By any customary measure, the Colorado River is an unremarkable stream. It does not rank as the longest river in North America, nor the widest, nor the most abundant. Its drainage basin of a quarter-million square miles barely falls within the ten largest in the United States, and much of it covers inaccessible range or desolate wasteland. Unlike the Mississippi, Hudson, and St. Lawrence, to name three great riparian thoroughfares of the continent, the Colorado has never been a significant bearer of commercial traffic.
Throughout history, what has set the Colorado River apart from all other waterways of the Western Hemisphere is its violent personality. The Colorado has always been best known for the scars it left on the landscape, among them the greatest of all natural works, the Grand Canyon, a testament to the river’s primordial origin and its compulsive energy. No river equaled its maniacal zeal for carving away the terrain in its path and carrying it downstream, sometimes as far as a thousand miles. No river matched its schizophrenic moods, which could swing in the course of a few hours from that of a meandering country stream to an insane torrent.
It is hardly surprising that from ancient times, the humans who coexisted with the Colorado depicted it not as a beneficent life-giving force but as a fiery red monster, a dragon or serpent beyond man’s ability to tame.
The basin’s first recorded inhabitants, the native tribespeople of the southern plains, had no option but to accommodate themselves to the river’s implacable temperament. They pastured their livestock on the grass that sprang up in the wake of its floods, planted crops on its rich alluvial deposits, imagined their gods and spirits housed within its labyrinthine canyons, assembled their myths and legends from the raw material of its natural mystery.
The American settlers of a later era, driven by the demands of commerce and dreams of wealth, were not so inclined to defer to nature’s unpredictable willfulness. From their earliest encounters with the river, they pondered how to corral it, divert it, drain it, and consume it. The California engineer Joseph Barlow Lippincott, dispatched to the river by the city of Los Angeles in 1912, pronounced it “an American Nile awaiting regulation”—to be best treated “in as intelligent and vigorous a manner as the British government has treated its great Egyptian prototype.”
Lippincott’s judgment reflected a new conservation policy then taking root in the United States. It was based on defining conservation not as protection or preservation but as exploitation. Woodrow Wilson’s interior secretary, Franklin K. Lane, laid out the new approach with striking directness. “Every tree is a challenge to us, and every pool of water and every foot of soil,” he proclaimed. “The mountains are our enemies. We must pierce them and make them serve. The sinful rivers we must curb.”
Lane’s successors answered his call to arms. Over the following decades, the U.S. government carried out an ambitious program to harness the sinful Colorado, working the river until the volume remaining to trickle into the sea scarcely merited an asterisk on a hydrological graph. The architects of this program couched their intentions in moral terms, as though they were not altering the natural order but restoring the watershed to a state of grace. “The Colorado River flows uselessly past the international desert which Nature intended for its bride,” wrote William Ellsworth Smythe, the most prominent water evangelist of his era, in 1900. “Some time the wedding of the waters to the soil will be celebrated, and the child of that union will be a new civilization.”
What first lured Europeans to the banks of the Colorado, however, was not its potential to nurture crops. It was gold. Or, more precisely, the mirage of gold.
The Spanish conquistadors, led by Hernân Cortes and Francisco Pizarro, had completed their plunder of the Inca and Aztec empires of the New World before the sixteenth century was three decades old. They had looted the Indians’ storehouses, exhausted their mines, and worked legions of slaves to death. Yet their appetite for gold, silver, and gemstones remained unquenched.
Fortuitously, hints of new treasures soon emerged from the uncharted north, reenergizing the Spanish quest. In the mid-1530s, adventurers returned from Indian imprisonment in the Sonoran Desert—present-day New Mexico and Arizona—laden with news of a land called Cibola, where stood seven magnificent cities in which (according to the yarn one traveler spun for his relatives) “the women wore strands of gold and the men golden waistbands” and the palace walls were encrusted with emeralds.
Lured by this vision of wealth, the conquistadors probed along the Sea of Cortez (the Gulf of California) until they encountered, inevitably, the Colorado delta. The first advance parties were driven back by the ferocious tides at the confluence of the river and gulf. Finally, in 1539, a ship under the tenacious command of Captain Hernando de Alarcón managed to sail upriver about 150 miles, penetrating well into Sonora. He was shortly followed by an immense force under the command of General Francisco Vâsquez de Coronado, dispatched to explore the beckoning golden empire by land.
