Podcast Episodes

The Black Canyon

This episode of America’s National Parks was hosted by Jason Epperson, with narration from Abigail Trabue.

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The Black Canyon of the Gunnison:

The deep Canyons of the west enchant us today as much as they did those who dared to explore them for the first time. They’re all unique in their own ways, as nature seems to brag about the incredible might of its gem-cutting rivers. But one Colorado canyon, in particular, is like none of the rest. It exposes you to some of the steepest cliffs, oldest rock, and craggiest spires in North America. Over two million years, a river has sculpted this vertical wilderness of rock, water, and sky that, in parts, only receive 33 minutes of sunlight a day due to its steep, narrow split — giving it an ominous name, The Black Canyon.

The Black Canyon is only 40′ wide at its narrowest point at the base. Its cliffs are nearly flat vertical, and their dark stone is set off with extensive, light-colored rock veins, like a marble edifice. It’s foreboding walls strike the imagination of all who stand in its presence, including its earliest explorers.

John Williams Gunnison:

John Williams Gunnison was born on November 11, 1812, in Goshen, New Hampshire. At the age of 18, he traveled to Massachusets to college, and after one term moved on to become a teacher at a local grade school. During his years as a teacher, he prepared himself to enter West Point Military Academy, where he would go on to graduate in June of 1837 second in his class.

Gunnison began military service later that year when he was ordered into active duty under General Zachary Taylor. Violent battles had been brewing in Florida between the Seminole Indians and white settlers. As peace talks were initiated, Gunnison was ordered to explore unfamiliar lakes and rivers in search of provision routes south to Fort Besinger. Although the assignments were challenging and there were many opportunities for adventure, the heat and humidity of the South took a toll on his health.

In 1838, Gunnison received a transfer to the Corps of Topographical Engineers. His new job would offer many adventures, the first of which was his marriage to Martha A. Delony in 1841 and the births of their children in the years to follow. In the summer he was married, he received his first western assignment to do a standard survey of the unexplored, wild country of the Wisconsin-Michigan border. Over the next 8 years, Gunnison would leave his family behind for periods of time, as he and his survey crew mapped much of the borderland, the western coast of Lake Michigan, and the coast of Lake Erie.

Gunnison’s first sight of the western lands came as a member of Captain Howard Stansbury’s Utah Territory Expedition of 1849, which was tasked with surveying the valley of the Great Salt Lake. Having recently been promoted to Lieutenant, Gunnison was assigned as second in command.

After a long, yet beautiful journey through the Great Plains and southern Wyoming, they arrived in the valley of the Great Salt Lake. They explored and mapped the Great Salt Lake region and gathered scientific information about their surroundings.

The winter that followed was unusually hard and the expedition was unable to leave the valley, so Gunnison took the opportunity to befriend some Mormons and study their church. An uprising broke out between American Indians and the Mormons near Salt Lake City. Gunnison negotiated between the two parties, winning the admiration of his peers. The experience led him to believe he could be a successful mediator. When he finally returned to Washington, DC, he wrote a book titled “The Mormons or Latter-Day Saints, in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake: A History of Their Rise and Progress, Peculiar Doctrines, Present Condition.”

Although relatively inexperienced, Lieutenant Gunnison was promoted to Captain on March 3, 1853 largely due to his successes in Utah and the Great Lakes region. Though happy to be spending more time with his family in the east, he longed to begin a new adventure and to return to the Western United States that he had come to relish. He wouldn’t have to wait long.

The new Captain was selected to lead the search for a Pacific railroad route along the 38th and 39th parallels. He bid his family farewell, sure to return to them when the expedition was over. The search took him through the Great Plains, over the Rocky Mountains, and into the Grand River Valley.

On September 7, the expedition came to a relatively tame section of a Canyon at Lake Fork. The official report described the area as “a stream imbedded in a narrow and sinuous canyon, resembling a huge snake in motion…To look down over…the canyon below, it seems easy to construct a railroad; but immense amounts of cutting, filling and masonry would be required.” Even then, these experienced explorers understood the geologic processes that created such an obstacle – an uplift of the earth, volcanic activity, and the power of water.

