North Rim day: Dendroglyphs, deer herds and the Golden Age of tourist development

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FEATURE — It’s one of the seven wonders of the world and a UNESCO world heritage site.

One mile at its deepest from rim to river, the Grand Canyon is a literal open book of the layers of geologic history. Some say it was carved over eons of time by the Colorado River and other erosive forces while others say its formation took less time, a result of a catastrophic event such as an enormous earthquake.

No matter to which formation theory one subscribes, anyone can agree that the Grand Canyon is a breathtaking scenic spectacle, everyone from the first Native Americans who inhabited the area to John Wesley Powell, the famed river explorer who named it, to the six million tourists on average who annually visit it today.

And 2019 is a significant anniversary for this revered Northern Arizona gem. It marks the centennial of its designation as a national park, the highest status afforded to such a place.

Most visitors flocking to see the Grand Canyon go to the more developed South Rim and skip its northern counterpart. If visitors could travel as the crow flies, it would only be a 10-mile journey from the South Rim to the North Rim. Instead, it is a 4-hour, 213-mile drive over a mostly two-lane highway.

When it comes to history, the South Rim is also more well-known. However, the North Rim has its own interesting story.

The Grand Canyon Grazing Kingdom

Settlers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints started running cattle and other livestock on the Kaibab Plateau near the North Rim as a summer range in the early 1870s. According to an essay by Amy Horn, entitled “Stories Among the Aspen: Running Cattle on the North Rim and North Kaibab” found in a compilation book called “Reflections of Grand Canyon Historians” edited by Todd Berger, by the late 1880s, there were as many as 200,000 sheep and 20,000 cattle on the Kaibab Plateau. 

One of the early cattle companies on the plateau was the Kaibab Land and Cattle Company, organized by John W. Young, a son of Brigham Young, the second president of the Church of Jesus Christ. The United Order of Orderville had quite a significant herd there as well.

This historic photo shows cowboys from the Grand Canyon Cattle Company readying themselves for a cattle drive near the North Rim, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, 1907-1924 | Photo courtesy of Northern Arizona University Cline Library Special Collections, St. George News

By 1907, however, the Grand Canyon Cattle Company had bought out the smaller companies’ interests and became the conglomerate of all early cattle operations, Horn wrote.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Grand Canyon changed statuses in the eyes of the Federal Government. In 1893, President Benjamin Harrison’s administration set it aside as the Grand Canyon Forest Reserve, then in 1906 it became the Grand Canyon Game Preserve. National monument status followed in 1908 and in 1919, Congress designated it Grand Canyon National Park as it is known today.

As the levels of government protection increased, so did the limits on grazing. For instance, in 1916, the Grand Canyon Cattle Company had a permit for 15,000 head of cattle, but that was significantly reduced the following year to 2,000. National Park Service managers allowed grazing at first, but gradually phased it out. By 1924 grazing within the North Rim’s boundaries had ceased. Even after it was phased out, however, cattle wandered in until the Civilian Conservation Corps built a boundary fence in 1941. 

Reminders of these early cattle operations abound on the Kaibab Plateau in the form of aspen dendroglyphs, which are names and dates carved into the aspen’s white bark. Archaeologists have recorded nearly 500 aspen dendroglyphs on the North Rim, which date from the 1890s to the 1950s, but most of them were carved in the 1910s or 1920s, Horn reported. These tree carvings usually occurred near water sources and along trails and, in addition to names and dates, sometimes included cattle brands or even a poem.

Many might consider these dendroglyphs merely graffiti, but Horn noted in her writings that they provide significant insight about these early cattlemen. One such insight that at first puzzled archaeologists was the fact that many of the dendroglyphs along the Point Imperial Trail show dates in December and January when the area, at approximately 8,000 feet in elevation, is usually blanketed with a significant amount of snow, Horn wrote.

A tale from an old timer solved the mystery. It explained that cattle were driven from the Kaibab Plateau down to House Rock Valley to the east in the fall. 

