Cultural History - River Runners

River Runners of Glen Canyon and the San Juan River

Norm Nevills
Born in California in 1908, Norm Nevills received his love of boats and adventure through his father's family. His grandfather, "Captain" W. A. Nevills, made a huge fortune in the California gold fields in the 1870's and his father, William "Billy" Nevills, could carry prospectors down the rapids of the Yukon River. In 1921, Billy left his wife, Mae, and their 13 year old son, Norman, in California and sought another fortune in the newly discovered oil fields in the desert wilderness of Southern Utah. He drilled for four years near the San Juan River. He struck a huge gusher in 1928, but three weeks later it turned to water.

After two years of college in California, Norm joined his father and mother in Utah. "While the hope of striking a rich oil deposit dimmed, the family's love for the arid southwestern landscape deepened."3. In the desert southwest, the mining and tourism industries developed side by side and following what was becoming a pattern, Nevills the prospector became Nevills the tour guide. In 1932, they opened Mexican Hat Lodge beside the San Juan River to serve the tourists that were beginning to venture into the canyon country.

In 1933, Norm helped a scientific expedition test their folding boats on a stretch of the San Juan and became convinced he could build a boat and row the whole river. He met and married Doris Drown and they secretly planned a honeymoon trip down the river in 1934. Using his father's design that had been successful on the Yukon, they built a flat-bottomed boat with a six-inch "kick", or upsweep, at the bow end. It was made of lumber from on old horse trough and an outhouse; pump rods from an oil well were the oarshafts; "borrowed" Utah highway signs made the oar blades.

After crashing into several rocks on the first day's wild ride downstream, Norm thought up what was to become the standard river running technique: the upstream ferry. The boatman faces downstream and pulls upstream on the oars to slow the boat. This gives time to find the bet path and avoid rocks and logs. The trip to Copper Canyon, 67 miles downstream from Mexican Hat, was a success. The Nevills spent 1935 perfecting boat designs and the following year they escorted two expeditions down the San Juan and then though Glen Canyon to Lees Ferry. The Nevills became convinced that they could develop a new commercial tourist business running the river.

The Nevills knew they must have a longer, more daring trip to attract paying adventurers. Norm organized a trip for 1939 that would be only the thirteenth trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon and included the first women. He and Don Harris, a USGS engineer based at Mexican Hat, built three strong boats using marine plywood. He called their wide, flat-bottomed craft with upturned bows and square sterns, "cataract" boats. They had waterproof compartments and weighed 600 pounds each. The 42 day trip to Lake Mead was a success, but not without danger and dissention. Arriving at Lees Ferry several days overdue produced huge national publicity and interest continued throughout the rest of the trip. They had taken in only $1,000 but he first recreational river business was born.

In the summer of 1940, another trip through the Grand Canyon began in Green River, Wyoming and included six paying customers. One of them was 31 year old Barry Goldwater. He was head of his family's Phoenix based dry-goods chain and several years from his first political office. He was enthralled by the canyons and often referred back to memories of this first trip. Nevertheless, as a member of Congress, he enthusiastically supported the Colorado River Storage Project and proposals for dams in the Grand Canyon2. In later years, however, Goldwater openly questioned whether he would vote the same way today.

The Nevills made seven more complete runs of the Colorado River canyon plus routine trips from Mexican Hat to Lees Ferry. Norm was becoming a kind of legend and definitely the most known river man in the west. On September 19, 1949, he and Doris were killed when their plane crashed leaving Mexican Hat.

During the nineteen fifties, river running became more popular. Surplus Army assault rafts were available for about $50 each and they proved perfect for the Colorado River.

    "…it was the desert rivers that captured the essence of this addictive new outdoor pursuit. The Southwestern rivers were cut into astonishing gorges; they alternately languished so slowly they seemed to hate to be on their way, or roared like express trains down rapids so steep they were properly waterfalls�They were wonderlands of water winding through country as dry as a sun-bleached bone, navigable highways in terrain so rough you otherwise couldn't be sure you could get there from here. The worlds of the desert rivers were an unending delight, and once you had floated a hundred miles or more you were hooked."2

The young men who had been Norm and Doris Nevill's boatmen and companions in the forties continued their dream after they were gone. Many formed river-running companies of their own and prospered or went bust. "Others simply made the rivers their lives, unencumbered by the details of livelihood, happily able to avoid turning their passion for rivers into efforts to turn a profit."2

Bus Hatch, Malcom "Moki Mac" Ellingson, and Al Quist boated from bases in Northern Utah. Frank Wright and Jim Rigg took over Nevill's company, renaming it Mexican Hat Expeditions. Kenny Ross was up the San Juan in Bluff and Kent Frost headquartered in Monticello. Georgie White, from Los Angeles, calling herself the "Woman of the River", made gigantic boats by lashing Army bridge-building pontoons side by side and took a hundred or more people at a time down the Glen and Grand. Art Greene was providing upstream trips on his airboats from Lees Ferry to Rainbow Bridge.

