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Securing Bright Angel Trail and the construction of the Kaibab Trail, a lesson in patience and politics

Mules and a rider descend the Kaibab Trail near the Colorado River around the time of its construction. (Photo/NPS)

Mules and a rider descend the Kaibab Trail near the Colorado River around the time of its construction. (Photo/NPS)

Editor’s Note: In 2019, Grand Canyon National Park celebrated its centennial with a series of historical articles. This article is reprinted with permission and shares Grand Canyon’s history with the National Park Service.

The Chimney, Ooo-Ahh Point, Windy Ridge, the Red & Whites, the Tip-Off, the Train Wreck. For those who know and love the Kaibab Trail, the recitation of these names conjures up images that are the stuff of longing, wonder and enchantment.

The Kaibab Trail, for all its lore and its legions of devotees, is actually a “new” route down into the Grand Canyon, at least when compared with the Grandview, or Bright Angel, or even the Hermit.

Built at a time when the National Park Service (NPS) was struggling to overcome challenges to its then-recent assignation as the authority within the park, the successful construction of the Yaki Trail (as it was briefly known) was crucial to establishing the NPS in a position of power at the Canyon.

The relationship between the local population of Northern Arizona, especially around the Grand Canyon area, and the federal government was never very good. A potent distrust existed for any authority that was perceived to limit private interests. When the park was created, this distrust, resentment, even fear, came to the fore front as stewardship of Grand Canyon fell to the National Park Service. Under the leadership of Stephen T. Mather the NPS began a campaign to eliminate private ownership of land within the borders of the new park. This confirmed the worst fears of the virulent anti-federalist.

For many years the Cameron (later Bright Angel) Trail was in private hands and those wanting to get down to the Colorado had to pay for the privilege – at least those utilizing any four-legged companions. In 1890 and 1891, along with his brother Niles and their associate, Pete Berry, and several others, Ralph Cameron re-worked an old Havasupai route into the Canyon, widened and improved it as far as Indian Gardens, and began operating the trail as a toll road. They extended it to the Colorado River around 1898.


The South Kaibab Trail leading to the Colorado River during its construction. (Photo/NPS)

By 1906, after seemingly endless litigation involving Cameron, the Santa Fe Railroad and the U.S. Forest Service, the trail was under the control of Coconino County. Then came President Wilson’s signature on February 26, 1919 and the founding of Grand Canyon National Park.

One of the top priorities of the NPS was to gain ownership of the Bright Angel Trail. Within two weeks negotiations with the county began in earnest with Interior Secretary Franklin K. Lane inquiring as to the Coconino County Board of Supervisors’ asking price.

The county’ initial reply of $150,000 angered the impatient Acting Superintendent W. H. Peters. He quickly had an alternate route to the Colorado surveyed and was ready to proceed with construction before the end of 1919, convinced that he could complete a new trail for $30,000. The old Fred Harvey Company saw that any effort to wrest control of the Cameron Trail from Coconino County was going to be a long process indeed, so within weeks of the NPS’s arrival on the scene, Harvey officials began pressing for an alternate route to the river.

Two considerations kept the park service from sidestepping Coconino County altogether and plunging ahead with this plan. First, there existed within the NPS, a desire to do no further violence, given the already widespread atmosphere of distrust towards the agency. Second, the “grandfathered” clauses regarding already present private interests within the boundaries of the new park played a large role in securing much of the original (often reluctant) support for its creation. To display such a disregard for the perceptions of those who only grudgingly accepted the coming of the NPS would have setback efforts to establish a new working relationship among the various interests at the South Rim, and would have hobbled NPS initiatives for years to come.

New terms

Late in 1919, George E. Goodwin, the general engineer for the park was called in to resume negotiations with Coconino County, the hope being that his agreeable, gentle manner would win over the board of supervisors.