Coronado’s scouts were soon filling in the blank maps of the Southwest. They renamed the Colorado the Rio del Tison, or Firebrand River—not because of its willfulness, but for the torches the local Indians bore on their travels—and they came upon the Grand Canyon, reporting the immense natural formation with appropriate wonderment.
But their quest for gold failed. A pueblo city that scouts had described as ringed with gilded ramparts proved to be built of mere mud and clay, which happened to glimmer deceptively in the setting sun. The other majestic cities of Cibola remained as elusive as phantasms. For two more years
Coronado searched for gold, finally returning home empty-handed and deeply in debt.
Yet there was gold in the north, just not where he had been looking for it. Another three centuries would pass before its discovery would attract white Americans in great numbers back to what had long since been written off as a hopelessly unprepossessing territory. The Gold Rush of 1849 would draw ninety thousand fortune seekers, known as Forty-niners or Argonauts, to ford the Colorado River—part of a migration of men, women, and families that has been called “the largest single western movement in the nation’s history.”
The frenzy began with an unassuming item on an inside page of the San Francisco Californian of March 15, 1848, headlined, “GOLD MINE FOUND.” It did not fully take root in the national consciousness until nine months later, when President James K. Polk gave the federal government’s imprimatur to the discovery at Sutter’s Mill. As an expansionist, Polk made no effort to downplay a discovery likely to encourage new settlement in an underpopulated region. Instead, he reported in his annual message to Congress on December 5 that “the explorations already made warrant the belief that the supply is very large.”
Some 300,000 Argonauts struck out for the West, a third of them taking what became known as the southern routes—overland byways converging at Yuma, Arizona, where the Gila River joined the Colorado, and continuing along one or another waterless trail, or jornada, toward the Pacific coast. These trails acquired a vicious reputation. One in particular, a desert crossing paralleling the Rio Grande in New Mexico, bore a label that presently was applied to the entire unspeakably harsh road west. It was known in Spanish as la jornada de la muerte; in English as “the journey of death.”
Perils of every variety confronted travelers on the jornada: disease, brigands, hostile tribes, and the daunting terrain itself. Not even the best-out-fitted expeditions were immune. This was shown by the dire experience of John Woodhouse Audubon, the renowned naturalist’s younger son, who left New York for the Texas coast and points west with a party of eighty, backed by what was regarded as lavish capital of $27,000.
On the day of his departure, Audubon was a youthful thirty-six, “tall, strong and alert,” in the words of his daughter Maria. When he returned home a year later he was broken, “worn out in body and spirit” by his travails on the Jornada and the loss at sea of all his sketches and most of his notebooks.
The first blow to strike Audubon’s company had been cholera, which killed five members within days of their landing in Texas and reduced a dozen others to dehydrated wraiths. The survivors pressed on, Audubon collecting botanical specimens and sketching wildlife in his father’s style. In mid-October he and his remaining companions reached the junction of the Gila and the Colorado, which he dismissed as merely a “muddy stream.” Crossing to the opposite bank and clambering up a sand dune, he perceived a further omen of the dismal prospects facing the expedition. He was perched upon a desert ridge that belonged to the “walking hills” of California, a natural barrier that would obstruct men’s activities in the region for the next half-century. “There was not a tree to be seen, nor the least sign of vegetation, and the sun pouring down on us made our journey seem twice the length it really was.”
The next day Audubon’s group came upon a chain of fetid lagoons, where they deduced the fate of their numberless predecessors from the detritus scattered on the ground. “Truly here was a scene of desolation,” he wrote.
Broken wagons, dead shriveled up cattle, horses and mules as well, lay baking in the sun, around the dried-up wells that had been opened, in the hopes of getting water. Not a blade of grass or green thing of any kind relieved the monotony of the parched, ash-colored earth, and the most melancholy scene presented itself that I have seen since I left the Rio Grande.
