Lost Canyons of the Green River


August, 1843.  John Charles Fremont, the Pathfinder, is camped on the banks of the Green River in Browns Park, in what will one day be Colorado.  It’s easy to imagine his guide, Kit Carson regaling the Pathfinder with tales of the old days, but Fremont’s attention was caught by what Carson said about what the trappers had long called the Seeds-kee-dee Agie, the river rolling by their camp.  The course of the Green and Colorado, he wrote,

“…is but little known, and that little derived from vague report.  Three hundred miles of its lower part, as it approaches the Gulf of California, is reported to be smooth and tranquil; but its upper part is manifestly broken into many falls and rapids.  From many descriptions of trappers, it is probably that in its foaming course among its lofty precipices, it presents many scenes of wild grandeur; and though offering many temptations and often discussed, no trappers have been found bold enough to undertake a voyage which has so certain a prospect of a fatal termination.”

Even now, after years of exploration, exploitation, settlement, and the construction of one of the largest dams in the United States, the blank spaces on Fremont’s map have been, with hardly a transition, become blank spaces that show only open water, not the meadows, ranches, towns, canyons, rapids, and forests that they once contained.  The Green River between the town of Green River, Wyoming, and Flaming Gorge Dam, some hundred miles downstream, remains in some ways just as unknown as it was when Fremont talked to Kit Carson so many years ago.  Flaming Gorge Reservoir, and the truncated stretch of Red Canyon below the dam, has become known as a blue-ribbon fishery, a playground for water skiers and boaters, and an impoundment that stores water to keep it away from the lower Colorado River Basin states, while few realize what lies beneath their boats.  But along the reach of the Green from Green River, Wyoming, to the middle of Red Canyon, where now only power boats can be seen, there was once a river (and not the limpid stream that you see today below the dam; the Green in those days could flood up to 25,000 cubic feet per second).  Beneath the cold, clear waters of the reservoir, ranchers and farmers and families once lived, deer and elk and antelope and mountain lions and bears thrived, and millions of waterfowl graced the skies.   Today Flaming Gorge Reservoir, at maximum pool, reaches to within four miles of the town of Green River, Wyoming; everything described below is now under water.

Before 1956, the Green flowed uninterrupted as it had for millennia.  From its source in the Wind River Mountains, the river traveled for about 175 miles through high mountain valleys.  Below the town of Green River, the Green flowed through mostly open country for about thirty miles, with only a few bluffs and spires—known today as North and South Chimney Rocks, north of Firehole Canyon–to interrupt the skyline.  This stretch was lined with cottonwoods and willows, home to innumerable waterfowl and quite a few small ranches.  At the mouth of Black’s Fork, the river traveler got their first view of the Uinta Mountains some forty miles downriver.  There were also more ranches, which took advantage of the rich river bottoms to graze cattle, while sheep grazed on the arid hills away from the river.  This was prime grazing country, and many took advantage of it; the best known of all of them was the Holmes Ranch.  Just about every river traveler from 1909 on commented on the fine hospitality afforded by William Emma Holmes.

Below the Holmes Ranch, the river slowed and widened, meandering across open bottomlands that were home to clouds of mosquitos.    This stretch wasn’t all bugs and sandbars, however; a few miles below the Holmes Ranch, in Halfway Hollow, was the Buckboard Hotel, a small hostelry established to serve travelers on the route between the little towns of Manila and Linwood, Utah, and Green River, Wyoming.    Below there were more ranches, including the Brinegar Ranch.  William and Maddie Brinegar settled there before 1917, and like many others along the river, used a ferry to get their sheep and cattle back and forth across the river.  Not far below the Brinegar Ranch the river cut through the first of a series of hogbacks that had been formed by the rising of the Uinta Mountains.  Once past the first ridge, the river re-entered open country for another few miles, passing the Williams Ranch at the mouth of Henry’s Fork, and the Smith Ranch, reached by a ferry and a footbridge.

Just upstream from the mouth of Henry’s Fork was the little town of Linwood, Utah.  Linwood was established in the 1890s, during the Lucerne Valley land boom, and in the first decades of the 20th century was a thriving small community serving the many ranches and farms in the area.  At one time, Linwood boasted a school, a gas station, a number of homes, the Smith and Larsen Mercantile Company, and a post office, but by the time Flaming Gorge Dam was built, it was in decline.  In its heyday, though, Linwood saw its share of the Wild West; the Bucket of Blood saloon was a popular hangout for many outlaws, including Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch; and even Jesse and Frank James were said to have passed time in Linwood.