“Cowboys would return to ‘ride the points’ in December after the heavy snow forced the strays to the canyon rim,” Horn explained. “It is easy to picture cowboys riding through the snow, searching for strays and pausing to record their wintry visit.”

“If you look closely among the trees, you can find the stories left by these pioneers,” Horn concluded.

The Kaibab Deer Crisis

In the 1920s and early 1930s, Grand Canyon park managers learned a valuable lesson about wildlife management: Don’t eliminate predators.

At the time, deer on the Kaibab Plateau were protected to the point of persecuting and almost eliminating mountain lions and other predators, J. Donald Hughes wrote in his book “The Story of Man at the Grand Canyon.”

Without this significant predator, the deer population increased rapidly, from an estimated 4,000 in 1906 to about 100,000 by 1924, Hughes wrote.

“The vegetation suffered as the deer browsed it to the point of disappearance,” Hughes explained. “A ‘high-line’ appeared in the trees as the deer ate every green thing they could reach, and the forest took on the appearance of a carefully clipped city park.”

As a result, in the winter of 1924-1925 thousands of deer died of starvation but predators were still being blamed. 

Some other steps besides introducing predators were taken to try to remedy the problem, including relocating the deer.

In 1924, a Flagstaff man was given permission to drive from 3,000 to 8,000 deer from the North Rim to the South Rim on the Nankoweap and Tanner trails. During this forced migration, “a line of 125 men was formed on the North Rim to drive the deer to the head of the trail,” Hughes recounted.

Those men, armed with noisemakers, moved forward.

“A storm broke, some lost their way, and when they reached the chosen point, all the deer were behind them,” Hughes wrote. “Another attempt was not made.”

Some fawns were captured and taken to other areas to start new herds. For instance, some of the fawns were flown across to the South Rim, but grew up to be quite tame and became a nuisance. Other fawn transplants were even less successful with many of them dying in transit.

By 1924, deer hunting on the Kaibab Plateau began in limited numbers, but not within the boundaries of the park. Shooting of predatory animals still continued until 1931, after which the NPS realized it needed to restore the balance of nature by allowing predators into the park.

North Rim Tourist Development: The Utah Parks Company

Legend has it that if guests rub the statue of Brighty located in the Grand Canyon Lodge it will bring them good luck, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, July 3, 2017 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

Up until the 1920s, the North Rim’s services for tourists were more rustic, almost by design, as administrators felt such services fit the less frequented area, Michael F. Anderson wrote in the park’s administrative history, entitled, “Polishing the Jewel.” 

Some of those first who tapped the tourist potential in the area were Kanab residents Edwin “Uncle Dee” Woolley and his son-in-law, David Rust, who, starting in 1907, offered outfitting services from Kanab, just over 80 miles away from the North Rim, but discontinued their venture by 1919. In that same year, “Uncle” Jimmy Owens left his job as a Forest Service game warden to offer hunting trips within the Kaibab National Forest, grazing a buffalo herd along the plateau. However, records show that the buffalo preferred to graze in House Rock Valley than in the park itself, Horn wrote.

Arizona Strip residents Aldus “Blondie” Jensen and his wife, Melissa, offered saddle trips along the rim and down Bright Angel Creek. Brothers Chauncey and Gronway Parry, automobile dealers based in Cedar City, Utah, who would later be the driving forces behind Kanab’s fame as a significant western movie-making locale, also got into the act by including the North Rim in their public transportation network that transported visitors to southwestern Utah’s parks and monuments.

According to Anderson, Elizabeth Wylie McKee operated the principal North Rim concessionaire at Bright Angel Point from 1917 until 1927. 

“Her father, William Wallace Wylie, had pioneered the ‘Wylie Way’ concept of park concessions at Yellowstone in the 1880s, which consisted of a camp with a central dining room and primitive lodge flanked by individual tent cabins,” Anderson wrote. 

