and the Paiute of Utah, as no more than impediments to an inevitable Mormon expansion. Again Hamblin and his men built a raft, and this time, they all managed to cross with their horses and suppliesthe first successful fording at the site.
Over the next few years, with endorsement by their President Brigham Young, the Mormons posted guards and constructed a small stone building and a corral at Lee’s Ferry to defend against Indian raiding, which had intensified. They called the fortified hamlet “Fort Meeks.” Hamblin tried, with little success, to establish a farm, clearing a plot of land, digging a ditch for irrigation water, planting a crop of wheat.
In 1870, famed Civil War veteran and adventurer Major John Wesley Powell accompanied Young and Hamblin on an expedition from the Lee’s Ferry site up the Paria River then over to Pipe Springs, a historic fort that is now a national monument, and in 1871 and 1872, he used the site as a temporary encampment for his men during his second expedition to explore the canyons of the Colorado River.
John Doyle Lee
In 1872, 60-year-old John Doyle Lee, the man who gave his name to the ferry site, took center stage in a strange and tragic chapter in the history, not only of southern Utah and northern Arizona, but of the entire West. Lee a fanatic convert to Mormonism, a guard for the Mormon founder and prophet Joseph Smith, adopted son of Mormon President Brigham Young, faith healer for the church, husband of 19 women, and father of 64 children came to the remote crossing with two purposes. First, by order of the church, he would establish a regular ferry service for Mormons headed southward from Utah to establish settlements in Arizona. Second, with the complicity of the church, he hoped to find escape from a dark and troubling past.
As he and some of his wives settled into their isolated new home “Lonely Dell,” as it became known and built a ferry for travelers, he always looked over his shoulder, wondering when law enforcement authorities might arrive. He felt haunted by his leading part in the infamous 1857 Mountain Meadow Massacre an event unlike any other in the history of the West when Mormon zealots and Paiute Indian allies savaged a wagon train bound for California. “as many as 140 men, women, and children, traveling in one of the richest California bound wagon trains ever assembled, had been attacked, besieged for five days, persuaded to surrender under a flag of truce and a pledge of safe passage, and then murdered,” in the southwestern corner of Utah, according to Sally Denton, writing for American Heritage Magazine. The Mormons took revenge for perceived insults to their religion. They, and their Indian allies, also took the booty of the wagon train.
While the church tried to cover up its collusion in the tragedy, at least according to his Mormonism Unveiled; or The Life and Confessions of the Late Mormon Bishop, John D. Lee would become the scapegoat. He suffered excommunication from the church. “out of the Church I could find no joys worth living for,” he said in his account. He lost his wives, divorced from him by the church. “I afterwards lost my large ferry-boat at my ferry on the Colorado River.” He saw that loss as “a great blow to me in my destitute condition.” Finally arrested, he went to jail in 1874, some 17 years after the carnage. He went before a jury, which convicted him in 1876. He stood before a firing squad at Mountain Meadows, near the site of the murders, on a dreary morning in March 1877. “At the volley,” said Denton, Lee “fell back silently onto [his] rough-hewn coffin,” the only person involved in the massacre who ever came to justice.
Travelers and the Crossing
In the two decades following Lee’s execution, the ferry “was used as a crossing point by thousands of emigrants bound for Arizona,” according to the Utah History Encyclopedia. Moreover, miners began to explore the surrounding canyons and hills, part of the relentless quest to find gold in the West.
Some interesting balanced rocks occur on the road to Lee's Ferry. In the picture above, the cliff is being eroded by wind, frost and water. The balanced rock, called a hoodoo, is formed by differential erosion -- the softer rock below erodes faster than the harder rock above. The boulder on the pedestal is a roof protecting the soft rock underneath The water, wind and sand abrasion will cut at the soft layer pedestal, and eventually the boulder will fall. This process will continue creating many more interesting rock structures until the hill is eroded away.
Throughout the 55-year history of Lee’s Ferry operations, travelers inevitably faced serious risk in the river crossings. They experienced many accidents.
In 1927, construction on the Navajo Bridge began across Marble Canyon. When the bridge was completed in 1928, the need for Lee's Ferry ended. A newer bridge has recently replaced the old and now parallels the old spanning over 834 feet of the gorge at a height of 467 feet. The next opportunity to cross the Colorado River west of Lee's Ferry is the Hoover Dam bridge, many miles below the Grand Canyon.
Today’s travelers will also find that the Glen Canyon Dam, completed in 1964 some 15 miles upstream, has caused significant changes from the Lee’s Ferry site through Grand Canyon.
Before the dam, the sediment-laden river sculpted and re-sculpted canyon bottoms every year, especially during the floods of spring.
Since the dam, the Colorado River flow runs at controlled levels, clear and cold, about 47 degrees Fahrenheit all year, with water drawn from the chilly bottom of the lake. Rainbow Trout, a species introduced to the river system, have thrived in the cold clear waters below the dam, making the Lee’s Ferry stretch one of the premier sports fishing locations in the Southwest. It attracts anglers from across the world.
Exploring the Lee’s Ferry Area
While Lee’s Ferry, located near Page, Arizona, bears a patina of offbeat history, you will find that it also offers a diversity of outdoor experiences, ranging from historic site visits to camping to hiking to fishing to a great Southwestern boating adventure.
Lee's Ferry is probably best known today as the launching area for river rafting trips through the Grand Canyon gorge. Permits are required and should be obtained a year or more in advance. Numerous commercial enterprises offer various rafting packages. For information on Grand Canyon river trips, write: Grand Canyon National Park, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023-0129.
Lee's Ferry offers a ranger station, campground, launch ramp, courtesy dock, fish-cleaning station and access to 15 miles of the Colorado River (upriver only). A restaurant, service station, post office and store are available at the town of Marble Canyon on Highway 89A, 3.5 miles south of Lee's Ferry.
At Lee’s Ferry, you may launch into one of the Southwest’s supreme adventures, a professionally guided whitewater raft trip down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon. Your commercial outfitter, permitted by the National Park Service, may offer a variety of trips of various lengths, using boats ranging from paddle rafts, to motorized rafts to dories. Your guide, by requirement of the National Park Service, will have not only extensive experience on the river, but will also hold a Grand Canyon Guides License, a Food Handlers License and Wilderness First Responder Certification. You will need to plan ahead. The National Park Service limits the number who can make the journey.
For detailed information about Lee’s Ferry and the surrounding area, contact:
National Park Service
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
PO Box 1507
Page, Arizona 86040
National Park Service
Grand Canyon National Park
P.O. Box 129
Grand Canyon, Arizona 86023
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