A Return to O'Neill Spring
Day Hiking Down the Grandview Trail

Sunday, April 22, 2012

by Dennis Foster


A ledge in the lower Redwall
shelters what was a small pool.


Click on any picture to see a larger image.

     On the old maps of Grand Canyon, off the west side of Horseshoe Mesa a named spring is marked.  It is called "O'Neill Spring."  The spring was named for Buckey O'Neill, who was a sheriff in nearby Prescott and a one-time Grand Canyon resident.  He was also a member of Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders and died during the battle of San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War.  There is a very prominent butte along the South Kaibab Trail that bears his name.  And, one of the cabins at the Bright Angel Lodge is called the "Buckey O'Neill Cabin," where there is a display detailing a bit about Buckey's life.
    In 2000, hiking buddy John Eastwood and I went down the Grandview trail to do a day hiking loop around the west prong of the horseshoe.  Despite having been up and down this trail many, many times, I had never taken the time to look for this spring.  Partly that is because there is good water just down a bit further, in what is named Cottonwood Canyon.  And, to get to the spring you have to hike up the canyon, which is not going to be on the way to anything else!  So, for this day hike we were going to take the time to search for O'Neill Spring.  We started off fine, as we found the little spur trail below the Redwall that is supposed to lead to the spring, but soon we couldn't follow this track and just wandered along the side of the slopes in here.  Somehow we found it and looking back on this I'm not sure how.  John thinks we saw a patch of green which lead us to the spot, but in my photos, further below, you can compare what this little spot looked like in 2000 and in 2012.  Not much difference in my mind!

     Well, what makes this interesting is that we found the spring and there was a pool of water here.  It didn't breach the top and flow down the hillside and it may not do so even under the best of conditions.  But, the word was that this spring was dried up.  Yet, we were here in late May, or early June and it was very dry in the canyon.  It was so dry that we saw no water in the "wet" arm of Cottonwood, where I have always seen a reliable trickle of water.  I was pleasantly surprised at our find and have been hopeful that this spring is more reliable than many think.  So, I decided to make a return visit to O'Neill Spring.

The gap above the Coconino saddle.  Looking down to Horseshoe Mesa. The stone house on the mesa.
     On April 7th, I headed up to the canyon and hiked down the trail to look for the spring.  Unfortunately, I forgot to bring along my photos from 2000 so that I could match up the location.  Aargh!  I got down in good time, headed out on the spur trail, lost it again, as I did in 2000, and proceeded to wander around.  I couldn't find it.  Eventually, I walked down to the creek bed and up the other side so that I could do a better job of scanning the area.  Alas, I came up empty and ended up returning to the rim without having achieved my goal.  I did, however, count all the switchbacks in the Supai formation - there are eight.  And, I took pictures of each one.

     When I got home, I quickly found out what I had done wrong.  I stayed too low.  The spring is really very close to the bottom of the Redwall cliff, which is still well above the creek bed.  Also, as I looked over the old Matthes-Evans East Half Grand Canyon map (pictured to the right), I saw that this spur trail is drawn in and shown keeping it's elevation pretty much all the way to the spring.  I know that I drifted down, probably following more pronounced game routes.

     The next weekend we got dumped on with loads of snow.  Not only did I not want to hike back down the trail under those conditions, I really didn't want to find the spring when it might just be full of water from the storm.  So, I waited a couple of weeks before making my return.  This day was forecast to be quite hot - at, or about, 100 degrees at the river.  I left town at 5 a.m. and was on the trail by 7 a.m. with a plan to get back out before the middle of the afternoon.  Along the way, there were numerous canyon flowers in bloom and it was a pretty sight to see.  If you can hit the canyon when the cactus are in bloom, that is even more spectacular, at least to my mind.

Click on any picture to see a larger image.

There were a lot of flowers in bloom during this hike, including this Indian Paintbrush. 


Flowers growing along the trail.

Fresh stalk on this agave. 

 A perfect agave.

