UNITED STATES OF AMERICA:
The Grand Canyon - just amazing!
For years now people have been telling me to visit the Grand Canyon. When I would ask them why I received the almost universal response of, “It’s just amazing” which, honestly, did nothing to inspire me to go. Many sites and experiences could be described as ‘amazing’, after all, but not worth the time or effort. I could tell you, for example, that I find it amazing when my dogs Sophie and Monty actually come when I call them instead of staring off into space and ignoring me - but I wouldn’t expect you to travel 3342 km to see it happen. To say something is amazing is such a subjective statement; there is really no way to use it to accurately describe to someone what the experience one is so excited about might be like. This habit of people describing the Grand Canyon as amazing - and just leaving it at that - annoyed me for all the years I endured it until I finally travelled there myself and understood: there really are no words to describe the experience of the Grand Canyon.
We were out in Arizona celebrating my dad’s 80th birthday with a trip to the canyon and environs through the excellent Road Scholar program he had signed us up for. The family, and the other travellers in our group, from all over the United States, were enormous fun and made the trip all the more interesting. Beginning in Phoenix, Arizona we travelled through the region with overnights at Marble Canyon, the Grand Canyon, and Peach Springs toward the further end of the Colorado River. Arizona’s landscape is almost surreal in how the land lays flat for miles to abruptly rise in huge, intricately-carved cliffs which either jut straight up to tower over the land or rise gently into hills which then amble slowly away toward the horizon. It never actually became cool there in the early October mornings or evenings; it just became less hot - but it was a very manageable heat and one could hike or stroll paths without any great discomfort.
As I considered the terrain and the temperature, and always in mind of the past, I found myself wondering what it had been like for the early inhabitants and then the first Europeans, and then Americans, who came to the region. It must have been quite an experience moving across the enormous continent of what would become the United States of America into this strange land of arid desert and rock, walking long miles in this very dry heat, to then find one’s self confronted with the sweeping enormity of the Grand Canyon. The Native Americans who once lived in the area, and the immigrants who came later, were frequently on my mind.
The history of the canyon, as far as human involvement goes, is not that long. The Grand Canyon was formed, according to the most accepted estimates, some 17 million years ago through erosion by the Colorado River which runs through it now about 6700 feet below the rim. The first human habitation came c. 1200 BC with the Puebloan people (also known as the Anasazi) and the Coconino tribe who were ancestors of the Yuman, Havasupai, and Walapai people. The Dine (Navajo), Sinagua, and Paiutes also lived - and many still live - in the region and, toward the south, the great Hohokam culture thrived and made the Arizona desert around Phoenix a verdant agricultural plateau through their intricate irrigation systems so perfectly graded and efficient that they were later used for the systems still in use today.
These Native American tribes were still living in and around the canyon when the first European, Captain Garcia Lopez de Cardenas, came upon the southern rim of the canyon in 1540. Following his expedition was that of two Spanish priests, Francisco Atanasio Dominguez and Silvestre Velez de Escalante, in 1776. These two priests, with their Hopi guides, descended into the canyon and found a way to cross the Colorado River, a crossing which, for centuries, would be known as the “Crossing of the Fathers” and which would be the only way to traverse the river until the 1870’s when Lee’s Ferry began operation. Lee’s Ferry would be the main crossing until the Navajo Bridge was built in 1928. James Ohio Pattie was the first American to visit the canyon in 1826 but there are no others recorded until the Mormon missionary Jacob Hamblin arrived in the area in the 1850’s. Between 1850 and 1900 the Grand Canyon received quite a bit of attention. The American Civil War major John Wesley Powell was the first to navigate the entirety of the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River in 1869 and the first to call it the Grand Canyon (it had previously been referred to simply as ‘Big Canyon’ which is not nearly so impressive). American interests at the time were largely focused on land use, not land appreciation, and if a mile of land could not be built on or laid over with railroad tracks it was not considered of much use. The Grand Canyon posed, literally, a huge problem
to developers who could find no economic gain in this giant gaping hole in the earth which was too long and too broad to run a bridge across and too deep, with sides too steep, to develop viable housing in. It was at this point that Ralph H. Cameron, a prospector from Southport, Maine, entered the story. Cameron had read Powell’s account of his exploration of the Colorado River and almost immediately travelled across the country to Flagstaff, Arizona and then made his way to the south rim to experience the canyon for himself. Although other businessmen were already at work trying to exploit the area for financial gain, it would be Cameron who made the greatest impact and the most money.
