Bryce Canyon History

Although the frontier had been declared closed by the last decade of the 19th century, several areas of the west remained relatively unpopulated. One such area, located in southern Utah, is now protected as Bryce Canyon National Park.

Here fanciful rock formations called "hoodoos" dominate the scene. The park is named for one of the huge horseshoe-shaped amphitheaters within its boundaries that was carved from the eastern edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. This plateau, along with six others in southwestern Utah, was formed roughly 10 million years ago when pressure from within the earth caused rock beds to rise several thousand feet above sea level, crack along fault lines, and separate.

Layers, once connected, were displaced vertically by several thousand feet, resulting in Utah's High Plateaus. Ancient rivers carved the tops and exposed edges of these massive blocks, removing some layers and sculpting intricate formations in others, resulting in the hoodoos visible today.

The rugged topography of the Bryce Canyon area in southern Utah was an obstacle to early European-American explorers and settlers. These same characteristics, however, began to attract the attention of American scientists during the 1870s. Although early Spanish explorers and traders traveled in the general area, there are no records to show that they ever went into Bryce Canyon. It seems likely that fur trappers and traders would have passed through the region between 1800 and 1850, since the name of the Paunsaugunt Plateau above the canyon is derived from a Paiute word meaning "home of the beavers." Yet, extant trappers' journals, letters, and reports do not specifically describe the unusual scenery that characterizes Bryce Canyon.

In the mid-1870s a small group of Mormon pioneers decided to try to capitalize on the land's potential. They settled in the adjacent valleys that seemed suited for grazing livestock. Ebenezer Bryce and his family were among the Mormons who accepted the challenge to settle the region. He agreed to move from Salt Lake City to southern Utah because he thought the climate might improve his wife's poor health. In 1875 the Bryces; joined several other families at Clifton (cliff town), which was named for its proximity to the pink cliffs of the canyon.

Apparently not satisfied with that settlement, they soon moved upstream along the Paria River to found New Clifton. Between 1878-1880, Ebenezer Bryce and other settlers built a seven-mile irrigation ditch from Paria Creek in order to raise crops and provide water for their livestock. To make firewood more accessible, Bryce also built a road that terminated at the mouth of the canyon. In 1880, when Mary Bryce's health failed to improve, the Bryces moved to southeastern Arizona because of its year-round warmth. By this time, local settlers already referred to the area as "Bryce's Canyon." When asked about the spectacular scenery near his farm, Bryce reportedly said only that the canyon was "a hell of a place to lose a cow." Many years later a grandson of one of the Mormon settlers remarked: Many of us remember them [grandparents] telling us about this canyon as well as of Cedar Breaks. But they could do little about it. They were too busy trying to make a livelihood for their families. There were no roads, just poor trails, their wagons and wagon wheels were worn out, their horses or ox teams were poor and unable to make any trips, save for the bare necessities.

As Mormon settlers were establishing farms, ranches, and villages near the canyon, some scientists and surveyors found much of interest to study in the area. In 1872 Almon H. Thompson, a geographer working with the well-known explorer John Wesley Powell, reported the first description of the complex geological features that characterize southern Utah. Other scientists followed Thompson's lead and conducted surveys in the area during the 1870s. In 1876 T. C. Bailey, a government land surveyor, expressed his wonder at the fanciful shapes of the hoodoos: ..."the surface breaks off almost perpendicularly to a depth of several hundred feet--seems, indeed, as though the bottom had dropped out and left rocks standing in all shapes and forms as lone Sentinels over the grotesque and picturesque scene. There are thousands of red, white, purple and vermillion colored rocks, of all sizes, resembling Sentinels on the Walls of Castles; monks and priests with their robes, attendants, cathedrals, and congregations. There are deep caverns and rooms resembling ruins of prisons, Castles, Churches, with their guarded walls, battlements, spires and steeples, niches and recesses, presenting the wildest and the most wonderful scene that the eye of man ever beheld, in fact, it is one of the wonders of the world."

Despite these studies, the wonders of Bryce Canyon remained virtually unknown to the American public. Other scenic areas of the West, however, were beginning to be recognized and promoted. In 1872 Congress set aside Yellowstone in Wyoming as the first national park. Over the next two decades more national parks, including Yosemite in California and Mount Rainier in Washington, were created. The isolation of most of these areas made the parks difficult for the public to reach. Around the turn of the century, railroad companies began playing an important role in promoting the development of national parks in the West. These companies recognized the economic potential of providing transportation and lodging for tourists eager to witness natural wonders.
The lack of nearby railways and sizeable towns contributed toward Bryce Canyon's obscurity. Rough wagon roads to the vicinity of the Paunsaugunt rim were challenging at any time, but heavy snow drifts made the rim inapproachable for several months of the year. In the 1910s, however, the American public at last would hear about, if not witness, the wonders of Bryce Canyon thanks to the efforts of J. W. Humphrey. In 1915 Humphrey became the Forest Supervisor for the Sevier National Forest in Utah. Since much of Bryce Canyon's scenic area was within national forest boundaries, it fell under Humphrey's jurisdiction. After seeing Bryce Canyon, he felt compelled to promote the area as a tourist attraction.

With a small appropriation Humphrey built a primitive road to the plateau rim. He also brought in photographers to take promotional pictures. An article that appeared in a Union Pacific Railroad publication in 1916 was one of the first to reach the public and included the first photos taken of the canyon rim and bottom. In 1917 Humphrey constructed a trail from the rim of the plateau into the canyons below and a system of trails within the hoodoos below the plateau rim. Humphrey even led local citizens on guided tours of the area. Bryce Canyon also began to be promoted as a pleasant side trip for motor tourists traveling to the Grand Canyon, which had become a national monument in 1908 and a national park in 1919. These early promotional efforts resulted in public interest in Bryce Canyon, but more remained to be done before the area would be readily accessible to tourists.

In 1919 the Utah State Legislature recommended that Bryce Canyon be preserved and protected for the public's enjoyment. It was not until June 1923, however, that President Warren G. Harding officially established Bryce Canyon National Monument. As the land was located within a national forest, responsibility for the monument's administration fell to the Forest Service. Five years later the area was designated Bryce Canyon National Park, at which time it passed to the National Park Service.
In 1927, the year before its designation as a national park, an estimated 24,000 people visited Bryce Canyon to see the spectacular hoodoos for themselves.

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