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
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
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
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.”