Grand Canyon history

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Most people would probably not think of the Grand Canyon as a place of history… geologic history yes, but local history, no. As one of America’s major national parks, it is known for its beauty and grandeur. Sure various Native American groups have lived in the area over the centuries, but what caught my interest on a recent visit was the park’s history as a tourist site… the stories of the people who early on shaped the park into the major tourist attraction it is today.

Visitors today can ride the train to the Canyon from Williams, AZ just as the first train travelers did in September 1901. The arrival of the train began the transformation of the South Rim. Today the Park Service offers a self-guided walking tour of the Grand Canyon Village Historic District – the area around the train depot.

The influence of architectural pioneer Mary Colter is found throughout the Park. I’d never heard of her and was impressed with her rise to prominence in a male-dominated world. Her trademark style ensured her structures blended into their landscape and recreated the look of the early Southwest. Her work includes Hopi House with its portrayal of buildings on the Hopi Indian Reservation, Bright Angel Lodge, built to provide moderately-priced accommodations and reminiscent of a grand hunting lodge, Hermit’s Rest, with it’s magnificent fireplace, and the Desert View Watchtower, modeled on an ancient ancestral puebloan watchtower and noted for its grand views and artwork by a Hopi artist.

The Bright Angel History Room, located in the Bright Angel Lodge, features fascinating artifacts and photos that tell the story of Mary Colter, the Santa Fe Railway, and the Fred Harvey Company in the in the early decades of the 20th century. Sadly, the displays are dated and lacking the vision of an inspired exhibition designer who could transform the Room into an engaging space that would attract a wider audience, beyond history lovers.

Verkamp’s Visitor Center is another historic building – a gift store on the spot owned by the Verkamp family for one hundred years – from 1906-2008. The Park Service now owns the shop and has attempted to tell the history of the site through a timeline on the floor. The story is interesting, I wanted to learn more.

The Kolb brothers’ studio, begun in 1904, teeters on the rim of the Canyon nearby. Ellsworth and Emery Kolb were early photographers who became famous for their photos of visitors on mules and for their explorations and daring photography in the Canyon. Theirs is a colorful story including a brotherly business dispute and a bold run down the Colorado with a film camera in 1911. They took the resulting film on tour and it played to large audiences around the country. Today the studio is a store, but visitors can see spectacular views of the Canyon and one of the film cameras the brothers used.

The Park Service also offers a self-guided walking tour that tells the story of the Civilian Conservation Corps at the Canyon. From 1933-1942, CCC crews worked on both rims and in the Canyon on various projects that visitors today can still appreciate.

Have you been to the Grand Canyon and explored the local history of the place? Please share your thoughts! Any Mary Colter fans out there?

About Tim

Author, public historian, and consultant. Author site: - My fifth book, Star Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, was published in May 2020. Consulting site: I specialize in exhibition development, interpretive planning, education strategy, and history relevance. I'm passionate about helping history organizations of all sizes and kinds make history more relevant for their communities and the people they engage with. I'm happy to consider many types of writing projects for informal learning organizations. Reach me at or
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