They could hardly have suspected, slogging through the vacant wastes and slaking their thirst from pools of water described by a fellow traveler as “a tincture of bluelick, iodides of sulphur, Epsom salts, and a strong decoction of decomposed mule flesh,” that they were crossing the grounds of a future paradise. The introduction of fresh water to the Imperial Valley and the dam that would impound it lay decades in the future. But the Argonauts’ journeys marked a vital step in the process. The Gold Rush awoke official Washington to the military and economic significance of America’s western territories and to the necessity of acquiring firsthand testimony about what lay between the frontier and the Pacific coast.
One of the prime movers of what became known as the Great Reconnaissance was President Franklin Pierce’s secretary of war, Jefferson Davis.
The desert held a peculiar fascination for Jeff Davis. As a U.S. senator, he had risked public ridicule by proposing to deploy camels in the Southwest as a military experiment. Upon joining the cabinet in 1853, he put his plan into action by importing fifty of the animals for his department, but the program collapsed four years later, following his and President Pierce’s departure from power.
A more enduring mark was left by the survey Davis commissioned to identify a Southwestern route for an intercontinental railroad. The reports from his five survey parties later published in twelve majestic volumes-America’s most important exploratory record since Lewis and Clark—contained a wealth of information about the vast region’s topography, geology, wildlife, and natural history.
Attached to the survey was William Phipps Blake, a young geologist from a prominent Eastern family. Blake’s party failed to discern a suitable railroad route, but he did stumble upon a remarkable geologic feature in the trackless desert. His first clue that he had found something extraordinary came on November 17, 1853, when from the edge of a windswept ridge in the San Bernardino Mountains (not far from the site of modern Palm Springs) he noticed “a discoloration of the rocks extending for a long distance in a horizontal line on the side of the mountains.”
With great excitement, Blake worked his way down the gradient. From the valley floor the line “could be traced along the mountain sides, following all the angles and sinuosities of the ridges for many miles—always preserving its horizontality—sometimes being high up above the plain, and again intersecting long and high slopes of gravel and sand; on such places a beach-line could be read.”
The conclusion was inescapable: he was standing in the dry bed of an immense ancient sea, and the white line was its high water mark.
Blake named the sea Lake Cohuilla, after the local Indian tribe. The white deposit, he determined, was composed of the fossilized shells of freshwater animals. His barometer told him that his location measured at least one hundred feet below sea level. From the Indians he learned that the valley served as the traditional locus of their own flood legend, “a tradition they have of a great water (agua grande) which covered the whole valley and was filled with fine fish. . . . Their fathers lived in the mountains and used to come down to the lake to fish and hunt. The water gradually subsided ‘poco,’ ‘poco,’ (little by little,) and their villages were moved down from the mountains, into the valley it had left. They also said that the waters once returned very suddenly and overwhelmed many of their people and drove the rest back to the mountains.”
The desert was shaped like an oblong bowl rising from a central depression, or “sink,” about one hundred miles west of the Colorado River and deeper at its lowest point than Death Valley. The region’s rainfall of less than three inches a year, the continent’s most meager, had created over the eons a terrain as empty as the Arabian wastes. Where there was any vegetation at all, it was of the lowliest variety, resinous greasewood and creosote whose roots clung like talons to the sun-hardened earth.
Yet Blake was not fooled by the apparent lifelessness of the cracked and sere clay veneer. “The alluvial soil of the Desert is capable of sustaining a vigorous vegetation,” he reported. “If a supply of water could be obtained for irrigation, it is probable that the greater part of the Desert could be made to yield crops of almost any kind.”
The desert was in fact a deposit of rich soil eroded by the Colorado River from the basin upstream and transported south at the rate of 160 million tons a year. Working on millennial time, the silt filled in the shallow headwaters of the Gulf of California, shifting its shore 150 miles southward. This process turned the gulf’s northernmost arm into the landlocked lake later known as the Salton Sea. As the lake slowly evaporated, it left behind a crust of mineral salt and calcified shells, the remnants of which Blake had spotted.
Meanwhile, the river built up its bed with its own silt deposits year after year, like a train laying its own tracks. Eventually the river would be flowing within parallel levees elevated high above the desert floor. In time the levees would become unstable, their walls would collapse, and the stream, freed of its constraints, would inundate the desert basin, recharging the inland sea. Centuries would pass, a new accumulation of silt would stopper the errant flow, and the river would return to its old delta, resuming its journey to the gulf. Again the sea would evaporate, again the river would build up and tear down its levees, and again the sea would fill up, in a never-ending cycle.
