In Search of
by Dennis Foster
In 1916, George K. Davol convinced the Santa Fe Railroad that
it would be worthwhile investing in a project that would
enhance the allure of the Grand Canyon and entice more
tourists to visit that awesome natural wonder. The
project was an aerial tramway that would stretch between the
two rims of the mighty canyon. Passengers would
“sail” over a breathtaking landscape as they plied their
way down from Hopi Point to Dana Butte to the Tonto plateau
and then up to the Tower of Set, and further up to Horus
Temple and Osiris Temple, then crossing over Shiva Temple
before touching down on the North Rim.
on any of the photos, below, to see a larger
survey crew poses at North Tonto camp.
found the campsite - a terrace in Trinity
Today, we can only half close our eyes and imagine such a
spectacular voyage. In the fall of 1919, barely six
months after the Congress designated the Grand Canyon as a
National Park, Davol, with the blessing of the Park Service,
began his survey. It would involve at least a dozen men,
last more than three months and chart out a route to the Tower
of Set before the vagaries of winter closed down their
efforts. In the spring of 1920, the Park Service nixed
the project, and the survey was never completed.
Fast forward to November of 2009. Bill Ferris and I have
plans to hike into Trinity Canyon, west of the popular Phantom
Ranch. We have six days to reach the spot on the Tonto
plateau, below the Tower of Set, where I had to be airlifted
out of the canyon this past spring, when I suffered a
debilitating injury to my foot. That accident prevented
me from completing a nine day hike from Crazy Jug Point to the
South Rim, and I was quite keen to “finish” this trek in
the manner I had intended.
With six days, we had time to do some exploring. So, I
brought along some old photos of this 1919 survey. They
rigged up short “supply trams” across the canyon to
facilitate their work, and I suspected that we would be able
to find the remains of one such tram terminus, on the Tonto
plateau, as well as their nearby campsite.
Ninety years after the survey crew departed, we found their
campsite on a flat terrace by matching up this location with
the old pictures. Lucky for us, as the site looks to
have been scrubbed clean – all we found in the area was a
washer, a nail and a small bolt. It appears that they
did a good job of cleaning up after themselves.
survey crew mans the top of the supply tram link on
the Tonto, north of the Colorado River.
Below, I pose in the spots where two of the survey
crew were stationed. I didn't like the exposure
of the spot where the third crewmember was standing -
there was a drop of over a hundred feet!
We turned our attention to the tram site and wandered along
the rim of the Tonto plateau, overlooking the Colorado River.
Aided by the old pictures, we soon stumbled across supplies
left behind and tucked away under a ledge – coils of rope,
small buckets of screws, bolts and nails, some kind of gate,
and odd pieces of the machinery used to make the tram work.
There may be more in this cache, but the mice have had many
decades to pile up sticks and twigs in the gaps. Given
its rather obscure location, I would not be surprised if we
were the first ones to gaze upon this site since the survey
crew stuffed these supplies under this ledge, no doubt
expecting to return the following spring to continue with
blocks mark tram terminus.
perched above cache overhang.
of rope and buckets.
We had rain the last night we were in Trinity. And, we
could see snow on the rims in the morning. Not entirely
unlike the Davol survey crew’s experience. We packed
up and made our way back to the campground near Phantom Ranch,
leaving behind the dreams of a different era.
Foster has been hiking in the Grand Canyon since 1977 and has
spent over 300 nights camped in the canyon’s backcountry.
To learn more about this survey: Read Jim Ohlman’s “The
1919 Transcanyon Aerial Tramway Survey,” in A Gathering
of Grand Canyon Historians, edited by Michael F. Anderson, and
available from the Grand Canyon Association.
from the survey: Visit the Special Collections and
Archives Department of Cline Library at Northern Arizona
University. The Robert
Ryan Collection (he was a member of the survey crew) is
Canyon: To learn more about visiting the Grand Canyon go
Follow the link to “Backcountry Hiking” to learn about the
permit system for inner canyon camping. OR www.grandcanyonscout.com