In 1941, I was assigned to work on the Bridge Canyon Damsite when I was stationed in Phoenix. We moved a large drill crew into the canyon about 40 miles upstream from the Pierce Ferry on Lake Mead. We worked for a little over a year in the canyon, drilling four damsites and finally selecting the best site which was then called the Lower Gneiss Damsite. A complete exploration and materials investigation was made. This was during the war and involved traveling up the river by a boat and staying in a camp for 30 days at a time. The Bridge Canyon Damsite is considered one of the best concrete sites still left in the Western United States but because its high construction would involve storing water in the lower end of Grand Canyon National Park, it has received such opposition from nature groups similar to the Sierra Club, that it will probably not be built. Vaud E. Larson had charge of the work with an office in Kingman and the crews were supervised out of there.
The work at Bridge Canyon was unique for the Bureau in several respects. One of the most difficult parts of the job was that it was done during the war when men and equipment were very hard to get. The accessibility would be difficult at any time but during the war when boats, drills, gasoline, men, and all types of supplies were at a premium, it took a lot more effort to make a normal amount of progress. During the early part of the work in 1941 until June of 1942, Lake Mead was pulled down to a low level in order to make some repairs to the spillway at Hoover Dam. This meant the river was cutting through the silt beds in the canyon part of the reservoir and these vertical banks of silt were constantly caving into the water and forming large sand waves which retreated up the river. This meant that all boating up the river was in constant waves all the time. We built some 30-foot open boats which only drew about 6 inches of water. These could negotiate the river section very well and could carry about 1,500 pounds of freight.
[One of the folks who helped build the boats and served as a boatman prior to Murdock's arrival was Buzz Holmstrom] When we were first establishing the camp, Henry Hart as boatman made the trip from the camp down past the head of Lake Mead to Pierce Ferry each day. Here he loaded food, lumber to build the camp, gasoline for the drills, and all types of supplies. These trips up river from Pierce Ferry to the damsite took about 4 hours. Later, after the spring runoff in June, the Lake was filled back up to the point where all the silt beds were under water and traveling became easier. For awhile during May and June, when the river was running up to 90,000 second-feet and carrying a constant string of logs and floating debris, we could not put a boat on the river.
During this time we tried to haul gasoline and supplies in from Peach Springs by packhorse with Indian packers. This was a makeshift arrangement at best, but it did make it possible to keep drills operating most of the time although at times we ran out of food and during one 2-day stretch, we were forced to dynamite catfish in the river for our sole food supply. One stick of dynamite in a large hole in the river would produce 200 or 300 pounds of catfish, only half of which could be retrieved but these were fairly good eating and unless you had to eat them too often, they were okay.
It took about 3 months to establish the camp in the canyon which consisted of a tar-paper cook shack with tables, a walk-in refrigerator attached, and tents for sleeping accommodations for the men. We had a small generating plant which furnished lights and fans for the swamp-type air conditioners which were a necessity in this canyon. During the day, the temperatures in the summer would get up to 120° and the rocks would retain the heat all night so that even at midnight, it would still be around 110°. The coolers, therefore, were necessary or the men would be unable to sleep.
The tour of duty during those times was 6 days a week so all members of the crews would work 26 days continuously and then have the four Sundays off at one time so it meant 26 days in the canyon and four days out. Most of the drillers and the surveyors had families in Kingman. It was 80 miles from Kingman to Pierce Ferry by rough auto road and then 40-miles up river by boat. Everyone received $2 per diem, which just covered the cost of the food, and everyone furnished his own bedding. The Government furnished cots with mattresses and a sleeping tent. We made an extra effort to serve excellent food in the canyon because that was about the only luxury available. We finally, after several tries, found an excellent cook who had been a chef in some big hotels. Unfortunately, he liked the bottle and when he got paid and was close to a bar, he forgot completely about his job. Even worse than that, he would not go back to the job as long as he had any money. We found out that the only way we could get him back was to find out which bar he was in and about the time the truck got ready to head back into the canyon, usually about 4 o'clock in the morning, two or three of the strongest drillers would sneak in and grab him, drag him out, put him on the truck, and fight him all the way to Pierce Ferry. He would be cursing every step of the way, but we could get him back in the Canyon. After about a day and a half of seeing pink elephants and snakes, he would recover and thank us for getting him back on the job.
