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Waterpocket Fold and Greater Capitol Reef

The Waterpocket Fold and Greater Capitol Reef
Friday, November 20, 4:00 p.m.
The Downtown City Library, 4th Floor, Room 4
210 East 400 South, Salt Lake City, Utah

WaterpocketFoldThe Waterpocket Fold stretches like a reptilian spine across one hundred miles of broken desert lands along the western edge of the Colorado Plateau. This event will reflect on this landmark geologic formation—centerpiece of Capitol Reef National Park—its history, and the broader landscape surrounding the Fold.

Ralph Becker, currently mayor Salt Lake City, completed a 176-mile hike along the entire length of the Fold as a young man. Since then, he has explored by vehicle, bike, boat, and foot the region around Capitol Reef National Park—including the treasures of Boulder Mountain, the Henry Mountains, Thousand Lakes Mountain, the side canyons of the Dirty Devil River, and the wilderness of the Escalante. In this presentation, he will tell the story of his Waterpocket Fold trek and look back on changes in the Capitol Reef region in the intervening years. Becker’s diary of his Waterpocket Fold trek appears in the fall 2015 issue of the Utah Historical Quarterly.

Stephen Trimble, writer, photographer and naturalist, was a ranger at Capitol Reef in 1975 and has been writing and photographing in the park and surrounding canyon country ever since. He’ll place Becker’s journal in the context of our creative response to the Waterpocket Fold over 150 years. Trimble has published twenty-two books on western landscape and native peoples. He’s beginning to gather pieces for “The Capitol Reef Reader,” which he’ll edit for the University of Utah Press. Trimble makes his home in Salt Lake City and in Torrey, Utah.

Free and Open to the Public

Part of a regular series of lectures highlighting the work and scholarship of Utah Historical Quarterly, Utah’s official historical journal. This is part of a continuing series of interviews and events featuring current state leaders in their intersections with Utah history.

2015 State History Conference Podcasts

Missed out on the 2015 State History Conference “Deep Roots, Many Voices”? Below are sessions that were recorded.

Documenting the Topaz Experience

  • Kimberly M. Jew (chair)
    Scotti Hill: When Words Weren’t Enough: Curating the Topaz Museum’s Inaugural Art Exhibition
  • Jane Beckwith: A Founders View, Topaz Museum
  • Christian Heimburger: “We Have Come to Understand Them, and We Admit We Need Them”: Japanese American Laborers in the Interior West, 1942-1944

Exploring Utah’s Multicultural Past through Oral History

  • Jodi Graham (chair)
  • Randy Williams: Cache Valley Refugee Voices
  • Deborah M. George: Root Sounds: The Utah African American Experience in Ogden
  • Sarah Singh: Twenty-fifth Street: The City That Never Slept

Immigration in Early Twentieth-Century Utah

  • John Sillito (chair)
  • Brian Whitney and Lorrie Rands: Immigrants at the Crossroads: An Oral History of Immigration into Ogden, Utah
  • Eileen Hallet Stone: Utah’s Jewish Agrarian Pioneers
  • Rochelle Kaplan: Jews in Utah: Not an Oxymoron!

Paiutes and the Circleville Massacre after 150 Years

  • Panel: Richard Turley (chair), Suzanne Catharine, Dorina Martineau, Sue Jensen Weeks, and Albert Winkler

Politics and Religious Authority

  • Greg Thompson (chair)
  • Gary Bergera: Ezra Taft Benson Meets Nikita Khrushchev, 1959: Memory Embellished
  • Kenneth L Cannon II and Geoffrey E. Cannon: Separation of Prophet and State? The 1914 Reelection of Reed Smoot
  • Jason Friedman: “Unless the ‘Saints’ decorate my personage with plumage and ‘something to make it stick’”: Duncan McMillan and the fight for Wasatch Academy

The Power of Oral History: Uncovering the Stories of Latino/as in Utah

  • Panel: Matt Basso (chair), Jennifer Macias, Juan Jose Garcia, Andrea Garavito Martinez

Two Changing Faces of Fundamentalist Mormonism: Rulon and Warren Jeffs

  • Craig L. Foster and Newell G. Bringhurst: Two Changing Faces of Fundamentalist Mormonism: Rulon and Warren Jeffs


Utah Historical Quarterly Current Issue

Volume 83, Number 4 (Fall Issue):

Published since 1928, the Utah Historical Quarterly is the state’s premier history journal and the source for reliable, engaging Utah history. Join the Historical Society for your own copy.