Cactus bloom - more in a few weeks.
     I made really good time down to the mesa.  I reached the spur trail in just a tad under two hours.  I did cache some water above the mesa for my return.  [I was carrying a total of 4 liters; at the end of the hike I had one left.]  The spur trail is real easy to spot, if you know what you're looking for, and real easy to follow around the first ridge.  Then it starts to fade away.  I took my time and mostly was able to follow the old trail.  A couple of times I climbed a bit when I didn't need to, although I ended up back on course pretty soon.  It took 30 minutes to reach the spring although if you were in a hurry it would likely only take half that long.

     The old trail dumped me right at the spot.  And, the spring was bone dry.  Well, there was a little moss growing at the very bottom, but it was otherwise a dry and dusty place.  The old tree is still growing out of the hole here and there is still plenty of flora in the vicinity, but no signs of water.  You can see the difference in the photos below.

     There were a couple of unusual things here.  I found a piece of what looked like an old can.  It had a big hole in the middle and I am sure someone in the know could probably identify what it comes from.  Also, up above the highest level the water in the pool could go there is a hole drilled into the rock wall.  Maybe it was part of some set up that allowed the miners to lower a bucket into the pool, but that's just speculation on my part.

     My hike back was as swift as the hike down.  I did manage to completely follow the spur trail back to the main trail, placing a few small cairns along the way to help others stay on this historic route.  [There are some other cairns in the area that mark alternative tracks, but I am confident that I was on the old trail all the way back.]  Perhaps someone who decides to take a meander over to this site in the future will, once again, find water here.


The spring had water in 2000! 

 There is still plenty growing right here in front of the spring.  I added the cairn - hopefully it gets improved over time if others visit this site.

The spring area in 2000. 

Not a drop in 2012.

About the same view in 2012.

What was once a pool . . .  Interesting hole in the rock here. A piece of an old can?
     So, is this spring forever dry?  The park service info refers to this as an "unreliable" water source.  Some avid canyon hikers claim that it is dry.  Harvey Butchart found only a bit of damp ground here in September 1957 and opined that there may be more here at different times of the year:
Don and I . . . [took] the time to investigate O'Neil (sic) Spring at the end of the spur trail just below the Redwall as you are going up to the mines. I came to a fair sized hole under some rocks, but there was no water in it at this time of year. It was damp, however, and had one willow growing out of the middle of the depression.  [September 14, 1957]

     Later, in 1970, Harvey looked for the spring again, and in what strikes me as a eerie coincidence, came up empty:

I had seen O'Neill Spring, dry at the time, only once 13 years ago, so I thought we had time to check it again. This time we must have never gotten on the right trail. We must have been too low after going down south of the spring. We did go north until we figured we were on the spur away from the regular trail, but there seems to be two spurs. We must have followed an old burro trail that led us farther south than the place we had come through the Redwall. We finally gave up the search and went down to the bed of the wash. [September 19, 1970]

Well, eerie because it had been 13 years since he had first seen the spring, although dry.  For me it had been nearly 13 years as well.  He was there both times in September, while I was there both times in the spring (May and April, respectively).  As best I can tell, Harvey never did make another attempt to locate O'Neill Spring.

     I'll close with a final comment about Buckey.  In the summer of 2011, I was in Washington, D.C.  and took a trip to the Arlington National Cemetery to look up Major Powell's grave site and memorial.  While there, I saw a reference to a monument honoring the fallen Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War.  I found it (pictured to the left).  Chiseled on the back side was the name of "Capt. William O. O'Neill," aka Buckey (shown to the right).  Some weeks later I came to find out that Buckey is actually also buried in Arlington, but finding his marker will have to wait until another visit.

     Want to know more about Buckey?  Listen to this NPR story.

What's in a name?  Origins and Confusion about O'Neill Spring.

