Historic Inscriptions At Lees Ferry


Lees Ferry has truly been the crossroads of the canyon country when taking into account both river travel up and down the Colorado and overland travel between Utah and Arizona. It is located at the mouth of the Paria River where, for a ways, the confining walls break down and lower between the foot of Glen Canyon upstream and Marble Gorge downstream. This has long made it the primary crossing place of the Colorado River between what is now Moab, Utah, some 279 miles above, and what was Pearce Ferry, almost the same exact distance below. Indeed, the late P.T. Reilly was able to author a tome of 542 pages concerning just the Lees Ferry area.
Though utilized by Native Americans for over a millennium, whites, with our Euro-centric concept of history, first came to what would one day be called Lees Ferry in 1776. Today, nearly two-and-a-half centuries later, it remains the embarkation point for thousands of whitewater river-runners heading downstream on the Colorado through the Grand Canyon, while Highway 89 crosses not far to the south. It should not be surprising, therefore, that at least some of the myriad travelers that have gone through Lees Ferry over the years have left a record of their passing in the form of names and dates on the surrounding rocks.
These inscriptions have been both carved and painted on the cliffsides, rock boulders, and even into the stone walls of one of the 19th century buildings still standing at the site. Some of these signatures are easily seen and are well known to modern tourists and visitors. Others are familiar to backpackers and hikers who range away from today’s boat-launching area. However, there are some that are only seen by ardent searchers and enthusiasts.
Of the five separate localities in the Lees Ferry area where these historic inscriptions can be found, the best known is the old Lees Ferry fort. Situated facing towards the river, it is only a few paces north of today’s parking lot and concrete boat-launch ramp. The one-story, stone building was constructed in the summer of 1874 by the Mormon Church to serve as a combination trading store and fortification for dealings with the Navajo Indians across the Colorado to the south.
On the face of the large stone lintel above the eastern door, a discerning eye can make out the weathered remnant of at least two words, painted on with what was probably axle grease. The first four letters can be made out to be “Andr—,” but the remainder is no longer readable. The possibility exists that it may be the name “Andrew Gibbons,” one of the leaders of the fifteen-man Mormon building crew. Also dating to the construction period is the name “E.W. Stevens,” incised into one of the building stones on the back of the trading store-fort. Immediately underneath are the letters “Jul.” A long one, or a short two days’ journey to the west, the same name, E.W. Stevens, but this time with a complete date of “Jul The 3, 1874,” is carved at House Rock Spring.
Four other inscriptions carved into the fort walls date from an 1891 prospecting-river trip. Initiated by Denver capitalist James S. Best, the plan was to descend the Green and Colorado Rivers from the railroad town of Greenriver, Utah, to a silver vein located in the depths of the Grand Canyon below Lees Ferry. They would also prospect for other possible mineral resources as they boated down the rivers. They reached Lees Ferry on August 14, and it was soon decided to end the river portion of their expedition here and continue on to Bright Angel Canyon (near the mouth of which was the reported silver prospect) over land with packhorses.
While Best and one other member of the expedition traveled out to Kanab, Utah, to secure horses, the rest of the group stayed in the “old John D. Lee fort,” and spent the next few days cleaning out the building and generally tidying up their camp. Names incised into two adjacent stones of the structure, to the left of the western door, are those of expedition members “E. Kane” and “McCormick.” Elmer Kane’s is dated “Aug. 20. 91,” while James A. McCormick’s is “Aug. 18–91.”
As events unfolded, Best was called back to Denver to meet with the mining company board, and as a result the men languished at Lees Ferry for over two months. Member Luther H. Jewel left “LH Jewel Sept 20–91” incised into the back wall of the fort on the left, close to E.W. Steven’s inscription. Undoubtedly, it was also sometime during this two-month waiting period that John Hislop carved “J. Hislop” to the right of the eastern front door.