Each issue of the Utah Historical Quarterly is accompanied with rich web supplements that introduce readers to sources, photos, interviews, and other engaging material. These “extras” are located at

WEB EXTRAS: See here 


John C. Frémont’s 1843–44 Western Expedition and Its Influence on Mormon Settlement in Utah
By Alexander L. Baugh

“Shadowy Figures about Whom Little Is Known”: Artists of the Simpson Expedition, 1858–59
Ephriam D. Dickson III

Love among the Fossils: Earl and Pearl Douglass at Dinosaur National Monument
Susan Rhoades Neel

Modern Wanderings along the Waterpocket Fold: The Diary of Ralph Becker

2015 Index

When John C. Frémont viewed the Great Salt Lake—“the waters of the Inland Sea”—for the first time, his eyes caught hold of dark objects against the water. The next evening the men in his party speculated on what they might find on the islands: flowing springs, wild game, “a tangled wilderness of trees and shrubbery.” All exploration marries, to some degree, reality and imagination, discovery and perception. Such speculation may have reflected the observation of Frémont’s contemporary, Henry David Thoreau, that while “we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable.” They eventually reached one of the islands which turned out to be merely rocky and barren—what Frémont christened Disappointment Island, since it clearly did not satisfy expectations.

Frémont’s explorations established that the Great Salt Lake had no outlet to the sea, and his reports, written in scientific yet romantic prose, introduced readers to the Far West. As our lead article suggests, Frémont’s explorations left a profound influence on the western landscape—and perhaps nowhere more so than in Utah. Brigham Young and LDS leaders pored over the published contents of Frémont’s 1843–44 expedition into the Great Basin. On the basis of the report, the Great Salt Lake Valley became the new Mormon homeland in 1847. Not surprisingly, Frémont sometimes made errors in his reporting, as when he surmised, having only viewed its southern shore, that Utah Lake was a freshwater arm of the Great Salt Lake.

After Frémont, other federal surveyors funded by the U.S. Army—notably Captain Howard Stansbury, First Lieutenant John W. Gunnison, and Captain James H. Simpson—left their mark in Utah. Of these, perhaps less known is Simpson, a topographical engineer charged to identify a new road across the west Utah desert. That route became a portion of the Pony Express and, later, the Lincoln Highway. But, as our second article makes clear, the Simpson expedition was also significant for its photographs and sketches. Neither Simpson’s report nor the accompanying sketches and photographs saw the light of day until published in 1876; until now historians knew next to nothing about Simpson’s artist, H. V. A. Von Beckh, or photographers C. C. Mills and Edward Jagiello.

Our third article carries the theme of exploration and adventure into the twentieth century with the story of Earl and Pearl Douglass. Earl Douglass worked his way from a meager Minnesota childhood to become a scientist for the Carnegie Museum and discover, in 1909, the deposit of fossils that would become Dinosaur National Monument. Along the slow road to these accomplishments, Earl met Pearl Goetschius, whom he married in 1905 after a decade of courtship. Together they founded a homestead in the Uintah Basin called Dinosaur Ranch. They fell in love with the area, and their only son enjoyed a child’s paradise on the ranch. Yet the Douglasses experienced many difficulties on the homestead and in relation to the Carnegie Museum, which would have a keen impact on the family’s life. Not only a tale of outdoor adventure, this article is also a bittersweet account of perseverance throughout a lifetime of trouble and achievement.

Our final piece speaks to the lighter side of exploration and adventure through excerpts of Ralph Becker’s travel diary in the backcountry of Capitol Reef National Park. Later becoming Salt Lake City’s mayor, Becker was a master’s student in geography and planning at the University of Utah when he set out to traverse the entire length of the Waterpocket Fold, a prominent north-to-south geologic uplift, in 1980. Traveling about 170 miles, Becker along the way provides commentary on what he saw and felt, offering us a glimpse into one man’s intimate encounter with Utah’s wild lands.

Each of the stories in this issue belongs to a larger history of exploration. They reveal the deep human impulse to forge new trails or trace and reimagine existing ones, whether in a physical or metaphorical sense.