How many such oscillations took place over the ages no one can say. A filled sea was encountered by travelers in the 1500s. Another inundation was recorded in the first half of the eighteenth century. Between 1824 and 1905, the lake filled and evaporated eight times; in 1891 it was known as a modest impoundment covering 100,000 acres, about half the surface area of the modern Salton Sea.
Blake knew none of this geological history. But his intuition told him that the Colorado could irrigate the valley year-round through the judicious cutting of canals and channels to take advantage of its periodic overflows. He even pictured the valley as a sort of reclaimed aquatic wonderland: “It is, indeed, a serious question whether a canal would not cause the overflow of a vast surface, and refill, to a certain extent, the dry valley of the Ancient Lake,” he wrote.
He was the first American to perceive that this was a grand natural system of inexhaustible economic value—a desiccated Eden requiring only a water supply to make it bloom. Because of the region’s remoteness and inaccessibility, however, this vision would have to be discovered and rediscovered several times before it would permanently take hold in the national imagination.
Blake would live long enough to see his predictions come to pass in the new century. At the time of his survey’s publication, however, his perceptions went largely unheeded. Unheeded, that is, by all except another man, afflicted by a restless, visionary cast of mind, who had come west like so many others, searching for gold.
A thirty-four-year-old Ohio-born physician, Oliver Meredith Wozencraft had contracted an acute case of wanderlust from the Argonauts passing through his hometown of New Orleans. Early in 1849 he left behind his wife and children and set forth to scratch his itch. Reaching the eastern bank of the Colorado in May to find the river at floodtide, he and his traveling companions accomplished a precarious crossing in a makeshift kayak of ox hide.
Taking the long way around the Saharan dunes, they traveled by night and by day slept huddled under blankets that were buried in sand by the time they awoke. This stratagem failed to shield them from the ravages of the climate.
The heat was so intense [Wozencraft confided to his diary] that on the third day two of my men failed. It occurred to me, as there was nothing I could do there, to mount my patient and gentle mule and at a distance of some eight miles I reached the border of the desert and water with which I filled a bag and brought it back to them.
“It was then and there,” he wrote later, “that I first conceived the idea of the reclamation of the desert.”
This was, at best, a romanticized version of his epiphany, tailored for public consumption. In fact, Wozencraft’s conception of an irrigated desert gradually took form over the following decade, inspired in part by Blake’s report. He unveiled his plan for public consumption in 1859 by laying a cunning proposal before the California legislature: if the state would grant him title to the desert, he would Crosshatch it with canals and turn it into an agricultural wonderland.
The tract he sought encompassed the land between the Colorado River and San Bernardino Peak all the way south to the Mexican border, roughly sixteen thousand square miles or ten million acres, of which about half was flat terrain suited for agriculture. It would rank as one of the largest outright gifts of territory to an individual ever proposed in the youthful United States. On April 16, 1859, the California legislature approved it with barely a murmur of debate and with the sole condition that Wozencraft persuade Congress to agree to the transfer. This mission would consume him for the next twenty-eight years.
While Wozencraft was formalizing the first plan to exploit the Colorado for the reclamation of the desert, the federal government pondered the river’s greater virtues. Davis’s railroad survey had whetted the War Department’s thirst for geographic knowledge. The task of achieving the next great leap in understanding was assigned to a young officer of the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers bearing the evocative name of Joseph Christmas Ives.
Ives was a slender New Yorker with deep-set eyes and a dandified bearing who had been born to a family of socialites on December 25, 1828—hence his middle name. Upon his graduation from West Point in 1852, he was dispatched by the engineering corps to distant Arizona, where he was still cooling his heels in 1857 when Secretary of War John B. Floyd, Davis’s successor, ordered him to probe the Colorado River as far upstream as he could go. The goal was to determine exactly how much of it was navigable, and therefore whether it could be used to supply the proliferating army garrisons strung across New Mexico and Utah like a giant necklace. These were served over land routes stretching as long as 1,500 miles, and the army hoped that river transport might shorten the supply lines enough for a round-trip to be measured in days, not weeks.