Ralph Cameron recognised the natural beauty of the canyon and understood how best to make use of it: people would pay for the experience of a visit and, he thought, they may as well pay him as anyone else. He set up a toll booth on what would become Bright Angel Trail and charged people to go down into the canyon which, before, they could have walked on into for free as the Native American tribes had been doing for centuries. Once Cameron set up his business in the area he attracted others such as the dynamic Kolb Brothers, two photographers who would go to any lengths for the perfect shot, as well as land prospectors, merchants, and, finally, the railroad. Following the railroad was an entrepreneur named Fred Harvey (best known for his Harvey Houses, a precursor to the modern motel/restaurant staffed by his famous Harvey Girls) who provided lodging, food, and souvenirs to travellers. Whatever one may think of Fred Harvey’s contribution to popular culture, he was responsible for bringing to national attention one of the most brilliant architects of the time and an artist whose work remains an enduring treasure: Mary Jane Colter. When you go to the Grand Canyon you’ll hear the guides point to a building as ‘a Colter design’ or say ‘this is another of Colter’s works’ and they say this casually without further commentary, neglecting to elaborate on what an extraordinary artist this woman was. A visit to the canyon, and the buildings which largely make up Grand Canyon Village on the south rim, is much more interesting if one knows who Colter was and what she
accomplished. It is a fascinating, if dismaying, fact of history that when the Europeans ‘discovered’ the New World - a land of unbroken, pristine, landscape unlike anything they had ever seen - they fairly quickly set about transforming it into the old world they had left behind. The buildings which were constructed around the south rim of the Grand Canyon were very like the hotels and cabins one would find built by those of European descent anywhere else; until Mary Jane Colter appeared on the scene.
Colter (1869-1958) was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania but her family moved to St. Paul, Minnesota when she was young. After high school, she attended the California School of Design in San Francisco, studying architecture, and then moved back to Minnesota to work as an art teacher at the high school. At this time, Fred Harvey was busily staking out his empire of hotels and eateries throughout the southwest and one of Harvey’s daughters, Minnie, was friends with Colter. Minnie got Colter a summer job with the Harvey Company doing interior design work on the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1901. Fred Harvey took notice of her attention to detail and skill at design and eventually asked her to join the company full time as architect. Colter did the interior decorations on the El Tovar Hotel, a Harvey-run enterprise, in 1904. This hotel, which opened in 1905 catered to guests travelling on the Atchison, Topeka, Sante Fe Railway and was designed to meet their expectations. The El Tovar - still one of the most famous landmarks of Grand Canyon Village - was designed by Charles Whittlesey, the chief architect of the railroad, and is a beautiful example of early 20th-century American architecture; but it is not remarkably different from hotels one would have found (and can still find) across the United States built on the traditional forms and lines of European buildings.
In 1904, following her success with the interior of El Tovar, Colter was given the task of designing a building of her own close to the hotel which would serve as a souvenir shop featuring arts and crafts by local Native Americans. She rejected any suggestion of creating a building which mirrored El Tovar’s design and instead fashioned a grand pueblo in the style of the Hopi people of the area which came to be known as the Hopi House. Colter was a perfectionist who needed every detail of the finished building to match the image she had of it in her mind. She designed the Hopi House without interior stairs but with exterior ladders of wood, the rungs laced
Concessions and compromise were not Colter’s strong point and those around her came to recognize this increasingly as they worked with her
to the braces with rough rope, in the tradition of an actual Hopi pueblo. The Harvey firm rejected the design, however, recognising that guests would balk at having to climb the exterior series of ladders between the first and third floors and so Colter made one of her few concessions and added stairwells inside.
