1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Grand Canyon

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14082881911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 12 — Grand CanyonRalph Stockman Tarr

GRAND CANYON, a profound gorge in the north-west corner of Arizona, in the south-western part of the United States of America, carved in the plateau region by the Colorado river. Of it Captain Dutton says: “Those who have long and carefully studied the Grand Canyon of the Colorado do not hesitate for a moment to pronounce it by far the most sublime of all earthly spectacles”; and this is also the verdict of many who have only viewed it in one or two of its parts.

The Colorado river is made by the junction of two large streams, the Green and Grand, fed by the rains and snows of the Rocky Mountains. It has a length of about 2000 m. and a drainage area of 255,000 sq. m., emptying into the head of the Gulf of California. In its course the Colorado passes through a mountain section; then a plateau section; and finally a desert lowland section which extends to its mouth. It is in the plateau section that the Grand Canyon is situated. Here the surface of the country lies from 5000 to 9000 ft. above sea-level, being a tableland region of buttes and mesas diversified by lava intrusions, flows and cinder cones. The region consists in the main of stratified rocks bodily uplifted in a nearly horizontal position, though profoundly faulted here and there, and with some moderate folding. For a thousand miles the river has cut a series of canyons, bearing different names, which reach their culmination in the Marble Canyon, 66 m. long, and the contiguous Grand Canyon which extends for a distance of 217 m. farther down stream, making a total length of continuous canyon from 2000 to 6000 ft. in depth, for a distance of 283 m., the longest and deepest canyon in the world. This huge gash in the earth is the work of the Colorado river, with accompanying weathering, through long ages; and the river is still engaged in deepening it as it rushes along the canyon bottom.

The higher parts of the enclosing plateau have sufficient rainfall for forests, whose growth is also made possible in part by the cool climate and consequently retarded evaporation; but the less elevated portions have an arid climate, while the climate in the canyon bottom is that of the true desert. Thus the canyon is really in a desert region, as is shown by the fact that only two living streams enter the river for a distance of 500 m. from the Green river to the lower end of the Grand Canyon; and only one, the Kanab Creek, enters the Grand Canyon itself. This, moreover, is dry during most of the year. In spite of this lack of tributaries, a large volume of water flows through the canyon at all seasons of the year, some coming from the scattered tributaries, some from springs, but most from the rains and snows of the distant mountains about the headwaters. Owing to enclosure between steeply rising canyon walls, evaporation is retarded, thus increasing the possibility of the long journey of the water from the mountains to the sea across a vast stretch of arid land.

The river in the canyon varies from a few feet to an unknown depth, and at times of flood has a greatly increased volume. The river varies in width from 50 ft. in some of the narrow Granite Gorges, where it bathes both rock walls, to 500 or 600 ft. in more open places. In the 283 m. of the Marble and Grand Canyons, the river falls 2330 ft., and at one point has a fall of 210 ft. in 10 m. The current velocity varies from 3 to 20 or more miles per hour, being increased in places by low falls and rapids; but there are no high falls below the junction of the Green and Grand.

Besides the canyons of the main river, there are a multitude of lateral canyons occupied by streams at intervals of heavy rain. As Powell says, the region “is a composite of thousands, and tens of thousands of gorges.” There are “thousands of gorges like that below Niagara Falls, and there are a thousand Yosemites.” The largest of all, the Grand Canyon, has an average depth of 4000 ft. and a width of 41/2 to 12 m. For a long distance, where crossing the Kaibab plateau, the depth is 6000 ft. For much of the distance there is an inner narrower gorge sunk in the bottom of a broad outer canyon. The narrow gorge is in some places no more than 3500 ft. wide at the top. To illustrate the depth of the Grand Canyon, Powell writes: “Pluck up Mount Washington (6293 ft. high) by the roots to the level of the sea, and drop it head first into the Grand Canyon, and the dam will not force its waters over the wall.”

