In May of 1869, a one-armed explorer named John Wesley Powell set off on an expedition to explore the Colorado River. Powell, who had lost an his arm during the Civil War, began the journey with a crew of nine men in four wooden boats crammed with full of supplies.
Most of the crew, Edward Dolnick writes in “Down the Great Unknown,” was a bit bleary.
“As a farewell to civilization,” they had “done their best to drink Green River Station’s only saloon dry,” and they departed with “foggy ideas and snarly hair.”[…]
Most early attempts to settle the West did not result in neat grids of farmland, but in land speculation, fraud, wealthy land barons, failed crops and empty homesteads.
Powell recommended modifying the Homestead Act by forming irrigation districts rather than promoting individual homesteads. But much of the water in the West had already been claimed, and Congress was reluctant to challenge the status quo. It certainly did not want to fund large irrigation projects.
“Powell did his best: Here’s a rational plan for managing the water. Here’s a rational plan for managing the forests,” Fowler said.
“He ultimately got ran out of the USGS because of what he was trying to do. They cut his budget until he resigned.”
Powell left the Geological Survey in 1894, though he stayed with the Bureau of Ethnology until he died in 1902.
By that time, Congress had begun to think differently about water-reclamation projects. New technology made it easier to build big dams, Fowler said, and it was possible for them to generate alternating-current electricity that could be transmitted long distances. That would pay for the projects, and “that was how they sold it to Congress,” Fowler said…
Perhaps the most permanent residents were Pueblo Indians, who built small villages and planted crops. When work began on Glen Canyon Dam, archaeologists began to search the area for artifacts from these early residents. Fowler was among those scientists.
“I was there the day they started pouring the concrete.”
He got to Glen Canyon in the fall of 1957, when the blasting began. He watched the dam grow, and saw Page, which did not exist prior to the construction, slowly take form.
Bill Lipe, professor emeritus of anthropology at Washington State University, was a crew chief for the University of Utah from 1958 through August 1960, and came back to work in the summer of 1961.
“It was very hot,” Lipe said. The crews spent their summers digging and their winters writing reports.
“It was a logistically difficult place to work in, because of the lack of roads…. We spent a lot of time just getting around and surviving,” Lipe said.
The work was the largest salvage-archaeology project of its time, Fowler said…
On Sept. 13, 1963, the last bucket of concrete tipped 583 feet above the Colorado River, spilling both prosperity and perpetual controversy. Glen Canyon Dam was completed, and the newly plugged Lake Powell was on a 17-year rise toward 9 trillion gallons.