Concessions and compromise were not Colter’s strong point and those around her came to recognise this increasingly as they worked with her. Artist Fred Kabotie, who worked with her, remarked, ‘ Mary Colter was talented, with strong opinions.
We got along well... most of the time.’ In 1914 she designed the stone lodges of Lookout Studio and Hermit’s Rest and controlled every single aspect of the construction right down to having the large fireplace in the centre room of Hermit’s Rest scorched to make it appear a lonely hermit had been living in the stone cottage at the edge of the canyon for decades. When a work crew came to finish up details on the building they offered to scrub the fireplace to make it look new and Colter forbid it, saying, ‘ You can’t imagine what it cost to make it look this old.’
Both Lookout Studio and Hermit’s Rest seem to grow organically out of their setting, precisely as Colter wanted them to. She was not interested in transplanting European style architecture in the new and wild expanse of the area around the Grand Canyon but in creating something unique to the region which would tell the land’s story in the style of that area’s own people. In 1922 she designed the buildings of Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, another project she supervised carefully, and in 1932 created the famous Desert View Watchtower which is arguably her masterpiece as far as those she constructed around the Grand Canyon go. Colter wrote of the tower that, ‘ Time, the lost principle in much modern construction, was taken to select each rock.’ The four-story watchtower rises 21 metres (70 feet) and offers a commanding view of the canyon. Colter designed it to mirror the watchtowers of the Pueblo peoples who lived in the area but on a much larger scale. The interior is decorated with murals, paintings, and petroglyphs of Hopi artists Fred Kabotie and Fred Greer and the whole is very carefully designed to precisely mirror a Pueblo watchtower’s design, right down to the Kiva room (a space used for religious rituals) on the first floor. Colter was concerned that guides would not be able to properly interpret the watchtower for guests and so she wrote the guidebook herself, the Manual for Drivers and Guides Descriptive of the Indian Watchtower at Desert View and its Relation, Architecturally, to the Prehistoric Ruins of the Southwest, in 1933. The title of the book gives one an idea of how precise Colter was in every aspect of her work. In 1935,
Toward the end of her life, Mary Colter claimed she had lived too long as she saw some of her best pieces, such as the El Navajo Hotel in Gallup, New Mexico (which she considered her masterpiece), destroyed in the name of progress but during her time she created an enduring body of work which still survives and continues to inspire and impress
when she redesigned the Bright Angel Lodge in Grand Canyon Village, she wanted the fireplace to reflect the geological layers of the canyon precisely from floor to ceiling. When she found the workers had failed to insert the correct strata at the proper places she had the work dismantled and done over exactly as she envisioned it in her design.
Colter’s buildings today are interspersed with others throughout Grand Canyon Village on the south rim but there is no mistaking her style of creating an extension of the landscape through her work. The Maswik Lodge, a 1960’s 250-room motel complex five minutes’ walk from the village, took its cue from Colter and is modestly designed so it appears almost a natural outgrowth of the Ponderosa Pine forest which surrounds it. Although Colter only designed three of the structures still extant in the village, the ranch at the bottom of the canyon, and the watchtower, she influenced the designs of those who came after her. Today, you can walk from Maswik Lodge (which, also in keeping with Colter’s vision of honouring the unique quality of the area, is named for the Hopi Kachina spirit who is said to guard the canyon) to the village and, through the very efficient trolley system, visitors can overlook all along the south rim of the canyon quite easily. If you take the red line out from the Village Route Transfer you can get off at any of the stops along the way such as Trailview Overlook, Maricopa Point, Powell Point, Hopi Point, Mohave Point, The Abyss, Monument Creek Vista, and Pima Point; the last stop is Hermit’s Rest where you are greeted by Colter’s strangely beautiful stone archway which appears somehow in motion, in a moment of collapse, while at the same time giving the impression of timeless endurance. The view of the canyon from Hermit’s Rest is among the most striking, especially at sunset, and Colter’s insistence on working in stone according to Native American custom creates the illusion of a natural cave half-hidden in tumbled rocks offering a resting place to the traveller. Hermit’s Rest seems as natural a part of the landscape as the strange, grey-silver twisted trees, caught mid-dance, which surround it.