But the river was a closed book to the army quartermasters—indeed, to the entire federal bureaucracy—beyond Yuma, which stood a mere 150 miles upstream of the head of the Gulf of California. Among the questions for which the government sought answers was the exact location of what was called the “Big Canon”—a “rather mythical” feature, as Ives wrote in his expedition journal, which became one of the seminal documents of the Great Reconnaissance. Little was known of the canyon, he wrote, other than the descriptions bequeathed by “the accounts of one or two trappers, who ... propagated among their prairie companions incredible accounts of the stupendous character of the formation.”
Ives would be the white man who finally located the Grand Canyon. He found its downstream entrance roughly 450 miles from the gulf, or about a hundred miles beyond the point he marked as the river’s “practical head of navigation,” where he had been forced to abandon his waterborne vessels and continue his expedition on dry land.
From the rim of the canyon he would unburden himself of a misjudgment that still echoes along the corridors of history: “Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality,” he wrote in his journal. “It seems intended by nature that the Colorado river, along the greater portion of its lonely and majestic way, shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed.”
Ives had been ordered to depart from the mouth of the Colorado by December 1, which gave him less than six months to assemble and equip his crew. From a Philadelphia forge he commissioned a fifty-foot flat-bottomed steamer, christened the Explorer, which was transported in disassembled form via rail to San Francisco. There it was loaded aboard the schooner Monterey for onward shipment to the expedition’s starting place at the head of the Gulf of California.
On November 1, the Monterey lumbered out of San Francisco Bay, carrying the Explorer and Ives’s traveling party of twenty-four, including a captain and engineer, a boat crew of eight, and his official topographer, a gifted Bavarian draftsman named Baron Frederick W. von Egloffstein. Blessed with a favorable wind she reached Cabo San Lucas, at the southern tip of Baja California, in seven days, only to spend three weeks beating laboriously back against the same northerly gusts along the eastern shore of the Baja peninsula, toward the Colorado delta.
At the head of the gulf, Ives memorably encountered the phenomenon known as the “bore,” a tidal surge capable of reducing a vessel to splinters. Caused by the thirty-six-foot difference between high and low tide in the narrow head of the gulf, the bore announced itself with a fall in the water level so abrupt that the Monterey, anchored peaceably over a shoal, suddenly found herself beached atop a hummock of sand. Then conditions turned sinister.
About nine o’clock, while the tide was still running out rapidly, we heard, from the direction of the Gulf, a deep, booming sound, like the noise of a distant waterfall [Ives recollected]. Every moment it became louder and nearer, and in half an hour a great wave, several feet in height, could be distinctly seen flashing and sparkling in the moonlight, extending from one bank to the other, and advancing swiftly upon us. . . .[T]he broad sheet around us boiled up and foamed like the surface of a caldron, and then, with scarcely a moment of slack water, the whole went whirling by in the opposite direction. . . .For a long time, in the stillness of the night, the roaring of the huge mass could be heard reverberating, until at last it became faint and lost in the distance.
The next day the Monterey sidled up to land and the crew transferred the Explorer’s parts from the schooner for assembly on the riverbank, a job hampered by the tendency of the waterlogged clay to swallow the men up to their knees.
Four weeks later, on December 30, Ives inspected his “pigmy, but prettily modeled, boat,” fully assembled. In truth the Explorer was an odd-looking contraption, a glorified skiff so unbalanced by the huge boiler placed amidships that lengths of timber had to be riveted to the hull to keep it from buckling. A small pilothouse stood aft, and a paddlewheel at the stern with a cowl on which crewmen were inclined to drape themselves in calm weather. At the bow a four-pound howitzer was mounted—proof, it was hoped, against an Indian ambush.
With an earsplitting blast from her whistle minutes before midnight on New Year’s Eve, the Explorer slid out of her muddy berth and headed up the Colorado. Word of her progress passed rapidly along the river from tribe to tribe, so she was often greeted by throngs of Indians massed on the banks. Sensitive to his role as chronicler of the meeting of two cultures with a mutual, if not necessarily reconcilable, interest in the Colorado, Ives filled his journal with tolerant judgments of the onlookers. (“The women generally have modest manners, and many are good looking.”)