While there are notable differences in the Grand Canyon from point to point, the main elements are much alike throughout its length, and are due to the succession of rock strata revealed in the canyon walls. At the base, for some 800 ft., there is a complex of crystalline rocks of early geological age, consisting of gneiss, schist, slate and other rocks, greatly plicated and traversed by dikes and granite intrusions. This is an ancient mountain mass, which has been greatly denuded. On it rest a series of durable quartzite beds inclined to the horizontal, forming about 800 ft. more of the lower canyon wall. On this come first 500 ft. of greenish sandstones and then 700 ft. of bedded sandstone and limestone strata, some massive and some thin, which on weathering form a series of alcoves. These beds, like those above, are in nearly horizontal position. Above this comes 1600 ft. of limestone—often a beautiful marble, as in the Marble Canyon, but in the Grand Canyon stained a brilliant red by iron oxide washed from overlying beds. Above this “red wall” are 800 ft. of grey and bright red sandstone beds looking “like vast ribbons of landscape.” At the top of the canyon is 1000 ft. of limestone with gypsum and chert, noted for the pinnacles and towers which denudation has developed. It is these different rock beds, with their various colours, and the differences in the effect of weathering upon them, that give the great variety and grandeur to the canyon scenery. There are towers and turrets, pinnacles and alcoves, cliffs, ledges, crags and moderate talus slopes, each with its characteristic colour and form according to the set of strata in which it lies. The main river has cleft the plateau in a huge gash; innumerable side gorges have cut it to right and left; and weathering has etched out the cliffs and crags and helped to paint it in the gaudy colour bands that stretch before the eye. There is grandeur here and weirdness in abundance, but beauty is lacking. Powell puts the case graphically when he writes: “A wall of homogeneous granite like that in the Yosemite is but a naked wall, whether it be 1000 or 5000 ft. high. Hundreds and thousands of feet mean nothing to the eye when they stand in a meaningless front. A mountain covered by pure snow 10,000 ft. high has but little more effect on the imagination than a mountain of snow 1000 ft. high—it is but more of the same thing; but a façade of seven systems of rock has its sublimity multiplied sevenfold.”

To the ordinary person most of the Grand Canyon is at present inaccessible, for, as Powell states, “a year scarcely suffices to see it all”; and “it is a region more difficult to traverse than the Alps or the Himalayas.” But a part of the canyon is now easily accessible to tourists. A trail leads from the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fé railway at Flagstaff, Arizona; and a branch line of the railway extends from Williams, Arizona, to a hotel on the very brink of the canyon. The plateau, which in places bears an open forest, mainly of pine, varies in elevation, but is for the most part a series of fairly level terrace tops with steep faces, with mesas and buttes here and there, and, especially near the huge extinct volcano of San Francisco mountain, with much evidence of former volcanic activity, including numerous cinder cones. The traveller comes abruptly to the edge of the canyon, at whose bottom, over a mile below, is seen the silvery thread of water where the muddy torrent rushes along on its never-ceasing task of sawing its way into the depths of the earth. Opposite rise the highly coloured and terraced slopes of the other canyon wall, whose crest is fully 12 m. distant.

Down by the river are the folded rocks of an ancient mountain system, formed before vertebrate life appeared on the earth, then worn to an almost level condition through untold ages of slow denudation. Slowly, then, the mountains sank beneath the level of the sea, and in the Carboniferous Period—about the time of the formation of the coal-beds—sediments began to bury the ancient mountains. This lasted through other untold ages until the Tertiary Period—through much of the Palaeozoic and all of the Mesozoic time—and a total of from 12,000 to 16,000 ft. of sediments were deposited. Since then erosion has been dominant, and the river has eaten its way down to, and into, the deeply buried mountains, opening the strata for us to read, like the pages of a book. In some parts of the plateau region as much as 30,000 ft. of rock have been stripped away, and over an area of 200,000 sq. m. an average of over 6000 ft. has been removed.

The Grand Canyon was probably discovered by G. L. de Cardenas in 1540, but for 329 years the inaccessibility of the region prevented its exploration. Various people visited parts of it or made reports regarding it; and the Ives Expedition of 1858 contains a report upon the canyon written by Prof. J. S. Newberry. But it was not until 1869 that the first real exploration of the Grand Canyon was made. In that year Major J. W. Powell, with five associates (three left the party in the Grand Canyon), made the complete journey by boat from the junction of the Green and Grand rivers to the lower end of the Grand Canyon. This hazardous journey ranks as one of the most daring and remarkable explorations ever undertaken in North America; and Powell’s descriptions of the expedition are among the most fascinating accounts of travel relating to the continent. Powell made another expedition in 1871, but did not go the whole length of the canyon. The government survey conducted by Lieut. George M. Wheeler also explored parts of the canyon, and C. E. Dutton carried on extensive studies of the canyon and the contiguous plateau region. In 1890 Robert B. Stanton, with six associates, went through the canyon in boats, making a survey to determine the feasibility of building a railway along its base. Two other parties, one in 1896 (Nat. Galloway and William Richmond) the other in 1897 (George F. Flavell and companion), have made the journey through the canyon. So far as there is record these are the only four parties that have ever made the complete journey through the Grand Canyon. It has sometimes been said that James White made the passage of the canyon before Powell did; but this story rests upon no real basis.

For accounts of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado see J. W. Powell, Explorations of the Colorado River of the West and its Tributaries (Washington, 1875); J. W. Powell, Canyons of the Colorado (Meadville, Pa., 1895); F. S. Dellenbaugh, The Romance of the Colorado River (New York, 1902); Capt. C. E. Dutton, Tertiary History of the Grand Canyon District, with Atlas (Washington, 1882), being Monograph No. 2, U.S. Geological Survey. See also the excellent topographic map of the Grand Canyon prepared by F. E. Matthes and published by the U.S. Geological Survey.  (R. S. T.)