Sunday, September 20, 2009

Start with a mystery

Two letters exist between John Wesley Powell and Benjamin Harrison about the Grand Canyon.

There may have been more; --almost certainly were, in the 1880's. On Powell's side, however, fire in the early twentieth century destroyed the pertinent archives of the U. S. Geological Survey under his directorship. And Harrison's correspondence contains nothing about the Canyon. Nor is there any other evidence of a relationship between the two. Yet these men -- Powell leading, Harrison taking the actions -- constructed the foundation political framework in which debate about a Grand Canyon National Park took place over the next 40 years and beyond. How come?

First, the evidence, the letters. Handwritten from Harrison to Powell, though at his other post as Director of the Bureau of Ethnology, on April 26, 1882, the first says
I received the draft of the bill which you sent me providing for setting apart the Canon of the Colorado as a National Park. By some mischance it has got away from me...I do not see any other way than to ask you to rewrite this bill and send it to me and I will try to present it before I lose it again.
Powell replied on May 5, taking "pleasure in sending you" and "thanking you for your kind attention to" this matter of the Canyon. Now the mystery about Powell is not about his interest; his involvement with the Canyon is well recorded (though not with a recognition of this particular relationship) including in his own books. Powell, a Civil War major (Harrison made it to general, but there seems to be no connection there, nor in the fact that they were mid-westerners), led his epic voyage down the Colorado, including the Grand Canyon, in 1869, and spent more time in the 1870's doing field work in its region. He became the second director of the USGS in 1881. His books about his travels helped popularize the Canyon. He drew, or had drawn, maps. As a public official in Washington in the 1880's, he outclassed anyone else as a Grand Canyon expert. And yet, mysteriously, his intimate knowledge of the Canyon's meanderings did not show up in Washington.

In 1872 Yellowstone had been legislated our first National Park as a sort-of square of about 52x60 miles, laid out on latitude and longitude, That must have made sense for Yellowstone's attractions; it retains much of that shape today. It is not too much of a stretch, though undocumented, to think Powell took inspiration from this lead, to celebrate this place for him of glory and cost. So he was prompted to find someone to introduce a Grand Canyon National Park bill, and he chose Harrison. The draft bill he sent Harrison described, like Yellowstone, a quadrilateral along parallels and meridians, of about 56x69 miles. Maybe people thought straight then, or maybe copying Yellowstone seemed politically shrewd. The devil was provided much detail for mischief, however, because the Canyon fits no four-sided box with anything but discomfort. We have been fighting over boundaries ever since.

If Powell had been in Congress and put his name on the bill, there would be no mystery. Instead he picked out a brand-new senator from Indiana, in his first Congressional session. He had no so-far discovered connection with Powell, the Grand Canyon, or the West and its wonders. Two Union veterans with beards seems thin. Yet somehow the new USGS Director sought out the new senator, and enlisted him, not just for a gesture, but for the long term and with real consequences.

No comments:

Post a Comment