Most of us know John Wesley Powell as an iconic and historic Western figure – explorer, river man and scientist, the first person, along with his team of intrepid adventurers, to descend the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.
There have been many books and histories written about Powell and the Grand Canyon; Kevin Fedarko's excellent "The Emerald Mile" and Peter McBride's brilliant photo-essay "The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict" are two that come immediately to mind, along with, of course, Powell's own "The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons".
I took "The Promise of the Grand Canyon" along on our last vacation into the desert environs of Utah. We spent little time in Moab, of course (nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded), but we also spent some time south of the town of Green River mountain biking, hiking and exploring the geology and geography of the Green and the San Rafael rivers, Goblin Valley and the town itself (which boasts the outstanding John Wesley Powell Museum).
We had an amazing time. The landscape is magnificent – twisted, bent and upthrust with vast canyons and massive monolithic mounds. It is also very, very dry. This is not the same town of Green River from which Powell started his expeditions – that is Green River, Wyoming – but it was on his route to the confluence of the Green and Grand rivers (now known as the Colorado).
Obviously this territory has now been mapped, surveyed and explored, with roads, bridges and small towns all along the way. However, 150 years ago, one can only imagine the courage required to push off into aqua and terra incognito, with literally no knowledge of the nature of the river or the lands it passes through, only a point on the map where the river re-emerges. Although his crew were seasoned mountain men and explorers, brave and resourceful, they were all totally unfamiliar and unprepared for the hazards and logistics of river expeditions.
John Ross has done a spectacular job of research and reportage to bring this book to print. Although the title evokes the majesty and magnificence of the Grand Canyon, and rightly so, I found it to be, more accurately, an interesting and expressive biography of John Wesley Powell him- self. I learned that Powell, although religious (his father was a Methodist preacher and named his son after John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church), was a scientist first and foremost.
He was also a staunch abolitionist, having spent his early life just down the road from a rare town of free African-Americans, which was also a waypoint along the Underground Railroad. He lost his arm at the Battle of Shiloh fighting for his belief that all people should be free and that the Union should be preserved.
He was an educator, an engineer and one of the first true environmentalists. He would later become the second director of the United States Geological Survey (USGS). He and the men and women he engaged in its creation would make it one of the preeminent, renowned and distinguished scientific organizations in the world.
"The Promise Of The Grand Canyon" is an excellent and enlightening historical narrative. It does not suffer in comparison to those narratives which I consider some of the modern greats; books like "Blood and Thunder" by Hampton Sides, "Empire of the Summer Moon" by S. C. Gwynn and "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand. If you enjoy outstanding historical writing, you will definitely enjoy this book.