     When I first published this blog there was some question about the proper spelling and who the spring was named for.  Doug Nering pointed out to me that in some sources there is a reference to an "O'Neil Spring" in this location, and attributes it to "Jim O'Neil, a scout for Gen. George Crook."  I looked it up in a slim book called Grand Canyon Place Names, by Byrd Granger, that I picked up years ago.  And, as Doug mentioned, in there is a reference to Jim O'Neil as the namesake for this spring.  So, I began to try and sort this out.  I had just assumed that the spring was named for Buckey because on the old maps (as shown in the photo above), the spelling is the same as his name - O'Neill.

     It turns out that my slim book is really just a reprint of a portion of a much larger tome, Arizona Place Names, that Granger edited in 1960 from the original edition published in 1935, by Will C. Barnes.  Apparently, Barnes was reputed to have made many mistakes and Granger fixed them.  Along with this reference was a citation that I didn't understand, so I went to the Special Collections Archive of Cline Library at Northern Arizona University (in Flagstaff) to see if they could help me.  The woman there actually had known Granger and recognized the cryptic citation as relating to materials held by the Arizona Historical Society (AHS) in Tucson.  She gave me the contact information for Kate Reeve, who heads the Library and Archives at the AHS in Tucson, to follow-up on this matter.

     According to Kate the source Granger used was a book titled, "Pioneer Stories of Arizona's Verde Valley," published in 1954 where an old-time resident lists the eleven people who lived in Flagstaff in 1880, one of whom was "Jim O'Neil of O'Neil Springs."  Kate also looked up the original note cards that Barnes used to assemble his information and found a reference to an "O'Neal Spring" named for "John O'Neill one of General Crooks scouts."  But, the location of this spring is in the Flagstaff area and not in the Grand Canyon.  Additionally, the reference to General Crook was crossed out, but whether that was done by Barnes or Granger is not clear to me.

     Well, I kept looking.  I had previously used the U.S.G.S. place names web site to find out about other locations.  And, they usually have the old index cards that give details saved as pdf files.  But, try as I might I wasn't getting anywhere with my search of "O'Neill Spring" nor with "O'Neil Spring."  [Well, I did get a hit to a spring south of Flagstaff that was named "O'Neill Spring" in 1980, although that is probably what the Jim O'Neil reference meant in Barnes' original notes.]  I tried a few times and through some combination of checking the right boxes found an entry for "O'Neill Spring (historical)" and got a copy of the decision card (shown to the right - click on it to see a bigger image) which was submitted in 1930 and approved in 1932.  It notes that the spring was named for Buckey.  [However, on the back side of the decision card someone has written in the 1960 Granger citation, attributing this to Jim O'Neil, so that error is still probably a source of confusion.]

     I decided to buy a copy of the original 1935 edition of Arizona Place Names and in there it has the same information as on the U.S.G.S. decision card, and cites the U.S.G.S. as the source.  So, Granger changed it in 1960, and it certainly appears to me that she got it wrong.  There is a newer edition of this book, published in 1988, and it may be just a straight reprint of the original 1935 edition, since Granger's name is not on it.  And, the original U.S.G.S. reference to "O'Neill Spring" is there.

     I have no doubt that the spring was named for Buckey O'Neill and that the attribution to Jim O'Neil was just a mistake.  As further evidence, I would note again that the spelling is consistent on the old Matthes-Evans map as shown above (a 1939 reprint of the 1927 edition).  As luck would have it, someone on the Yahoo Grand Canyon Hikers group posted a link to an even older map (still based on the survey work by Matthes and Evans), reprinted in 1919, from a 1907 edition and based on survey work done in 1902-1903.  It, too, has the exact same reference to "O'Neill Spring."  This appears to be the map reference given on the decision card.

     I am currently assuming that the spring was named to memorialize Buckey after he was killed in the Spanish-American War.  I don't believe that he had any business interests with Pete Berry (who ran the mine at Grandview and built the trail to this spring).  If so, then the name would have been given sometime between the summer of 1898 and the survey work in 1902/03.  I am looking for some documentation to buttress my supposition and there may be a further update on this score.  Also, it would be great to locate an historic photo!  But, I'm not holding my breath on that one.

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