he latest word is that the celebrated bat towers on river right at mile 266 have received a stay of execution. The demolition, which had been scheduled for this October, was to be a cooperative operation between the NPS and the US Navy SEALS.
At the last minute, the citizens of Mohave County, with County Supervisor Sam Standerfer at the helm, managed to convince NPS to reverse their decision and leave the towers standing. At issue was the failure of the NPS to include local government and Native American interests in the decision making process concerning the fate of the bat towers.
The towers were part of a cable tram connecting the guano deposit in the Bat Cave with the south rim of the Canyon some 9,850 feet and a vertical half mile away. The tramway was built in the late 1950s by the US Guano Corporation to facilitate the mining of what was estimated to be approximately 100,000 tons of bat guano, touted as “nature’s most perfect plant food” deposited in the cave. At the time it was the longest cable span ever built and supported a bucket which could carry a ton of guano and six men. On reaching the rim the guano was transported by truck to Kingman and packaged in one and three-pound boxes “with a metal top and bottom and a convenient pour spout.” It sold at supermarkets for 69 cents for a one-pound container and $1.89 for the three-pound size. This translated into around $130 million dollars worth of poop. US Guano was “guano get rich” and happily spent over $3 million building the tram and support facilities for the mining operation. Mining began in earnest in 1958. The 20,000 foot pull cable had to be replaced less than five months into the operation, when foreman Bill Freiday discovered that a splice was coming apart. The track cable had to be replaced during construction, when somebody accidentally grabbed the wrong lever as tension was being pulled and dropped the whole works into the canyon. Production was just getting back into full swing when Freiday discovered some really “bat” news. Instead of the original estimate of 100,000 tons of guano in the cave, there was really only about 1,000 tons, the remainder of the estimated deposit being decomposed limestone. The operation shut down when the last of the poop was sucked from the cave through the ten inch vacuum line that led from the cave down to the storage bin atop the terminal tower.
US Guano would have lost its shirt on the deal had not the US Air Force come to the rescue. As the story goes, in 1961 Columbia Pictures approached Bill Freiday about making a film featuring the tram. When it came time to fire up the tram it only moved about 150 feet and stopped. It was ascertained that the operating cable was broken. After some checking around it was discovered that a fighter plane from Nellis Air Force Base was missing about three feet from one of its wing tips and the pilot couldn’t recall how it had happened. The Air Force paid US Guano for the damage. Thus ended a very unusual and unique chapter in the human history of Grand Canyon. The towers have become a landmark and a part of the story told to countless passengers on the way out of the Canyon across Lake Mead.
The story didn’t end there. In it’s 1980 Wilderness Recommendation, the Park Service wrote that the towers should be removed to pave the way for making the western Grand Canyon a wilderness, in spite of the fact that the Wilderness Act allows for the inclusion of man-made structures having historic, educational or scientific value in wilderness areas. Fifteen years later this paragraph was cited in the Environmental Assessment proposing the removal of the towers. The EA characterized the towers as an attractive nuisance, to which an unknown number of visitors would come to get hurt and/or disturb the Mexican free-tailed bats which are now populating the cave, which is over a hundred feet of difficult climbing above the top of the tower. The simplest solution—just closing the area to visitation—was rejected because it didn't meet the NPS wilderness objective.
When the EA process was completed, the Park Service made a decision to demolish the towers. Upon hearing this news, Sam Standerfer put his foot down, saying that Mohave County and the Hualapai Tribe should have been included in the process. The “Bat Towers Restoration Project” came to a screaming halt.
At this point the Towers remain where they are. The area has been closed to visitation to protect the bats and the public. The next step is to designate the towers as historic structures so that they can be included in the proposed wilderness area and everybody can be happy.
Tom Martin & Kenton Grua