Goodwin offered new terms for the Bright Angel Trail – either an outright payment of $77,118, or a $100,000 promissory note, the payment of which was dependent on the county using the funds to improve the access road from Maine (a town roughly halfway between Flagstaff and Williams). He also mentioned, gently, that the NPS stood ready to build a new trail just a few miles east of the Bright Angel should no agreement be reached. Negotiations continued for years.

By 1922, Congressman Carl Hayden of Arizona entered the picture.

“The idea occurs to me that Coconino County might make a profitable trade in selling the trail. Tourist traffic is doubling almost every year and the greater the attraction the Grand Canyon can be made as one of the seven wonders of the world, the greater an asset it would be to Coconino county, as well as all Arizona,” he said.

Hayden reasoned that an improved road would boost visitation and that, in turn, would necessitate more federal money for the park and, by extension, the county and state. Given that Coconino County was only making about $5,000 a year in revenues from the Bright Angel, the congressman viewed the government’s offer as very lucrative. He arranged for a meeting at the El Tovar in April of 1923 with Congressman Louis Crampton of Michigan, chairman of the Interior Department appropriations subcommittee, and Congressman Charles D. Carter of Oklahoma, a member of the same sub-committee. Also attending was the Coconino County Board of Supervisors and NPS representatives.

Approval of the deal was secured at this gathering but not before the NPS offered an additional incentive for the county. After the $100,000 was used on the Maine/Grand Canyon road as per the agreement, the park would thereafter maintain the route, a proposition that would save the county millions in ensuing years. Convinced that the NPS was sincere in its desire to build a mutually agreeable working relationship with local interests, the Board of Supervisors accepted the agreement.

The plan precluded any need to proceed with the construction of another trail.

Had it stuck, the Kaibab Trail might never have been built.

Had it stuck …

Newspaper wars

Now commenced the battle of two, very vocal, factions in Northern Arizona, those who wanted to accept the Bright Angel deal and those who did not. The former led by the Coconino Sun in Flagstaff, and the latter by the Williams News. A “newspaper war” raged for many weeks.

One of the loudest of the antifederal voices belonged to Ralph Cameron. Cameron, (now Senator Cameron), despite having to relinquish his claims to the trail some years before, was still as opposed as ever to any governmental intercession at the Grand Canyon and he still had loyal supporters at the South Rim as well as in Williams. Cameron’s efforts to rally these supporters, combined with the nagging doubts that had begun to form amid the general population regarding the wisdom of the sale effectively undermined the El Tovar deal.

Consider the ongoing debate between the local newspapers into the mix and it’s understandable why the Coconino Board of Supervisors decided to take a different track. Although lending tacit approval for the deal reached at the El Tovar, the county had never officially finalized their decision. Now, in mid-September of 1924, with passions running high on both sides, the board decided to sell the Bright Angel Trail at public auction. Since the Department of the Interior would be the only declared buyer it seemed that the dispute over the trail was finally near an end.

Enter Frank M. Gold, an attorney in Flagstaff, who, working with some citizens of Williams, filed a successful petition to place the question of the trail’s sale on the November ballot. There is little question as to the unseen hand of Ralph Cameron influencing this latest turn of events. Debra L. Sutphen, in her thesis, Grandview, Hermit, and South Kaibab Trails: linking the past, present and future at the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, 1890-1990 described the atmosphere:

“Once more, the Coconino Sun and the Williams News assumed fighting stances, fervently deriding each other and their respective followers over this volatile issue. Additionally, an extensive propaganda campaign was waged by both sides, consuming dozens of pages of newsprint in equally strident efforts to persuade the voters of Coconino County of the merits of their respective arguments. Again, the reputations of several individuals were publicly called into question, among them attorney Frank Gold. As the election deadline approached, tempers flared and the conflict assumed a feverish urgency. All other election matters paled in comparison to the exposure afforded this highly charged issue…By Nov. 4, tension between the two factions had reached an almost maniacal pitch.”

The proposition failed.