For seven weeks he made his way upriver. The flat featureless terrain of the delta gave way to stone palisades and rocky canyons, framed by the vivid reds and browns of distant mountains. By day Egloffstein perched on the wheelhouse, notebook in his lap, producing an incomparable artistic record of the unspoiled West: bighorn sheep drinking serenely from the riverbanks, storks skimming inches from the surface, towering rocks of every shape and description—lighthouses, pyramids, obelisks, stone cathedrals of awe-inspiring grace and immeasurable grandeur.
During the last week of February the Explorer reached the Black Mountain range in Arizona’s Mojave country. Ives, eyeing the steep walls of a distant gorge, thrilled himself with the conviction that he was about to enter the Big Canon of legend. “Every point of the view is scanned with eager interest,” he jotted.
What he had actually found was the mouth of Black Canyon—some one hundred miles short of his myth-shrouded objective but spectacular enough in its own right. The five days needed to reach it after it first appeared on the horizon had been fraught with danger: a dozen rapids, violent eddies that whirled the Explorer around “like a teetotum,” interspersed with innumerable reaches through which the boat had to be towed by a dozen men hauling upon fraying ropes or by a battered skiff with splintered oars.
At the very last moment, just before entering the canyon itself, the Explorer nearly came to grief. She had gunned her engines to conquer one final rapid and then, suddenly reaching calm water, shot heedlessly up the river and slammed at full speed into a submerged rock at the center of the channel. “For a second the impression was that the canyon had fallen in,” Ives reported. Several men pitched overboard. The boiler jolted loose from its moorings, the wheelhouse tore away, and the boat seemed on the verge of coming apart in mid-river.
The damage, while serious, was not as bad as it could have been. Limping to shore, the Explorer proved to need only a few days of repair. Ives left his crew to the task, assigned himself a spare skiff, and headed into the ravine. As his two oarsmen pulled against the stiff current, he marveled at the perpendicular walls towering more than a thousand feet above him from the very edge of the water.
The river was narrow and devious, and each turn disclosed new combinations of colossal and fantastic forms, dimly seen in the dizzy heights overhead, or through the sunless depths of the vista beyond ... amphitheaters, rotundas, castellated walls, and rows of time-stained ruins, surmounted by every form of tower, minaret, dome, and spire.
Darkness closed over this passage in the mountains with the abrupt finality of a lid shutting a coffin. In the last gleams of twilight Ives sketched his impressions of the brooding gorge. These he presently delivered to Egloffstein, who sifted them through his own gothic imagination to produce a classic, if exaggerated, portrayal of nature at her most portentous. In his etching, the walls of Black Canyon tower out of the frame, behind a line of serrated crags and a Whitewater rapid, like a dark valley in Norse myth. The entire scene is bathed in a premonitory gloom hinting at shadowy wonders ahead, beyond a blind turn.
This was the Black Canyon Ives’s readers got to know, among them officials in the War Department who were surely discouraged by his report of the poor navigability of the Colorado beyond Black Canyon. None of them could have imagined that many years later, just a few hundred yards upstream from where the Explorer almost broke to pieces, the natural spectacle of Black Canyon would be eradicated by a huge arch of white concrete, a man-made thing to take the place of natures handiwork as a wonder of the world.
When Ives’s report was published, Wozencraft was in his second year of harrying Congress for a land grant. Monitoring the debate over his proposal from the visitors’ gallery, he could not have been uplifted by his bird’s-eye view of Congress at work.
The legislation was introduced by a Unionist congressman, John W. Crisfield of Maryland, with a nonchalant condemnation of the Colorado Desert as utterly worthless territory “not in a condition that a rattlesnake could live on it.”
The House of Representatives nevertheless was wary of giving it away. Members demanded to know if the territory was truly worthless or if it did not, in fact, harbor vast mineral wealth and comprise thousands of arable acres. They bickered over the idea of bestowing a lavish gift on a private citizen, and considered the alternative of granting half the request, in alternating tracts like a checkerboard, and waiting to see what California could make of that. Finally, having worried the matter to exhaustion like dogs fighting over scraps, they tabled the bill.