We had four Hualapai Indian rodmen who worked throughout the whole ‘30s and were excellent climbers. They camped by themselves in a tent near ours, but did not want to eat with the rest of the crews. We were using other Hualapai Indians in Peach Springs Draw, excavating test pits for concrete aggregate. When that work was completed, we wanted to bring them into the canyon to help build trails and move drills. We did get two of them who said they would like to come down and so we took them in on the boat but all the way up the canyon on the boat, they were scared speechless. They just kept looking at the high walls and after we got them up to the camp, they stayed with the other Indians, but they would not let them turn the lights off at night and made them stay up with them all night. They were scared something would happen down in the canyon and, when the boat left in the morning, they left with it.
During January 1941, we hired Harry Aleson as a boatman to run the river between the camp and Pierce Ferry. Harry is widely known as one of the old-time river rats who has run every river in the West, including the Mackenzie River from its headwaters to the Arctic Ocean. Harry was an excellent boatman and knew the Colorado River like a book. He had a life long ambition to run up the Colorado River through Grand Canyon. He had even cached gasoline from the rim down onto strategic spots so that he could some day make a run up the river and would have his gasoline ready for him. One night after dinner, before it got dark, Harry decided to run up to the Bridge Canyon Rapid which was about 1 1/2 miles above where one of the drills was working off a barge in the center of the river. Harry went up to this rapid and tried running it with our boat. He was alone, the rapids were too steep for him, and he overturned the boat. He was afraid of drowning and did not have a life jacket on, so he stripped off all his clothes, shed them into the river, and climbed onto the bottom of the over turned boat. The drillers were busily working on the barge when one of them looked up and saw Harry coming around the bend standing on the bottom of the boat which was submerged a couple of inches below the surface of the water. One of them cried out, “Look out, here comes Jesus Christ walking on the water.” Harry continued on down the river and climbed off onto the barge, but he wrecked the outboard motor which was attached to the boat, and this made the drill foreman, Ray Gossett, so mad he fired Harry and that was the end of a good boatmen.
Besides the drill work, we completed two horizontal drifts back into the abutments of the damsite, 200 or 300 feet in depth, and these were used to determine the quality of the rock and the number of fractures back in the abutment.
The survey crews varied considerably during the year and a half but, as mentioned before, most of the rodding on the steep, vertical cliffs was done by Indians who were very adept at scaling the walls and would scare anyone watching them and just worrying whether they were going to be able to get from one point to another without falling.
A complete railroad was surveyed, headed by Oscar Miz who had had lots of experience in railroad relocations. He came here from Shasta Dam in California. He located the railroad down the vertical cliffs to the damsite and also a highway which could be built. At that time, it was considered an absolute necessity that a railroad be taken to the bottom of the canyon. Since then, it has been proven that a big dam can be built without a railroad. An example is Glen Canyon where everything was hauled by big trucks rather than by rail. This was a formidable job to locate a railroad along vertical cliffs, some of them 500 and 600 feet vertical. Much of this had to be done by triangulation and it was a feather in Mr. Miz's cap that this work was accomplished.
I wrote geology reports on four damsites which were called the Upper and Lower Gneiss sites and the Upper and Lower Separation Damsites. The Lower Gneiss was selected as the best and much more work was completed on this than on the others. For instance, the depth of bedrock was much shallower at the Lower Gneiss than it was down below at the Separation Canyon sites.
During our stay in the canyon, a consulting board consisting of John Hammond and Mr. Savage of the Denver Office, and Dr. Berkey from Columbia University who at that time was acting as the Geologic Consultant for all the major Bureau work. They came into the canyon and spent about a week looking over the layout and preparing for final designs which, at that time, we thought would be forthcoming immediately after the war. All my end of this work was completed in March 1943 when I was transferred from Arizona to Salt Lake. The drilling work at Marble Canyon site, which was fully as interesting and spectacular as that at Bridge Canyon, was done during the 50's, and I was not as intimately acquainted with that work since it was handled out of Boulder City and I was located in Salt Lake.
Marble Canyon Dam is located just above the confluence of the Little Colorado and the main Colorado. Access was so difficult into the canyon here that an inclined cableway was built from the high rim down into the bottom of the canyon by the Region 3 crews. This cableway was about 3,000 feet long and about 2,000 feet in vertical elevation. All drills, equipment, men, including barges and everything required, were taken down this inclined tramway to the bottom and then boated to the dam axis. This is probably the most spectacular investigation program ever undertaken by the Bureau. The site is in limestone and while it is considered adequate for a dam, it is not as economical or as attractive for a power site as the one at Bridge Canyon. This work also was under the direction of Vaud E. Larson and the Regional Office at Boulder City.
With the opposition now organized to prevent any construction in any of the spectacular canyons in the West, it seems very doubtful that either of these dams will be constructed within the next 20 years.
J. Neil Murdock
from Early History of the Colorado River Storage Project May 1971 U. S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation
More on the Marble Canyon Dam next issue…