With the eventual return of Best, the party finally departed Lees Ferry on October 17. The silver prospect turned out to be a bust, and by the end of the month the expedition subsequently broke up. One other inscription, lightly scratched into the back wall of the Lees Ferry fort, near that of Jewel’s, reads, “JRB 91+Nov.” None of the members of the expedition had these initials, the closest being James S. Best himself. Though the date would be in agreement with when any of the members of the now-dissolved prospecting party might have returned to Lees Ferry, this inscription probably does not relate to the Best expedition.
In 1871, John Doyle Lee was sent by the Latter-day Saint church president, Brigham Young, to the mouth of the Paria River to establish a crossing place on the Colorado River for future Mormon settlement into the Little Colorado River region of northern Arizona. Lee and his family arrived on or close to New Year’s, 1872. Later that fall the first ferryboat was constructed for use by the colonizing expeditions of the coming year. The point chosen for the ferry crossing was about half-a-mile upstream from Lees farm and residence. Here, at the foot of Glen Canyon, various ferryboats would transport hundreds of travelers back and forth across the Colorado from 1873 until 1928.
About halfway up to the ferry crossing, carved into a low rock wall immediately adjacent to the river, is the following inscription: “G.M. Wright Nov. 17, 1892.” Perhaps inspired in part by the newspaper publicity surrounding the Best expedition the year before, prospector George M. Wright had been hired by a mining company in Salt Lake City to follow in Best’s “footsteps” down the Green and Colorado Rivers, searching for possible mineral locations. As did Best, Wright ended his river voyage at Lees Ferry, reaching that point on November 17. The inscription probably marks his landing and/or camping place. He subsequently remained in the Lees Ferry area for the next couple of years prospecting, before finally drifting farther south in Arizona to new mining opportunities.
On the opposite, or south side of the ferry crossing, a rough wagon road had been constructed which followed back downstream for a short ways before angling up the steep ascent of Lees Backbone. On some rocky outcroppings to the left of this road can still be seen several names left by travelers. One, painted on with what was probably axle grease, reads, “E.A. Burk Nov 21 —.”

Unfortunately, the year date has been nearly weathered away, but appears to be “89.” Luckily, this same person left another inscription some forty miles to the west along the Mormon Wagon road at House Rock Spring. This carving provides much more information: “Edgar A. Burk Of Farmington Cut This In Sep 22 1880 Going To Arizona A.D.” The November 21 date at Lees Ferry indicates, obviously, a different trip.
Very close to the Burk inscription is one reading, “Val. Wightman May 10 95.” Wightman also left his name and the date incised at Willow Springs, farther south on the Mormon wagon road, but three days earlier, on March 7. This would, of course, indicate that he was traveling from Arizona north to Utah.
From the south bank of the Lees Ferry crossing, the Mormon wagon road soon began its way upward along the steeply sloping incline of the large rock ledge named, facetiously, by early travelers “Lees Backbone.” Part way up the mile-long climb a lengthy inscription can be found deeply carved into a boulder: “Dec 4 1878. This Rock Sentinel To Passing Of First Mesa Company Under The Command Of Hyrum Smith Phelps.” Phelps, from Bear Lake County, Idaho, piloted a group of 83 individuals from that region, and also from Salt Lake County, Utah, to reinforce the relative few Mormon settlers who had come “over the rim” of the Colorado Plateau to the valley of the Salt River in central Arizona the preceding spring.
Farther south, shortly before the old route descends to the comparatively flat level of the Marble Platform, another early traveler left his name and the fate incised near the bottom of a roadside boulder: “Isaac Miller 24 Jul 1885.”
From the beginning, early travelers complained about the rugged, jolting, slow route up and over Lees Backbone. As a result, beginning in 1878, a lower ferry crossing was established below the mouth of the Paria River, thus avoiding the obstacle of the “backbone” and attaining the level of the Marble Platform via a comparatively short dugway constructed up from the south side of the Colorado. However, the high spring floods made a crossing here extremely difficult and dangerous, and therefore this lower ferry crossing was only utilized between August and May. By 1897 it was abandoned altogether.