War and Reconstruction intervened, and the measure did not reappear on the House floor for another fourteen years. By then, the Forty-niners and the prewar Great Reconnaissance had shriveled into quaint memories, and Wozencraff’s project came to be viewed as the delusion of an aging crackpot.
In a sense, Wozencraft arrived both too early and too late. His scheme had been conceived before official Washington was ready to grasp the concept of a reclaimed desert. When it resurfaced in 1876, Congress was more inclined to take seriously the development of what it now labeled “the Arid Lands,” a formal designation that invested the region with the status of a national patrimony. By then the lawmakers had come under the spell of John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War hero and explorer who had rediscovered the Grand Canyon in 1869, entering it from upstream. Powell’s contention that desert land could be conserved and reclaimed through judicious irrigation would be pursued by bureaucrats and commercial promoters for the next half-century. But his parallel warning that there was not enough water in the river to supply even a fraction of their increasingly ambitious proposals—that their visions promised “a heritage of conflict and litigation,” as he thundered in 1893—would be just as assiduously ignored. In any case, the idea that a vast tract of potentially arable government land should be turned over to a single developer, as Wozencraft proposed, was deemed eccentric at best.
Wozencraft was the first American to surrender his fortune and health to the dream of a resplendent desert fed by the Colorado’s waters. He last visited Washington in pursuit of his land patent in 1887. He was seventy-three, a shriveled shadow of the burly entrepreneur of a quarter century earlier. His financial resources were as exhausted as his frame.
On a chilly day that November he watched again from the gallery as the House buried his bill under a shower of ridicule for the last time. He trudged back to his Washington rooming house, where for some reason—whether poverty, dementia, or a spirit of impotent protest is unknown—he refused all food for ten days. Finally, on November 22, his landlord summoned one of his Washington friends to witness his last hours and inform his family in San Bernardino of his lonely end.
For his family, Wozencraft’s dream left a bitter aftertaste. As his daughter wrote after his death:
My dear father lost a fortune on it... he spent large sums for travel to Washington and home again, and for heavy burdens of expense while at the capital. His last sacrifice was a beautiful home in San Francisco. Everything went to the desert. Dear father was confident of success; he gave his very life to achieve its reclamation.
With his passing the dream slumbered, but only briefly. The lure of a desert in profitable bloom was too potent not to stir again. Five years after his death, in 1892, it gripped another Western pioneer, one who would finally turn Wozencraft’s dream into reality, with disastrous, yet historic, consequences.
© 2010 Michael Hiltzik
Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century
Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century
Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Michael Hiltzik uses the saga of the dam’s conception, design, and construction to tell the broader story of America’s efforts to come to grips with titanic social, economic, and natural forces. For embodied in the dam’s striking machine-age form is the fundamental transformation the Depression wrought in the nation’s very culture—the shift from the concept of rugged individualism rooted in the frontier days of the nineteenth century to the principle of shared enterprise and communal support that would build the America we know today. In the process, the unprecedented effort to corral the raging Colorado River evolved from a regional construction project launched by a Republican president into the New Deal’s outstanding—and enduring—symbol of national pride.
Yet the story of Hoover Dam has a darker side. Its construction was a gargantuan engineering feat achieved at great human cost, its progress marred by the abuse of a desperate labor force. The water and power it made available spurred the development of such great western metropolises as Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, and San Diego, but the vision of unlimited growth held dear by its designers and builders is fast turning into a mirage.
In Hiltzik’s hands, the players in this epic historical tale spring vividly to life: President Theodore Roosevelt, who conceived the project; William Mulholland, Southern California’s great builder of water works, who urged the dam upon a reluctant Congress; Herbert Hoover, who gave the dam his name though he initially opposed its construction; Frank Crowe, the dam’s renowned master builder, who pushed his men mercilessly to raise the beautiful concrete rampart in an inhospitable desert gorge. Finally there is Franklin Roosevelt, who presided over the ultimate completion of the project and claimed the credit for it. Hiltzik combines exhaustive research, trenchant observation, and unforgettable storytelling to shed new light on a major turning point of twentieth-century history.
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