Search the CP-LUHNA Web pages


The Colorado Plateau

The Vast and the Intimate
Suspended in Time
A Textbook of Geomorphology


New Mexico


Aquarius Plateau, Utah
Arches NP, Utah
Arizona Strip
Black Mesa, Arizona
Canyon de Chelly, Arizona
Canyonlands NP, Utah
Chaco Canyon, New Mexico
Chuska Mountains, New Mexico
Dinosaur NM, Colorado/Utah
Glen Canyon/Lake Powell, Utah/Arizona
Grand Canyon, Arizona
Grand Canyon-Parashant NM, Arizona
Grand Staircase-Escalante, Utah
Upper Gunnison Basin, Colorado
Kaibab Plateau, Arizona
La Sal Mountains, Utah
Lees Ferry, Arizona
Little Colorado River, Arizona
Mesa Verde, Colorado
Mogollon Rim, Arizona
San Francisco Peaks, Arizona
White Mountains, Arizona
Wupatki/Sunset Crater, Arizona
Zion NP, Utah

PlacesLees Ferry (page 4 of 5)

20th Century Land Use


wpe6.jpg (8443 bytes)

(Above) Hydraulic operations for gold sluicing at Lees Ferry. (Below) The ill-fated "Charles Spencer" steamboat during one of its few runs. Photos courtesy of Cline Library Special Collections, NAU.

wpe1.jpg (7162 bytes)

Various prospectors had been investigating the mining potential of sites near Lees Ferry since the days of John D. Lee in the early 1870s. Robert B. Stanton arrived at the ferry in 1899, with the goal of surveying a route for a water-level railroad route through the canyons of the Colorado, a fanciful dream that obviously never came to fruition. Instead, Stanton turned to gold mining, staking claims throughout Glen Canyon, several of which were just upstream from the ferry. Stanton built a massive dredge near present day Bullfrog Marina, before giving up in 1901 after the operation proved to be a failure due to the difficulty of removing fine gold particles from the clay soils.

No significant mining activities were pursued again until the 1909 arrival of Charles H. Spencer, an energetic man of varied interests, who raised large sums of outside money in order to bring mechanized mining to Lees Ferry. Spencer believed that the Chinle shale formation near the river would yield profitable amounts of gold, which could be mined with a hydraulic sluice powered by coal brought in from Warm Creek, a tributary of upstream Glen Canyon. Spencer ordered his men to build a trail up the steep Echo Cliffs using shovels, picks, crowbars, and occasionally dynamite. The trail was to be used to haul coal from Warm Creek, but ultimately was seldom used for that purpose, as Stanton decided that a large steamboat would be more efficient. In 1911, the largest boat ever afloat the Colorado River north of the Grand Canyon was built in San Francisco, then dismantled and transported to the ferry, where it was reassembled. The cumbersome steamboat only made a few round trips and was then abandoned, sinking in a few feet of water where its remains can still be seen today. Charles Spencer eventually realized that the gold in the Chinle formation was too fine and sparse to be mined and he abandoned Lees Ferry in 1913, no richer for his efforts. In the 1950s, several uranium mines were staked in the Shinarump conglomerate at Lees Ferry, and several access roads were built. Yet only one mine in the vicinity ever shipped ore, and within several years, all mines had been abandoned.

The Dam

By 1916, plans were underway to construct a dam in one of the canyons of the Colorado River in order to create irrigation projects for the Southwest, generate hydroelectric power, and halt the intermittent but devastating floods of the wild river. In order to select a dam site, high quality topographic maps and detailed studies were required. Lees Ferry, being accessible and strategically located, was designated as "Mile Zero," the point from which all other points along the river are measured. In addition, the Colorado River Compact of 1922 decreed Lees Ferry as the dividing point between the Upper Basin and Lower Basin states, where river flow would be measured in order to determine fair apportionment of water among the competing states. In 1921, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) set up a stream gauging station at Lees Ferry. Water measurements have been taken daily since August, 1921. A succession of resident hydrographers lived at Lees Ferry until 1976, when satellite telemetry took over most of the responsibilities.

Advances on the dam were slow up until the mid 1940s, when Bureau of Reclamation crews set up temporary headquarters at Lees Ferry in order to investigate potential dam sites in lower Glen Canyon. The first site to be seriously considered was only four miles upstream from the old ferry site. This location was soon found to be geologically unsuitable, and the investigators turned their attention to a dam site at Mile -15.3, where the dam was later built. Glen Canyon Dam was authorized in 1956, and completed in 1964. The new town of Page, on the Manson Plateau, became the hub of dam-building activity and the home for dam workers, leaving Lees Ferry largely unaffected by the dam's actual construction.

Lonely Dell Ranch

Over the years, many people lived at the Lonely Dell Ranch, from its establishment by John D. Lee in the 1870s, until the property was transferred to the United States National Park Service (NPS) in 1974. After the ferry operation had ceased, the families of Warren Johnson's sons continued to live at the ranch until the 1930s, along with several other families, all of whom were Mormon polygamists. From 1932 to 1936, ownership of the 160 acres of the ranch again fell to the Mormon church. The orchards, crop fields, farm animals and fish from the river supported Lees Ferry's residents with a minimum of outside trading. A school for the children of Lees Ferry operated from 1900 to 1910, and then again from 1925 to 1935. The remote location and infrequent visitation made the ferry an ideal outpost for the fundamental Mormons, who feared increasing persecution from state officials, and even from the now anti-polygamy LDS Church. By 1936, however, increased visitation to the area by travelers and tourists prompted the Mormons to leave the ranch and move to Short Creek, now Colorado City, a town on the Arizona/Utah border. During these decades of Lonely Dell occupation, from the 1870s to the 1930s, forty-one babies were born at Lees Ferry and twenty-two people died there.

After 1936, Lonely Dell Ranch had a number of owners, including the Babbitt brothers of Flagstaff fame, until it finally was procured by National Park Service(NPS). The last owners stripped the ranch of valuable furniture and other historic materials. Fire had destroyed the large Johnson home in 1926, and Glen Canyon officials ordered the razing of Charles Spencer's rock buildings in 1967, a move the Park Service regrets today. Thus, there are very few historic buildings remaining today at Lonely Dell Ranch. Additionally, the ranch was reduced in area by one-third in 1917, when the Paria flooded and changed its course, covering the lower part of the ranch. The NPS administers the ranch today, occasionally conducting living history demonstrations of the early days at Lees Ferry. By the 1980s, the fruit orchards had begun to decline after so many years of irrigation with alkaline Paria River water. In 1989, the orchards began receiving clear Colorado River water, and now produce abundant peaches, pears, apricots and plums.

Follow these links to:
Page 5 -- Lees Ferry Today
               References and Resources

               Previous Page