It was just below Linwood that the river’s course changed dramatically; from this point it would be confined by canyons, with a few open valleys, for almost two hundred miles.  It was also here that river traveler first saw the aptly-named Flaming Gorge, where the river entered the Uintas through a narrow cleft through red cliffs that towered over 1000 feet above the river.  From upriver, it appeared that the river was flowing into a cave in the mountains, giving some early explorers anxious moments, including William Manly, who floated the Green on his way to California for the Gold Rush in 1849, and declared “I did not propose to follow the river down any sort of hole into any mountain.”  Named by John Wesley Powell in 1869, Flaming Gorge was short but spectacular.  During high water, the river pooled and swirled as it entered this narrow gap.  Barbara Williams, who grew up on her family’s ranch at the mouth of Henry’s Fork, remembers that during high water they had to push their cattle several miles upriver to swim them across.  The resulting whirlpools gave rise to the legend of the dreaded Green River Suck, which was supposed to be an impassable cataract that would mean certain death to any who tried to navigate it.   It was a good story for the dudes, but hardly the truth; once the river entered the canyon it sorted itself out quickly and flowed with hardly a ripple until Red Canyon.

Despite the imagined dangers of the Green River Suck, the reality was far different; there might be swirling waters, but everyone who saw Flaming Gorge marveled at its beauty.       Three miles below the dramatic entrance at Flaming Gorge, the river made a long U-shaped bend that was known as Horseshoe Canyon.  Like Flaming Gorge, Horseshoe was a short canyon, only three miles long, but unlike the flaring red rocks of Flaming Gorge, Horseshoe was composed of gray shales.     After the river worked its way through Horseshoe Canyon, it flowed through a small open area called Nielsen’s Flat, and immediately entered Kingfisher Canyon, cut through buff-colored Weber Sandstone.  As Powell passed through this canyon in 1869, he saw numerous examples of this bird along the river, and decided to name the canyon after them.  The dividing point between Kingfisher and Red Canyons was the mouth of Sheep Creek Canyon, which today is known as one of the most impressive geologic areas in the entire state of Utah.  Next the river rounded Beehive Point, where Powell was impressed by the thousands of swallows that made their home in this sandstone cliff, reminding him of a busy beehive.  Below Beehive Point was another small open area known as Hideout Flat, long considered a haunt of the many outlaws who had passed through the area during the zenith of the Wild Bunch.   It was also the site of a forest camp, reached by a rough road from the plateau above.  Many early river runners started their trips here, to avoid the flat water above, with its wind and mosquitoes.  Since the canyons were all so short, they were usually passed in a single day.  Frederick Dellenbaugh, on Powell’s second expedition in 1871, summed up the whole series: “Flaming Gorge is the gateway, Horseshoe the vestibule, and Kingfisher the antechamber to the whole grand series.”

Below Hideout Flat the river traveler encountered real rapids for the first time; as the river entered the durable Uinta Mountain Quartzite that made up Red Canyon, the rapids became much more difficult, because harder rock generally makes for harder rapids.  But this stretch had its enjoyable side, too; there were number of fresh-water creeks that came in on the south side of the river, providing not only good water but open space for camps.  Carter Creek, just below the head of Red Canyon, was one such place.  Ralf Woolley, a USGS surveyor who ran the river in 1922, wrote that “Carter Creek flows in a rugged gorge with steep walls, entering Green River from the south [right].  The stream carried about 100 or 125 second-feet of clear, cold water at the time of our visit and seemed to be very well stocked with mountain trout.  Thirty-five fine trout were caught during the two or three hours before dark. […] The camp at Carter Creek was a beautiful spot in a cluster of pine trees, with a fine cold spring of sparkling water close at hand for drinking water.”

But there was always a sense of gloom in Red Canyon.  The high walls that blocked the sun, and the deep red rock, coupled with the thick covering of Ponderosa Pine trees and with the constant background noise of rapids, made this an intimidating stretch for early river runners.  Many of them had heard tall tales not only of the dreaded Green River Suck, but of Ashley Falls, where early trappers and prospectors had purportedly lost their boats, and in some cases their lives.  There was some truth in the legends; prospector Theodore Hook of Cheyenne drowned in Skull Creek Rapid in 1869.    But for the most part, the rapids above Ashley Falls were difficult but not life-threatening.

