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PlacesLees Ferry (page 3 of 5)

The "Ferry" of Lees Ferry

Over the next decade, the ferry operation and ranch flourished. A wagon road was cleared on either side of the crossing, yet the terrain was so rough and steep that many travelers considered the roads more dangerous than the river crossing itself. In 1872, a second ferry site with better access roads was established downstream from the main site, to be used during low water. Click here for contemporary aerial photo of original Ferry site.

The Johnsons and the other residents of Lees Ferry, primarily ferry assistants and their families, built a veritable oasis in the arid canyon country. Twenty-five acres of land were cleared and cultivated with alfalfa, fruit trees, cane, melons, and vegetables. The alfalfa crops were especially important as feed, since the rangeland had become exhausted for ten miles on either side of the ferry due to the large numbers of livestock passing through the area. Beehives, cattle and chickens were kept at the ranch, providing honey, milk, eggs, and meat. The river provided abundant fish, including giant Colorado River squawfish, now considered extirpated due to the impacts of Glen Canyon Dam. Firewood was plentiful in the form of washed out logs in the Paria delta. With the exception of imported flour and cornmeal, Lonely Dell ranch was self-sufficient.

Cody party on Lower Ferry crossing Nov. 1892. Image NAU.PH. courtesy of Cline Library Special Collections, Northern Arizona University.

The years from 1876 to 1890 were the busiest ever for the ferry operation. Successful Mormon colonization along the Little Colorado River in Arizona funneled increased emigrations through Lees Ferry. In addition, the completion of the Mormon Temple in St. George, Utah brought Mormon couples from Arizona settlements to have their marriages solemnized in the temple, earning the road in between the informal title, "The Honeymoon Trail." Ferriage fees for Mormon travelers at the time were $2.00 per wagon, $1.00 per horse and rider, and $0.25 per head of stock, while non-Mormons paid about 50% more. After the Church's cut of the fees, the remainder were used to support the ranch, maintain roads, rebuild washed out dams, build new boats, and otherwise improve the operation.

Johnson left the ferry in 1896 and the Church replaced him with Jim Emett, who immediately set to work installing a heavy track cable across the river to guide the ferryboat across. The cable system remained in use for the remainder of the ferry's history, rendering the lower ferry site useless. Emett also finished a dugway (a road built into a steep slope) that served as the main highway to the ferry for the next thirty years, despite the fact that the road was narrow and prone to rockfalls and washouts.

Emett eventually came head to head with the powerful Grand Canyon Cattle Company, who aggressively tried to control the rangeland and water holes of nearby House Rock Valley, east of the ferry on the Arizona Strip, even though the lands were public domain. Emett repeatedly cut fences erected by the company in order to allow his own cattle access to the range. The company unsuccessfully sued Emett for cattle rustling. Undaunted, the company retaliated by buying the ferry from the Mormon Church and putting Emett out of business in 1909. For a short time, cowhands from the company operated the ferryboat. Unimpressed with the company's operation of the ferry and adamant that the ferry remain a link in Arizona's highway system, Coconino County bought the ferry in 1910. The sons of Warren Johnson took over ferry operations for the county, remaining at the ranch with their families until the end of the ferry days.

Beginning in about 1900, however, the importance of the ferry as a link between separated lands diminished greatly. Most people traveling from Utah to Arizona now went by train. Railroad routes were longer in miles, but much shorter in time, and the journey was much less hazardous. Travel overland by way of Lees Ferry gradually lessened, and by the time the Grand Canyon Cattle Company took ownership, traffic along the historic wagon trail was mostly local. Although wagons remained the most common mode of travel, automobiles were being ferried across the river by the 1910s.

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(Above)  Photo NAU.PH.94.27.12 of Navajo Bridge in 1937 by Robert P. Sharp. (Below)  The second Navajo Bridge under construction in 1994. Photo NAU.PH.94.37.22 by Richard Jackson and Katherine Lampros. Photos courtesy of Cline Library Special Collections, Northern Arizona University.

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Plans to build a bridge over Marble Canyon had been considered first by Major John Wesley Powell in 1870, and then again by railroad surveyors in 1881. By the 1920s, it was clear that a bridge had to built to connect the Arizona Strip with the rest of the state, as the ferry was grossly insufficient for the increasing flow of motorized traffic. Construction on Navajo Bridge began in 1927 at a site in Marble Canyon six miles below Lees Ferry. Construction of the bridge was accomplished by working on one side of the canyon, then on the other, until the two sides met in the middle. The ferry was critical for transporting men, tools and building equipment back and forth, making the ferry busier than it had been in years. Large, heavy trucks and tons of bridge steel took an enormous toll on the ferryboat and cable system.

Throughout the fifty-five years that the ferry at Lees Ferry was in operation, many accidents occurred and a number of lives were lost. The worst of these accidents occurred on June 7, 1928 and heralded the end of the ferry. High waters, a weakened ferryboat and worn cables had created dangerous conditions. The final river crossing ended in disaster, as the ferryboat capsized with three men and a Model T Ford aboard. All three men drowned. With Navajo bridge nearing completion, Coconino County declined to replace the ferry. For the next seven months, there was no river crossing between Moab, Utah and south of the Grand Canyon. Building equipment for Navajo Bridge had to be transported by truck 800 miles around the extensive canyon system, even though the actual distance from start to finish was only 800 feet. The bridge was completed in 1929 and dedicated later that year with the name, "The Grand Canyon Bridge." The final name, Navajo Bridge, was adopted in 1934 after considerable controversy involving the Mormon Church, the Arizona legislature and interested citizens vying for names ranging from "Lee's Ferry Bridge" to "Hamblin-Hastele Bridge." The historic Marble Canyon Lodge, a half mile downstream from the bridge, was opened to the public on the same day that the bridge was dedicated, June 14, 1929. Electric power did not reach Lees Ferry and Marble Canyon Lodge until 1968, with telephone service arriving in 1971.

While a marked improvement over the ferry operation, the Navajo Bridge was still largely inadequate to meet the demands of 20th century transportation. The bridge was only 18 feet wide, had no walkway, and was structurally inadequate for large truck traffic. In the mid-1980s, plans went underway to improve the situation. After ruling out several other bridge sites and the possibility of widening the existing bridge, it was decided to build a second bridge right next to the original one. The new bridge, constructed in 1994, retained the style and symmetry of the first bridge, which is now maintained for pedestrians.

Follow these links to:

Page 4 -- 20th Century Land Use
Page 5 -- Lees Ferry Today
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