Although best known for her work at the Grand Canyon, Colter was active in designing buildings and hotels throughout the southwest and her innovative blend of Native American with European design features gave birth to the southwest ‘Sante Fe’ style of architecture so widely used in the United States today from coast to coast. While many of her buildings elsewhere have been destroyed, those at the Grand Canyon have been preserved, in one collection, as a National Historic
Landmark. Toward the end of her life, Mary Colter claimed she had lived too long as she saw some of her best pieces, such as the El Navajo Hotel in Gallup, New Mexico (which she considered her masterpiece), destroyed in the name of progress but during her time she created an enduring body of work which still survives and continues to inspire and impress. As a woman working in a man’s profession in the mid-20th century, she needed her male subordinate to sign off on her projects and never registered as an architect.
She worked exclusively for the Fred Harvey Corporation for forty-eight years, dying in 1958 at the age of 88. Said to be a chainsmoker who enjoyed her whiskey, Colter also designed her own elegant ashtray along Hopi lines as well as the chairs and tableware of the El Navajo Hotel right down to the salad plates and pitchers. The care she put into the designs for the most commonplace of her creations can be appreciated in her larger works around the south rim. Writer, architect, artist, and perfectionist in all things, Mary Jane Colter’s work at the Grand Canyon complements, instead of distracting from, the natural wonder of the canyon itself and that canyon is an experience which defies description.
Looking out over the Grand Canyon from the stone patio at Hermit’s Rest you are simply in awe at the enormous expanse of the canyon’s cliffs spread out in front of you and, the most interesting aspect of this, you can’t even say why this is. Yes, the canyon is huge but it is not just the size which is affecting and, yes, the different colours of the strata of the rock in the light of the dying day are incredibly vibrant and beautiful, but you would not say that is what is most moving either. It would be easy to say that the canyon makes you feel small, puts life in perspective somehow, humbles you in the face of such an ancient and natural wonder but none of those observations are exactly true and seem somewhat trite attempts at describing an experience which cannot be captured in words. The early Spanish priests who visited the Grand Canyon in the 18th century sent back reports of their experience saying simply that it was “profound” - which is very like the report I heard from those who had made their own visits and urged me to go. And now I’ve joined the ranks of those people saying you really need to visit the Grand Canyon. Why? It’s just amazing.
Previous pages: View of the Grand Canyon (Image: © The Ultimate Travel Company) Left: William Bell’s photograph of the Grand Canyon, taken in 1872 as part of the Wheeler expedition. (Image from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) Right: View of the Canyon from Pima Point (Image: Chensiyuan GFDL)
Above: View of the Canyon from the South Rim (Image: Roger Bolsius, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Left: Fred Harvey
Right: Ralph Cameron (Image: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Harris & Ewing Collection)
Above: The Hopi House (Image: © Karen Simmons)
Inset: Mary Jane Colter aged 23 Right: Interior of the Watchtower (Images: © Karen Simmons)
Left: Watchtower and its panoramic view (Image: Vladsinger, CC BY-SA 4.0) Above: The Lookout Studio showing its faux ruined effect and mulitple levels (Image: AhwatukeeBauer , CC BY-SA 3.0)
Inset: An ashtray designed by Mary Colter inspired by Native American motifs