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Mapping the Grand Canyon in 1923

The Birdseye Expedition

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photograph of man standing on rock by raging river

Dodge handling the surveyor's rod at Walthenburg Rapid.

photograph of men with radio

Listening to the radio at Tapeats Creek.

photograph of one man standing in small stream with instruments and a second seated on the bank taking notes

E.C. LaRue (right) using a current meter to measure stream flow.

photograph of men wrestling a wooden boat over rocks

Portaging around rapids at Soap Creek.

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.

Boatman Elwyn Blake wrote: "There was a finger of granite extending into the river. As a [surveying shot] from the head of the rapid to the foot would be too long for the instrument, the feasibility of trying to land behind the finger was discussed. Such is the position of the boatman who carries the instrument...that he must attempt the impossible and must land...within a half mile of the last point in the survey line, regardless of the type of water or shoreline....I pulled toward the granite finger and managed to thrust the prow into the surging backwater below" (Westwood, 1992).

The wooden boats were all 16-18 feet long and each weighed almost 900 pounds. In the course of the 251-mile trip, the expedition ran 84 rapids and many other stretches of rough water. All the men wore cork life jackets, and in rough water the passengers lay face down on the decks, clinging to life lines strung along the gunwales. They only portaged the boats around three rapids that were deemed too dangerous to run. Birdseye wrote, "It was man-killing work to handle the 900 lb. boats over the rocks and almost as hard to portage the equipment" (Westwood, 1992).

Radio messages came in clearly at all points in the Grand Canyon where the outfit was set up. At El Tovar, Birdseye sent a telegram to Washington D.C. announcing that the party was safe; two hours later, in the depths of the canyon, he heard his own message as it was broadcast to the nation by radio.

On the evening of August 2, the men set up the radio and immediately learned that President Warren G. Harding had died just 45 minutes earlier. On a later broadcast that same evening, the announcer directly addressed "that heroic band of engineers braving death in the rapids of the Colorado."

On September 18, rainstorms upriver caused an unexpected flood that caught the expedition by surprise. The men spent a sleepless night repeatedly moving their camp and the boats to higher ground as the river rose 14 feet. The water rose an additional 7 feet the next day (water volume went from 10,000 ft3/s to 125,000 ft3/s in 24 hours). The party had to wait three days for the river to go down far enough to expose their survey point so they could continue their work. When they finally arrived at Diamond Creek many days later than expected, they were shown newspaper headlines reading, "HOPE NOT GIVEN UP FOR RIVER PARTY!" (Westwood, 1992).

Birdsey, C.H., and Moore, R.C., 1924, A Boat Voyage Through the Grand Canyon of the Colorado: The Geographical Review, v. 14, no. 2, p.177-196.

Freeman, Lewis, 1924, Surveying the Grand Canyon of the Colorado: National Geographic Magazine, v. XLV, no. 5, May, p. 471-548.

Westwood, R.E., 1992, Rough Water Man: Elwyn Blake's Colorado River Expeditions: University of Nevada Press, 259 p.

Book by USGS employees
Boyer, Diane E. and Webb, Robert H., 2007, Damming Grand Canyon: The 1923 Colorado River Expedition of the U.S. Geological Survey: Utah State University Press, 280 p.

Online Public Lecture
In Search of Dam Sites: The USGS Expedition of 1923 in the Grand Canyon, an excellent lecture presented by Diane Boyer of the USGS (co-author of the book listed above) on November 13, 2006.

High-resolution versions of all USGS photographs from the 1923 Grand Canyon Expedition are available for free download at the USGS Earth Science Photographic Library. Do a keyword search using "Grand Canyon" and "LaRue" and a keyword search using "Grand Canyon" and "Birdseye". These images are in the public domain and can be freely used without permission. All we ask is that you credit the USGS as the source.

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.

Find more informaton about science in the Grand Canyon at the USGS Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center.


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