Old names and dates can still be seen on both banks of this lower crossing site. Those on the north side, painted in axle grease on exposed rock ledges, have almost entirely weathered away. The only one still readable today is the initials “J.C.K.,” with a date of “Mar 21 88.”
Close to the south side landing of the ferry, in a more sheltered overhang of the cliff, a dozen names, also painted in axle grease, remain to be seen. The oldest is probably that of “H. Cluff.” Below the name, and more weathered, can be read, “Oct 14.” The year date, however, below the month and day, can no longer be made out. The extended Cluff family first settled on Silver Creek, one of the headwaters of the Little Colorado River in east-central Arizona, in 1877. Various members of the family left several inscriptions at different places along the old Mormon road between Utah and Arizona, with dates ranging from 1876 to 1893.
Other travelers’ names still readable under the rock overhang at the south bank ferry landing include, “J.A. Teeples Sept. 10th. 92,” “I.T. Kempton Oct. 92,” “Annie Hunt 1892,” “C.H. Mar. 29/95,” and “Alice” and “Jack Rowe Nov 13/96.”
Before there was a wagon road linking the established Mormon towns of southern Utah with the fledgling settlements in northern Arizona, trails came to the Colorado River at the mouth of the Paria. Prior to 1874 this point was little used as a stream crossing; the depth of the river was simply too great. The main crossing point before that time was some forty miles upstream, at what was variously known as the Crossing of the Fathers, or simply as the Ute Ford. As the latter name indicates, for most months of the year, the Colorado here was shallow enough to be used as an actual ford; boats or ferries were not necessary.
Native American foot trails, and later used by horses, reached this river ford from the Lees Ferry area only after climbing the thousand-foot face of the Paria Plateau to the north. The trail followed up the Paria River about three miles, before abruptly ascending the north side of the canyon via some cascading sand dunes and scalable rock ledges. Known simply as the Sand Trail, or later as the Dominguez Pass Trail, it remained the principal foot and horseback egress to the north from the Lees Ferry area until 1910.
At the bottom of the Paria canyon, very close to where the Sand Trail begins its climb upwards, a large talus boulder sits a few feet off of the path. Carved into two of its sides are the initials “P.W.J.” and “F.T.J.,” with the year date “1896.” Price William and Frank Tilton Johnson were two of the sons of Warren M. Johnson, who operated Lees Ferry for the Mormon Church from 1875 until November 1896. Very likely the initials and date mark the Johnson boys’ memorial and good-by to the place where they were born and to the only home they had ever known.
One last inscription site is found in the Lees Ferry area. It is intriguing in the fact that, while it does date back into the 19th century, it is not as “old” as it seems. About three miles straight west from Lees Ferry, at the foot of the Vermilion Cliffs, is what is shown on today’s maps as Fisher Spring. Beneath the green cottonwoods a weathered slab of rock bears the names “C.E. Holladay 1857,” and immediately below, “C.A. Huntington.”
This inscription would be important as far as Lees Ferry regional history is concerned, for it would predate the earliest known Anglo-American visit there by one year; Jacob Hamblin’s first missionary and exploratory expedition to the Hopi pueblos in 1858. However, written records and oral testimony show that C.E. “Gene” Holladay and Clark A. “Al” Huntington, two Mormon prospectors, did not actually come to Lees Ferry until 1889. For the next few years they made Lees Ferry their “base” for making short prospecting trips into the surrounding region. Very probably it was during this period that one, or both, of the men carved their names at Fisher Spring, said to be one of their favorite camping places. Why they put the 1857 date is not known; perhaps just a “joke” on their part.
All of these inscriptions are important historical records of Lees Ferry’s past. Many of them, especially those “painted” onto the rock, are succumbing naturally to time and the elements. Modern-day visitors do not need to hasten the process by touching them or “adding to” them. Remember the old adages you have heard since you were a child: “Look, but do not touch,” and “Take pictures, but leave only footprints.”

Jim Knipmeyer