Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Floatin' Old US 89

 Believe it or not, when US 89 was "born" in 1926, not all of the highway was a road.  Nope. A small portion of the highway was water.  The only way to cross The Colorado River was at Lee's Ferry on a boat.  Above is the only known photo (so far) that shows a early US 89-era vehicle crossing the river at what's known as the "upper" ferry.  The vehicle is a 1927 Studebaker Dictator.  The cabin and log crib in the background clearly identify the "upper" ferry. This photo was probably taken in Jun 1927 during high river flows when the "lower" ferry beach was under water.  That year, The Colorado River peaked at 127,000 cubic feet per second on July 1st. (All sources listed at end of blog post.)
 The so-called road to the "upper" ferry was known for decades as "Lee's Backbone" and even in horse and wagon days was called by drivers "the worst road they ever traveled."  In the late 1890's, another river crossing was developed to avoid the Lee's Backbone route. Traces of this so-called road (shown above)  are easily visible to modern day Lee's Ferry visitors.
 The "lower" river crossing was relatively more accessible and somewhat safer than the "upper".  It was the preferred route of old US 89 unless high spring runoff put the south beach (shown above ferry in photo) under water.  Note that both ferry crossing used a cable system.  By angling the ferry boat into the river current, the water's force carried the boat back and forth across the river.
 If the ferry ride wasn't enough tribulation, getting to and from the ferry boat was yet another trial for early US 89 motorists.  Routes to and from the river bank were barely suitable for horse drawn wagons, let along primitive early vehicles.
Lee's Ferry began in the 1870's and continued in operation until June 1928 when what's now known as Navajo Bridge construction was in full swing.  The ferry boat flipped and sunk, killing three people and forever ending perhaps the most historic aspects of Northern Arizona travel. Navao Bridge opened to vehicle traffic in January 1929 and ws dedicated in June that year.

Sources: The top photo source is:
Note that the source data file says the photo is from 1923.  That's incorrect.  The car onboard the ferry was positively identified on 06MARCH18 by experts from the Antique Automobile Club of America as a 1927 Studebaker Dictator. Photographer is unknown.

The dugway picture was taken by famed photographer Emery Kolb in the 1920's, probably about 1923.  Source:

The quote about the "worst road" comes from Page 54 of W.L. Rusho's "Lee's Ferry Desert River Crossing" (ISBN 0-9656645-1-1)

Photo of "lower" river crossing was taken by A. R. Hromatka in 1925.  Source:

Photo showing boat in back of truck is associated with a 1923 US Geological Survey trip on The Colorado River. Photo take by Lewis Ransome Freeman.  Source:

The final photo is also clearly from 1923.  Photographer is listed as P.T. Reilly but undoubtedly it was I.G. Cockroft, a USGS employee working then at Lee's Ferry. Reilly was a dedicated collector of "all things Colorado River."

Above is a photo of I.G. Cockroft show just how high the water came across the lower dugway in the high river flow of 1921.  Source Page 80 of:

(Editor's Note: Future post(s) are anticipated documenting and describing both actual so-called roads to the "upper" and "lower" ferry crossing sites.)