Wylie himself started the camp at the Union Pacific Railroad’s request and entrusted the North Rim facility to his daughter, who acquired ownership when her father retired in 1924. She managed the camp with the help of her son, Bobby, and a small staff of local teens while her husband, Thomas, guided trips to Point Sublime and Cape Royal.

The 1920s was the decade that saw the most development along the North Rim, some of which survives to this day. In 1925, the National Park Service built a ranger cabin, warehouse, barn, and machine shed at Bright Angel Point. Duplex cottages along with a few outbuildings and a developed campground followed in 1926. For a decade, the McKees used to haul water via burro or mule from springs just below the rim within Transept Canyon.

One of the burros they used for this job was nicknamed “Brighty.” Bobby befriended the abandoned burro and the two worked well together in the grueling job. Bobby ‘paid’ Brighty for his work by giving him a stack of “flapjacks.” The formerly wild burro endeared himself to visiting children, allowing them to ride him. Marguerite Henry’s children’s book, “Brighty of the Grand Canyon,” immortalized the mule and a statue of him sits prominently in the Grand Canyon Lodge. Many believe that rubbing the statue’s nose will bring them good luck.

In 1927, however, the park eliminated the need for this chore by building a system that would pump twenty-four gallons of water per minute from those same springs to a storage tank to serve the growing development in the area. Despite the fact that fewer than 10,000 visitors annually visited the North Rim at the time, the development of these state-of-the-art water and power systems, a half-million-dollar project, represented a remarkable investment, Anderson noted.

“Aside from these investments, the Utah Parks Company extended water, sewer, and electrical lines to its developed areas and supplied most utilities to NPS administrative buildings free of charge,” Anderson wrote. 

This historic photo shows the back side of the original Grand Canyon Lodge before it burned down in 1932, North Rim, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, 1928-1932 | Photo courtesy of Northern Arizona University Cline Library Special Collections, St. George News

In 1927, the Utah Parks Company (UPC), a subsidiary of the Union Pacific Railroad, became the major concessionaire for the North Rim. Unfortunately, this meant the end for those who had been previously operating concessions at the North Rim, who were forced to sell to the UPC. However, the McKees completed the 1927 season and the Parrys and Jensens were able to operate a few more years while the UPC built its lodge. 

Built in 1927 to 1928, Grand Canyon Lodge honed in on the same village concept as Zion Lodge, with 100 standard cabins and 20 deluxe cabins surrounding the main lodge. The complex also included employee quarters, postal and telegraph services and visitor entertainments. Part of that entertainment provided from the young UPC staffers became singing to visitors as they arrived and “sing-aways” as they departed.

The famed architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood, who was also responsible for the lodges at Bryce Canyon and Zion, designed the lodge to blend in with its natural surroundings using locally-sourced materials in its construction. This concept became known as “Parkitecture.”

The original Grand Canyon Lodge and two of its deluxe cabins were destroyed by fire in 1932. The main lodge was rebuilt in 1936-37 utilizing much of what remained of the stone foundation, piers, walls and chimneys of the original building. The rebuild retained the general configuration of the first lodge with a few exceptions. The UPC added fifteen-bedroom men’s and women’s dormitories the same year the new lodge was finished. Some say the re-creation is not as architecturally spectacular as the original, but retains its “Underwood flavor” even though it is not clear if he was part of the reconstruction.

Grand Canyon Lodge takes full advantage of its location on the rim, boasting a viewing room with large windows within the lodge itself, a viewing deck on its east side and a dining room that overlooks the rim as well.

Before the 1930s, transportation to and from the North Rim was a difficult proposition as most of the road network in the area were simply leftovers from early settlers and freighting efforts. The Forest Service improved the route from Jacob Lake to the North Rim, which was “pretentiously dubbed the Grand Canyon Highway,” Anderson wrote, even though it was far from the quality of today’s highways.

In fact, those roads were “in such poor condition that during the early 1920s the tiny towns of Fredonia and Kanab supported half a dozen service stations, whose employees spent much of their time combing the Arizona Strip for stranded motorists,” Anderson noted. 