Embarrassed, and more than a little aware of their perceived weakness in Northern Arizona, the NPS decided that it was time for decisive action on their part. The immediate plans of the agency, and the success of the same, would color for years, even decades, their relationship to the local population and the various business interests in the area. It was quickly announced that work would begin on the Yaki Trail on Dec. 1, 1924.

A new trail

On that date the trail crews were assembled. Twenty men from the top would work down, following high ridges, 20 men from the bottom would rework and re-align the old Cable Trail, and when finished the new route would reduce the walking distance between the Colorado and the South Rim by about three and a half miles.

The lower crew began work on Dec. 3 and the upper crew (delayed by weather) on Dec. 8. Superintendent Eakin, in his monthly report, said that excellent progress was made those first few weeks though costs were higher then expected. Actually, more than a quarter of the trail was completed (1.63 miles) at a cost of $18,456. If this pace were to continue the Yaki would be completed by April 1, but the expense would surpass the $50,000 budget by almost $24,000. Winter storms in January tempered predictions of an early completion of the project.

The upper crew was stalled by wind, snow and cold while the lower crew, working under more favorable climatic conditions on an already established trail, made predictably good progress. This section, in the inner gorge, was an old prospector’s route to the cable suspended over the Colorado that was used to cross the river prior to 1921.

Improved by the park service in 1922 to facilitate access to the new swinging bridge and the (just opened) Phantom Ranch, the Cable Trail accessed the Tonto Platform about a quarter-mile west of the present-day Tipoff. During the 1922 renovation, a rockslide took the life of Rees B. Griffiths, a Trail Foreman and today his grave is marked with a plaque near the spot where he died. The sheer hardness of much of the rock hindered progress for the crews.

In his January report Eakin noted:

“Very unfavorable conditions retarded progress on the Yaki Point Trail for the month of January. The lower limestone strata…is giving us much more trouble than anticipated. As an index of hardness, at one place it required 17 freshly sharpened bits to drill a hole eight inches in depth. The compressor used by the lower crew was idle three days due to waiting for spare parts.”

At a cost of $11,016, barely a third of a mile of trail was built during that first month of 1925. February and March saw little more progress and cost overruns threatened the very project itself. As of April 1, only 3.32 miles of trail (less than two-thirds of the overall task) had been completed at an expenditure of $47,762. An immediate infusion of capital was needed if the project was to be successful.

There were numerous factions and interests at the Canyon and, indeed, throughout Northern Arizona that would have delighted in such a high profile failure for the NPS. Such an occurrence would have crippled the government in its dealings at the Grand Canyon for many years to come.

Eventually, $10,000 was diverted from the road building budget and an additional $25,000 was appropriated from the original $100,000 that was intended for Coconino County as part of the ill-fated deal. Work on the Yaki did not stop. The trail was dedicated on June 15, 1925, built at a total cost of just under $73,000.

“In a tense battle of will and determination the National Park Service had achieved predominance within Grand Canyon National Park. This success, represented by a precipitous, four-foot wide path, marked a significant tipping of the scales of control at Grand Canyon—no longer would private interests hold sway over the destiny of the mighty chasm,” said Debra Sutphen.

There remained still another controversy, albeit not of the magnitude that sparked the years of newspaper war and character assassination. It concerned an official name for the trail.

Yaki Trail was assumed to be the choice since most everyone had been using that term all through the months of construction. In fact, for years after “Kaibab Trail” was decided upon, many continued to call it the Yaki or Yaki Point Trail. But this name was never actually officially assigned to the structure.

Fred Harvey, backed by Santa Fe, believing (mistakenly) that they still had some influence in the matter vis-à-vis the not inconsiderable resources they had just spent building Phantom Ranch, badly wanted “Phantom Trail”. Given that the trail led directly there, this was probably a more appropriate name, however the NPS, not in any mood to accede to any of the Harvey Company wishes, dismissed it outright. Stephen Mather himself wrote Superintendent Eakin:

“Harvey wants to use ‘Phantom’ because it leads to Phantom Ranch, on which they’ve just spent lots of money. I think Kaibab is better, however, so lets do that.”

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