Just a few miles below the mouth of Allen Creek–the hideaway of Amos Hill, the “hermit of Red Canyon”–river runners came on the biggest rapid in Red Canyon, Ashley Falls.  In 1825, while his party of trappers portaged their supplies and “bullboats” around the rapid, William Ashley had painted “ASHLEY 1825” on the left wall.  Powell saw this while his crews were lining their boats in 1869 and named the rapid.  Formed by house-sized boulders that had fallen from the canyon wall, it required precise maneuvers in low flows, but a truly daunting prospect at high water.  Then, huge lateral waves and holes made it seem almost impossible to run safely at first glance, and lining or portaging Ashley Falls was incredibly grueling, because of the huge boulders on either side of the river.

The name of the first person to run Ashley Falls, rather than portage or line it, has been lost to history, but it was likely Nathaniel Galloway, the famous riverman from Vernal, Utah, who had been taking his small skiffs down the Green since the late 1880s.  Ashley Falls was dreaded by every river runner who approached it from Galloway until it slipped beneath the rising waters of Flaming Gorge Reservoir.  It was an intimidating place, but eventually experienced river runners were taking a second look at Ashley Falls.  Norm Nevills, who ran it three times in the 1940s, noted a couple of interesting things about the rapid.  One, it was the site of a long-standing river register, where many earlier travelers had painted or chiseled their names.  Starting with William Ashley in 1825, who left his name and the date on the wall on the left above the rapid, numbers of later travelers followed his example.

Nevills also recognized that it was actually a pretty easy run.  For all the waves and holes and the huge rocks, for all the huge roar caused by the rapid and the imposing look of it, the route through the rapid was very straightforward, and just below it was a huge calm pool, without another rapid for over a mile.  Boaters would usually run to the right of the main, “cubelar” boulder at low water in the late summer and fall, and to the left at high water during the spring run-off. The high-water run to the left was an exciting one, with big lateral waves coming off both sides of the rocks but it was a forgiving one as well.   Cal Giddings, a pioneer Utah kayaker, ran Ashley Falls in the late 1950s and summed it up thus:  “I remember we worried a lot about that because we’d heard about it, but it was pretty simple when we got there.  So I think that was a little bit over-exaggerated in difficulty.”

There was still a lot of Red Canyon to go below Ashley Falls, including Little Hole, a number of smaller, unnamed rapids, and one major one: Red Creek, which still catches the unwary boater or fisherman today.  It was just below there, however, that the river finally met its match with the building of the Flaming Gorge Dam.  In 1957, the Green tried to reclaim the damsite, when a huge flood of almost 25,000 cubic feet per second came down the river, but the coffer dam held and the construction proceeded.  While this was going on, other crews were sent out to salvage the thousands of board feet of prime timber that would otherwise be lost beneath the reservoir, giving the canyons a strange shaved look.  The generators were in place and the first power was generated at the flip of a switch by President John F. Kennedy on September 27, 1963.  The dam was officially dedicated by Jacqueline Kennedy on August 17, 1964.

Today Flaming Gorge Reservoir is a “playground for millions,” and an economic engine for the surrounding area.   Below the dam, literally thousands of people now run the remaining fifteen miles of Red Canyon, which because of the cold, clear water, has become known world-wide as a blue-ribbon trout fishery.   But with the completion of the dam, the Green is forever changed, at least forever as measured by man.  The wildlife and the trees are gone, as are the rapids, the ranches, the little town of Linwood–which was bulldozed and burned–the hermit hole where Amos Hill lived out his days.  Cal Giddings, a University of Utah chemistry professor who was also a pioneer kayaker, remembered what it was like in the lost canyons of the Green River:

“One characteristic of those canyons—those are probably the most ideal places for beginning river runners to get going.  They were fairly big waves but easy and straightforward.  It was very beautiful…We worried a lot about Ashley Falls but it was pretty simple…a good part of that area was forested…I remember one morning having mist hanging over the canyon, hanging over the forested walls; it was one of the loveliest sights I’ve seen on the river.”

One Response to “Lost Canyons of the Green River”

  1. The dam was dedicated by first lady Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson. Lyndon Johnson had been president for nine months.

Leave a Reply