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Mapping the Grand Canyon in 1923

The Birdseye Expedition




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photograph of the nine man expedition crew standing against a boat

The Grand Canyon survey party at Lees Ferry. Left to right: Leigh Lint, boatman; H.E. Blake, boatman; Frank Word, cook; C.H. Birdseye, expedition leader; R.C. Moore, geologist; R.W. Burchard, topographer; E.C. LaRue, hydraulic engineer; Lewis Freeman, boatman, and Emery Kolb, head boatman. Boatman Leigh Lint, "a beefy athlete who could tear the rowlocks off a boat...absolutely fearless," later went to college and became an engineer for the USGS.

map showing the route of the expedition down the Grand Canyon

The full 251-mile length of the Colorado River that was surveyed by the 1923 expedition is highlighted in yellow. It is all within the present-day boundaries of Grand Canyon National Park (Westwood, 1992).

photograph of topographer using leveling equipment on the river

Roland Burchard (left) and Claude Birdseye (recording on right) on the Colorado River, 1923.

Looking for maps of the Grand Canyon? Go to the USGS Store and click on “Map Locator and Downloader” to download free digital topographic maps or to purchase paper maps. Also download or purchase a geologic map of the canyon.

In the summer of 1923, the USGS organized an expedition to make a new map of the Grand Canyon, which was the last stretch of the Colorado River that had not been accurately surveyed. Up until that time, only 27 men were known to have traversed the length of Marble and Grand canyons and of those, only two had any scientific knowledge (one of those two men was John Wesley Powell, the second director of the USGS, who led the first expedition down the river in 1869).

This 251-mile stretch of the river extended from Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek. Claude Birdseye, who was the Chief Topographic Engineer of the USGS, was the expedition leader; Roland W. Burchard of the USGS was the expedition topographer; Eugene Clyde LaRue, the Chief Hydrologist for the USGS, was the expedition hydrologist and photographer; and Dr. Raymond C. Moore from the University of Kansas was the expedition geologist.

Their party also included a cook, four boatmen (whose skill and nerve were crucial to the success of the expedition), a combination rodman/boatman, and four wooden boats.

Birdseye was charged with making an unbroken level survey line through Marble and Grand canyons and running the survey line up side canyons. In addition, the party was to survey possible dam sites under the direction of LaRue (Westwood, 1992).

The expedition launched from Lees Ferry on August 1, 1923. They completed the survey at Diamond Creek on October 13 and landed the boats at Needles, California on October 19, 1923.

Birdseye was especially suited for the arduous work of leading the expedition. He was a highly skilled organizer whose surveying experience included Mount Rainier and the crater of Kilauea in Hawaii.

Burchard, who did most of the mapping work, had already surveyed the lower stretches of the Colorado River from thirty-five miles inside the Grand Canyon to the Boulder Canyon dam site and on to Needles, California. Of "powerful physique, great endurance, and a cool, steady head," Burchard was an ideal man for the rough work (Westwood, 1992).

Except for the first day, Burchard made the entire Colorado River survey. Burchard and Birdseye shared the task of surveying the many side canyons they encountered.

photograph of men loading boats on the edge of the river

Preparing to leave camp near Hance Trail.

 

 

View film footage from the 1923 Grand Canyon expedition. This is the earliest film made by the USGS and one of the first black and white films distributed nationally.



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