Art Greene
In 1943, Art, his wife, Ethyl Greene, and their four children moved to the rim of Marble Canyon near Lees Ferry to operate a small lodge, restaurant, and trading post. Trips to Rainbow Bridge were popular and soon Greene was trucking tourists, boats and supplies to Hite, UT, floating through Glen Canyon (with a side trip hiking to Rainbow Bridge), and returning to the lodge at Lees Ferry. He'd floated part of the San Juan River in 1913 as an 18 year old exploring the area from his home in Telluride, CO.

Experiments with an outboard motor on a skiff showed he could travel up-river and eliminate the long drive to Hite. In 1948 he built the Tseh Na-ni-ah-go Atin, Navajo for "Trail to the Rock That Goes Over". It was a 22-foot long, flat-bottomed boat, powered by a 450-horsepower aircraft engine. It produced such a deafening roar that passengers had to stuff their ears with cotton. The big aircraft propeller spun fast enough to push the boat upstream and right over sandbars. The round trip to Rainbow Bridge could be made in one long day.

    "With his infectious grin and his boundless enthusiasm for the Glen Canyon country, Greene could communicate successfully with his passengers despite the terrible noise on the upriver runs; and in the starkly different silence of Forbidding and Bridge Canyons, as well as during the slow, motorless float back to Lees Ferry, Greene would regale everyone with stories about the Navajos, about the discovery of the wondrous natural bridge, about what it was like to live and raise a family in the redrock back of beyond. Pulling the big boat ashore on the willow bar at the mouth of Music Temple, he would suggest that this might be a place he kind of remembered, suggest that the several passengers�wander up past the cottonwood trees to see if there was anything worth looking at, then, bemusedly smoke a cigarette back at the boat until he heard their echoing shouts of delight."2

Ken Sleight
Art Greene may have floated the lower Glen Canyon more than anyone, but it was Kenneth Sleight who had by far the most trips through the whole canyon from Hite to Lees Ferry. In 1951, while a geology student at the University of Utah, he took a trip down part of the Green River with friends and became so excited about river running that he organized his own group and floated through Glen Canyon on a yellow vinyl raft. He became determined to find a way to stay on the river. After two years in the Army, Ken Sleight bought some surplus assault barges and went into business. For the first few summers most of his passengers were members of Mormon youth groups "willing to be fed weenies and beans for a week in exchange for water fights, mud fights, sunburns, rock scrapes, and more fun than they had ever had. Glen Canyon was a perfect place for youngsters, a straight-cliffed park where there was no entrance fee and all the rides were free."2

Ken Sleight moved his headquarters to the town of Escalante. He ran the river in the summer and outfitted horse-packing trips into the canyons in spring and fall. He became the president of the Escalante Chamber of Commerce and joined his competitors in forming the Western River Guides Association. It was group of men and women determined to promote and protect their commercial ventures.

End of and Era

When plans to build Echo Park dam in Dinosaur National Monument were announced, conservation groups approached the WRGA for support in the effort to save Dinosaur. One aspect troubled Ken Sleight and other river runners. It seemed that the conservation groups had aimed their opposition solely at stopping the dams in Dinosaur and were ready to let Glen Canyon be flooded in a trade off. Sleight and a few other outfitters and friends at the University of Utah organized the Friends of Glen Canyon to try and save the canyon. As far as they were concerned, most of their potential allies in the conservation experience, they often bluntly informed conservationists and anyone else of what was about to be lost in the name of "responsible reclamation". Their last minute opposition failed and Glen Canyon dam was approved in April 1956.

It was unplanned, but almost fitting, that the last river trip all the way through Glen Canyon to Lees Ferry was run by Joan Nevills-Stavely, elder daughter of Norm and Doris Nevills, who had pioneered the first commercial trip only twenty years before. Joan and her husband, Gaylord Stavely, had returned to Mexican Hat and formed a small river company called Canyoneers. Joan, Gaylord, and Jesse Jennings, the archeologist who headed the Glen Canyon salvage project, passed the dam site on June 4, 1957, just before the river was closed there and construction began.

Further Reading

    1David Lavender - River Runners of the Grand Canyon - Univ. of Arizona Press, Tuscon, AZ, 1985
    2Russell Martin - A Story That Stands Like a Dam - Hery Holt, New York, NY, 1989
    3Nancy Nelson - Any Time, Any Place, Any River, Red Lake Books, Flagstaff, AZ, 1991

Content of this page was provided by the National Park Service.