Visitors gather at the front entrance of Grand Canyon Lodge along the North Rim, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, July 3, 2017 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

Construction on a new access road to the North Rim began in 1927 and closely followed the path of an old wagon road worn by cattlemen and, interestingly, improved by the Bureau of Entomology, Anderson noted. It included a 2.9-mile spur to Point Imperial (formerly known as Skidoo Point) that followed earlier wagon tracks. 

“The difficult, serpentine road was completed by three separate California contractors in 1931 at a cost of well over half a million dollars,” Anderson wrote.

One reason the UPC did not hesitate to make such groundbreaking improvements was the promise of that North Entrance Road but also the knowledge that state road agencies planned to construct highways throughout Northern Arizona and Southern Utah that would make easier connections to it.

Not surprisingly, during World War II the Utah Parks Company curtailed services at the North Rim and visitor numbers declined significantly. In 1948, the UPC signed a 20-year concessionaire contract with the park service as visitation returned and then exceeded prewar levels.

“In the ten years following, the National Park Service allowed the company to write off more of its park-related expenses, but the short travel season, high costs, fixed rates, and economy-minded tourists would guarantee losses for another quarter century,” Anderson wrote. “Despite a new contract and return to the prewar trend of escalating visitation, the Union Pacific Railroad held back on major tourism-related investments.”

The company held back because it had seen only an average of 70% occupancy rate for its lodging facilities since 1950. Demand exceeded supply only a few days a year and the company knew it had to achieve profitability, not believing the National Park Service’s optimistic visitor number projections. As such, it resisted the NPS’s demands to improve its facilities during the Mission 66 program, which aimed to improve and build new facilities to commemorate the Park Service’s 50th anniversary.

When the contract expired in 1968, the Union Pacific Railroad wanted to get out of the tourist industry and sell the UPC. It had a deal on the table, but it fell through in 1969. It only completed annual contracts from then on and in 1971, it donated all of its facilities to the NPS. In 1972, the NPS opened up a bidding process for a concessionaire and TW Recreation Services, a subsidiary of Trans World Airlines (TWA) got the contract, ending what many would consider the golden age of tourism at the North Rim, as well as the Utah Parks Company’s other holdings in Zion, Bryce Canyon and Cedar Breaks.

Today’s visitors will still enjoy these rustic accommodations and have a clear picture of what it looked like back then as not much has changed since these structures’ initial construction.

Visiting the North Rim

The North Rim is an approximate 3-hour drive from the St. George area via Utah SR 59 from Hurricane, which turns into Arizona SR 389 to Fredonia. From Fredonia, turn south (right) on U.S. 89A until Jacob Lake, then turn south (right) on Arizona SR 67 for the last 45 miles to reach the national park entrance.

Unlike the South Rim, the North Rim is not open year round. It operates approximately May 15 to October 15 and sometimes closes later depending on snowfall.

The main tourist area of the North Rim is centered around the Grand Canyon Lodge and the Bright Angel Point Trail. It is home to the North Rim Visitor Center and many other visitor services, including eateries, gift shops and a campground.

Visitors will be rewarded with fewer crowds and views just as breathtaking along the Scenic Drive of the Walhalla Plateau that includes stops such as Point Imperial, the highest viewpoint in the park, as well as Vista Encantada, Roosevelt Point, and Cape Royal, the drive’s end.

For more information, visit the official National Park Service North Rim website.

For an album of historic Grand Canyon Lodge pictures, click here.

About the series “Days”

“Days” is a series of stories about people and places, industry and history in and surrounding the region of southwestern Utah.

“I write stories to help residents of southwestern Utah enjoy the region’s history as much as its scenery,” St. George News contributor Reuben Wadsworth said.

To keep up on Wadsworth’s adventures, “like” his author Facebook page or follow his Instagram account.

Wadsworth has also released a book compilation of many of the historical features written about Washington County as well as a second volume containing stories about other places in Southern Utah, Northern Arizona and Southern Nevada.

Read more: See all of the features in the “Days” series

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Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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