Gunnison rode into the canyon several times during that first day and deemed the land “the roughest, most hilly and most cut up,” he had ever seen. Though the party never ventured further downstream, their report contains the first official description of the formidable Black Canyon.

Gunnison and his men decided to navigate around what is now known as the Black Canyon and follow an easier route west through the present day town of Montrose. When the expedition finally reached Utah, they beheld the destruction left by Paiute Indian raids on Mormon settlements. Local residents reassured the expedition that the attacks were not a serious concern because peace talks had just taken place.

The weather was beginning to turn cold and raw, and Captain Gunnison sought to speed up mapping before returning to winter quarters. After a trip for provisions to the town of Fillmore, he divided the troops to make up for lost time. He went ahead with a crew of soldiers and guides, and camped along the bank of the Sevier River. An attack came during the early hours of the next morning. Only four men of his party survived. John W. Gunnison never returned home to his family.

Reports of the incident stated that it was an act of retribution by the sons of a Paiute leader who had been killed by some emigrants heading west. Utah Governor Brigham Young noted that Captain Gunnison underestimated the tension between the tribes and settlers, and Gunnison apparently tried to resolve the situation.

But rumors began to circulate that the attacks took place by a secrete Mormon malitia, dressed as Indians under the direction of Brigham Young. It wouldn’t be the first or last time Young used this tactic.

It was claimed that leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were concerned that the railway would increase the influx of non-Mormon settlers. However, the Utah Legislature, dominated by LDS officials, had repeatedly petitioned Congress for both a transcontinental railroad and telegraph lines to pass through the region. When the railroad finally came to Utah, LDS leaders organized legions of Mormon workers to build the railway, welcoming the income for the economically depressed community.

But Martha Gunnison maintained that the attack was planned and orchestrated by militant Mormons, based on the many letters Gunnison sent her throughout the expedition. She wrote to Associate Justice W.W. Drummond, the 1855 federal appointee to the Supreme Court of the Territory of Utah. Drummond sided with her, after hearing from informants and witnesses. He cited numerous reports by whites and natives of white attackers dressed up as Indians during the massacre.

In 1854 Lieutenant Colonel Edward Steptoe was sent by the War Department to investigate the attack and determine the truth. He did not uncover evidence of Mormon involvement, and, as a result, eight Paiute men were charged and tried for the attack. Three were convicted of manslaughter.

Although remembered largely because of the massacre, Gunnison had the heart of an adventurer, and uniquely understood the wild country beyond the Mississippi River and the tradeoffs that must be made in order to experience such places. It was in his honor, The Grand River was renamed the Gunnison.

Know Before you Go:

The Precambrian gneiss (pronounced “nice”) and schist layers that make up the majority of the steep walls of the Black Canyon formed 1.7 billion years ago during a metamorphic period brought on by the collision of ancient volcanic island arcs with the southern end of what is present-day Wyoming. The entire area underwent uplift between 70 and 40 million years ago. During the Tertiary period that followed, large volcanic episodes buried the area in several thousand feet of volcanic ash and debris.

The modern Gunnison River set its course 15 million years ago as the run-off from nearby mountains. Another broad uplift 2 to 3 million years ago caused the river to cut through the softer volcanic deposits. Eventually, it reached the Precambrian rocks below. Since the river was now entrenched enough into the earth to be unable to change its course, it began scouring through the extremely hard metamorphic rocks at the rate of 1 inch every 100 years. The extreme hardness of the metamorphic rock along with the relative quickness with which the river carved through them created the steep walls that can be seen today.

This certified International Dark Sky Park offers two campgrounds – one on each rim. There is also a campground at the bottom of the canyon called East Portal. Although accessed through the park, East Portal is within the boundary of the neighboring National Recreation Area.

Trails of all difficulty levels hug the rim of the canyon, along with a scenic drive that offers stunning views of the dark chasm. Those who seek the rugged experience of venturing into the Black Canyon’s depths will be rewarded with an experience like no other, but it requires skill, experience, and preparation. The inner canyon is also a designated wilderness area and requires a permit to enter.


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Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.

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