Paul Reeve, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness. Reviewed by Christine Talbot

Armando Solórzano, We Remember, We Celebrate, We Believe: Latinos in Utah. Reviewed by Jennifer Macias

Douglas D. Alder, comp., Honoring Juanita Brooks: A Compilation of 30 Annual Presentations from the Juanita Brooks Lecture Series, 1984–2014. Reviewed by Gary Topping

Charles Caldwell Hawley, A Kennecott Story: Three Mines, Four Men, and One Hundred Years, 1897–1997. Reviewed by Philip F. Notarianni

Paula Kelly Harline, The Polygamous Wives Writing Club: From the Diaries of Mormon Pioneer Women. Reviewed by Jeff Nichols

Elwin C. Robison with W. Randall Dixon, Gathering as One: The History of the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. Reviewed by Emily Utt


David Vaughan Mason, Brigham Young: Sovereign in America

Monte Bona, ed., Legends, Lore, and True Tales in Mormon Country

Gary Kimball, Life under China Bridge and Other Stories of Minorities in Old Park City




Remembering Joe Hill

Joe Hill

Joe HillJoe Hill was a Swedish immigrant who became a labor organizer and gifted songwriter for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, more commonly known as the Wobblies), during the early twentieth century.  An itinerant laborer who wandered throughout the country, Hill was convicted of murder by a Salt Lake City court in 1915 and sentenced to death.  An international public outcry ensued, and Hill’s case became a touchstone for the labor movement. Letters and telegrams poured in demanding that Utah Governor William Spry secure Hill’s release. Helen Keller, President Woodrow Wilson, and the Swedish ambassador were among the hundreds who implored the governor to stay the execution. Spry refused to intervene, and Hill died by firing squad on November Governor Spry19, 1915. Awaiting his execution, Hill wrote to IWW president “Big Bill” Haywood: “Don’t waste time mourning. Organize!” These words would inspire protesters and workers for decades to come.  2015 marks the 100th anniversary of Hill’s death. Hill’s trial and execution remain controversial today.

Salt Lake Tribune Cover November 19, 1915

Salt Lake Tribune November 19, 1915 Governor Spry’s reply

Salt Lake Tribune Cover November 20, 2015

Salt Lake Tribune cover November 21, 1915

UHQ Fall 2015 Web Extras

Figure 2--Fremont and Preuss map of the Great Salt LakeJohn C. Frémont and the Mormons: A Conversation with Alexander L. Baugh 

Alexander L. Baugh, “John C. Frémont 1843-44 Western Expedition and Its Influence on Mormon Settlement in Utah”

An interview with Alexander L. Baugh, professor of Church History and Doctrine at BYU, about the famed explorer John C. Frémont and the influence of his expeditions and published report on Mormon settlement in the Great Basin.

Photographs and Drawings from the Simpson Expedition, 1858-592-9

Ephriam D. Dickson III, “’Shadowy Figures about Whom Little Is Known’: Artists of the Simpson Expedition, 1858–59″

portfolio of photographs and drawings from James Simpson’s 1858-59 western expedition.

2_ExcavationQ&A with Susan Rhoades Neel about Earl and Pearl Douglass

Susan Rhoades Neel, “Love among the Fossils: Earl and Pearl Douglass at Dinosaur National Monument”

Q&A with Susan Rhoades Neel, associate professor of history at Utah State University, about Earl and Pearl Douglass and the process of uncovering their history.

Reflections on the Waterpocket Fold and Greater Capitol Reef, by Ralph Becker 11105 The Castle-CRNP

“Modern Wanderings along the Waterpocket Fold: The Diary of Ralph Becker”

Reflections by Ralph Becker on his experience hiking the entire length of the Waterpocket Fold and the intervening changes to the landscape. We also offer an interactive map of Becker’s 1980 route with links to photographs, diary excerpts, and other writings about the Greater Capitol Reef.

4_InscriptionsHaldane “Buzz” Holmstrom on the Colorado River: A Gallery

Utah in Focus: Buzz Holmstrom, 1938

Photographs from Buzz Holmstrom’s 1938 run of the Green and Colorado rivers. Holmstrom was accompanied by Amos Burg, Phil Lundstrom, and Willis Johnson.


