Grand Canyon National Park turns 100: How a place once called ‘valueless’ became grand

Few sights are as instantly recognizable, and few sites speak more fully to American nationalism. Standing on the South Rim in 1903, President Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed it “one of the great sights every American should see.”

It’s true. Every visitor today knows the Grand Canyon as a unique testimony to Earth’s history and an icon of American experience. But visitors may not know why. Probably they don’t know that it was big and annoying long before it was grand and inspiring. Likely, they don’t appreciate that the work of appreciating so strange a scene has been as astonishing as its geological sculpting. Other than a pilgrimage to a sacred site, they may not understand just what they are seeing.

As Grand Canyon National Park celebrates its centennial on Feb. 26, 2019, it’s worth recalling the peculiar way the canyon became grand and what this has meant.

[embedded content] Scientists still don’t know exactly how the Grand Canyon was created, but they do know that its oldest rocks date back more than 1.5 billion years.

‘This profitless locality’

The Grand Canyon was one of the first North American natural wonders to be discovered by Europeans. In 1541, a party of the Coronado expedition under Captain García López de Cardenas stood on the South Rim, 138 years before explorers found Niagara Falls, 167 before Yellowstone and almost 300 before Yosemite. A group scrambled down to the river but failed to reach it, and returned to announce that the buttes were much taller than the great tower of Seville. Then nothing. Some Coronado chroniclers did not even mention this side trip in their accounts.

A Franciscan friar, Francisco Tomas Garcés, tracing tribes up the Colorado River, then visited the rim in 1776, discovered the Havasupai tribe, and departed. Fur trappers based in Taos knew of the great gorge, which they called the Big Cañon, and shunned it. When they guided exploring parties of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographic Engineers in search of transportation routes, they steered the expeditions away from the canyon, which offered no passage by water or land.

Then in 1857, Lt. Joseph C. Ives led a steamboat up the Colorado River in explicit quest of the Big Cañon. After the steamboat struck a rock and sank near Black Canyon, Ives traveled down Diamond Creek to the inner gorge, briefly touched at the South Rim, and in 1861 concluded with one of the most infamous proclamations to ever emerge from an American explorer.

The region is, of course, altogether valueless … after entering it there is nothing to do but leave. Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality.

Eight years later Major John Wesley Powell descended the Colorado River through its gorges, renamed the Big Cañon as the Grand Canyon, and wrote a classic account of the view from the river. In 1882 Captain Clarence Dutton, in the first monograph published by the new U.S. Geological Survey, wrote an equally classic account, this time from the rim.

Something had changed. Mostly it was the advent of geology as a science with broad cultural appeal. The Grand Canyon might be valueless as a corridor of transport, but it was a “wonderland” for the new science. It helped enormously that artists were drawn to landscapes, of which the canyon seemed both unique and operatic. Urged by Powell and Dutton, Thomas Moran and William Henry Holmes transformed a supremely visual scene into paint and ink.

Panorama from Point Sublime, illustration of the Grand Canyon by William Henry Holmes, published in Clarence E. Dutton, ‘Tertiary History of the Grand Cañon District’ (1882). USGS
Before Powell and Dutton, the Grand Canyon was a place to avoid. Now it was a marvel to admire. Twenty years later Teddy Roosevelt stepped off a train at the South Rim and added nationalism to the mix by declaring it “a natural wonder … absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world.”

It was an astonishing reversal of perception. The geologic mystery of the canyon is how the south-trending Colorado River made a sudden turn westward to carve its way, cross-grained, through four plateaus. This is also more or less what happened culturally. Intellectuals cut against existing aesthetics to make a place that looked nothing like pastorals or alpine mountains into a compelling spectacle.