History of Grand Canyon

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Like a giant slash in the earth cut by natures knife, the Grand Canyon exposes millions of years of the planets history, normally buried under gigantic layers of rock. This grandest of all gorges has inspired admiration, awe and terror in those who came to stand on its edges and gaze into the mile-deep chasm down to the two-billion-year old Pre-Cambrian rock at the bottom.

All geologists today agree that the canyon was created by the Colorado Rivers incessant cutting action, with the gradual uplifting of the Kaibab Plateau allowing it to cut even deeper. The Kaibab is part of the Colorado Plateau, a permanently shifting chunk of earth that has formed the magnificent natural features of Northern Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. The plateau itself is not flat, but sloping to the southwest, putting the northern rim of the canyon at a markedly higher altitude (8,200 feet) than its southern edge (7,000 feet). The river is twice as far from the north than it is from the south rim, with the south side much steeper than the north, as any hiker struggling up the steep South Rim switchbacks will confirm.

No one knows for sure where the first humans descending into the canyon came from, but certain archeological finds in the park suggest that people visited the gorge as far back as 10,000 B.C. It seems that a nomadic hunter-gatherer people known as the "Desert Culture" inhabited the area between 6,000 and 2,000 B.C. Centuries later, the Anasazi people, most likely descendants of the Desert Culture, began settling on the rims and in the depths of the canyon. They developed a system of agriculture that allowed them to live deep within the ravine, growing grains on rivers banks and mesas. Granaries and ruins of their houses have been found along the cliffs. Archeological research now suggests that the Anasazi abandoned the area around the 12th century A.D., either because of droughts or attacks by hostile neighbor tribes.

The first Europeans to see the Grand Canyon were the Spanish conquistadors. In 1540, explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, prompted by rumors about golden cities to the north of present-day Mexico, started on his famous trek into Arizona and dispatched Garcia Lopez de Cardenas to find an Indian village supposedly close to a great river canyon. With the aid of Hopi Indians from the village of Tusayan, now the name of the tourist town at the gateway to the park, Cardenas finally got to the South Rim, only to turn back after deciding that it was impossible to cross the gorge. Two centuries passed until the Spanish returned to the area. In 1776, Francisco Atanasia Dominguez and Sylvestre Velez de Escalante left from Santa Fe in search for an overland route to California; they did not see the Grand Canyon but crossed the Colorado a couple of hundred miles north at Glen Canyon.

The first American to come across the canyon was probably James Ohio Pattie, whose exploring party happened onto the North Rim in 1826. Just like the conquistadors before him, he spent many frustrating days trying to cross it, without success. Accordingly, he did not feel much appreciation for its natural grandeur, but rather described it as an infuriating obstacle in his explorations. It was a fearless, one-armed Civil War veteran named John Wesley Powell who finally put the Grand Canyon on the map. In the year 1869, he and his nine companions became the first white men to travel down 1,000 miles down the river through the canyon. They braved brutal heat, dangerous rapids and sinking morale, and lost three men before completing this remarkable adventure. Powell came back for a second trip in 1871-1872, providing invaluable information to the U.S. government about one of the least explored areas in the country. The government now advertised the region as a land of limitless resources, thus encouraging miners to come and stake their claims to copper, zinc, and lead. However, facing the immense difficulties of extracting and transporting ore from the canyon, some of them soon turned to the more profitable and less dangerous business of tourism.

As the 20th century dawned, the switch to a more lucrative way of extracting value from this natural wonder coincided with a change in public attitudes to wilderness areas. Increasingly, environmentalist, writers, and artists joined forces with railroad magnates in fighting for the creation of protected areas called national parks. In the early 1900s, a fellow named Fred Harvey started some fine park services with that goal in mind, creating buildings designed to blend in with the natural environment, most notably the El Tovar Hotel, still in business, and now a National Historic Landmark. Tourism soon was in full swing, as it remains to this day, drawing almost five million visitors a year. Yet, despite its popularity, the canyon did not become a national park until 1919. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt, a great lover of the outdoors, visited the gorge and was quite impressed. He created the Grand Canyon Game Preserve, which was upgraded to national monument status in 1908. Finally, on February 26, 1919, the U.S. Congress authorized expanding and upgrading it to its present national park status.

In 1975, President Gerald Ford signed an act doubling the parks size to 1,904 square miles. In appreciation of its universal value to people from all over the world, the Grand Canyon was declared a World Heritage Site in 1979.

Today, the canyon provides a multitude of fully developed facilities for tourists. Some say the park is over-developed, claiming that increasing commercialization ignores Teddy Roosevelts admonition to 'do nothing to mar its grandeur.' Plans for new developments on the South Rim are hotly contested, and the park, like so many other nature areas in the American West, has become another battleground in the continuing war between environmental and economic forces.