Book Reviews

Elwin C. Robison with W. Randall Dixon, Gathering as One: The History of the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Review by W. Ray Luce


Book Reviews

Fall 2015

Gathering as One: The History of the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. By Elwin C. Robison with W. Randall Dixon. Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 2014. 278 pp. Cloth, $39.95

Gathering as One is an encyclopedic work on the Salt Lake Tabernacle, its construction, and changes made to the building. The book is lavishly illustrated, with more than 200 illustrations, the majority in color. It is unlikely that anyone will publish more information on the subject. The book could not have been written without information obtained by the building’s 2006 seismic update and the LDS Church History Museum exhibit on the building. Written by the architect, engineer, and preservationist Elwood Robinson, it bears the coauthorship of W. Randall Dixon because of the work he conducted at the church museum and his encyclopedic knowledge of early Salt Lake City—a nice touch by Robinson.

The book begins with the proposed Nauvoo canvas tabernacle and discusses the other assembly buildings constructed on the Salt Lake Temple block to allow the Latter-day Saints to gather in one place. It provides an interesting story of the Salt Lake structures, how they were changes, and how those lessons were incorporated into the tabernacle. It is less successful in placing the proposed Nauvoo structure in context with other similar structures, such as those used by the Millerites at about the same time, and in discussing biblical precedents and contemporary American practices.

The Salt Lake Tabernacle is an engineering landmark, and engineer Robinson provides a look at it remarkable structural plan. He debunks the claim that no nails were used in the construction of the building and discusses the combined efforts of Brigham Young, the bridge builder Henry Grow, and the architects Truman O. Angell and William H. Folsom in the building’s final design.

Information obtained in the seismic upgrade provides an understanding of both the strengths and limitations in the bridgework lattice structure, including how settling had changed the point of transfer for the weight of the roof and how the retrofitting restored some of Grow’s original intent. Gathering as One examines in great detail changes in stand configuration (including Brigham Young’s desire for the stand and the sometimes competing desires of the choir director), surface finishing, and additions. Some portions might include more than certain readers may want, but they will not have to be done again.

One of the most interesting sections discusses the struggles to obtain adequate acoustics so that everyone could hear services. The tabernacle’s shape did in fact, provide listeners with the ability to hear a pin drop in a certain place, but it also caused echoes, which made hearing in many parts of the building difficult at best. The problem was partially solved by the construction of the balcony but not fully corrected until introduction of microphones and a speaker system. One of the principal nineteenth-century solutions was suspending noise absorbers—including curtains, garlands, and pine trees—from the ceiling.

The section describing the building’s use and its central role in LDS church history are less thorough than the discussions of engineering and building evolution. As the largest hall in Salt Lake City, it served as a tourist destination and provided a space for a wide variety of lectures, musical productions, and political stump speeches. One would like to know more, for example, about the building’s use as a political venue for presidential candidates: were all candidates provided access to the tabernacle and if not, who was excluded? How did those appearances allow candidates and church leaders to get to know one another? Did the same process work in introducing local musical talent to the world-famous performers who appeared there and vice versa?

The book is a great addition to our understanding of one of Mormon’s landmark structures and well worth the time to read it.

W. Ray Luce

Georgia State University


Reflections on the Waterpocket Fold and Greater Capitol Reef, by Ralph Becker

After more than 35 years since hiking the entire length of the Waterpocket Fold, Ralph Becker reflects on his experiences in the backcountry and the intervening changes to the landscape. His is an eloquent plea to protect those sublime natural places that captivate, inspire, and rejuvenate.


By Ralph Becker

Time passes and reflections alter perspectives. Some memories have faded, while others seem to have sharpened during the thirty-five years since my trek through the Waterpocket Fold.

I was inspired by the landscapes of the West beginning in my years at the Grand Canyon as an employee of the National Park Service in the early 1970s. It captivated me and led me to move permanently to the region. When I settled in Salt Lake City to attend graduate school in environmental law and planning, I continued to immerse myself, by foot and by boat, in the landscapes of the Colorado Plateau.

The Waterpocket Fold—the 110-mile monocline that defines Capitol Reef National Park—grabbed my attention and furthered my interest in geology. These monoclines often are referred to as reefs because, like reefs at the edges of oceans, they are long barriers with few breaks. The scenery is jaw-dropping. I was fascinated that the youngest formations at the Grand Canyon, Coconino Sandstone and Kaibab Limestone, were the oldest at Capitol Reef National Park.

As the least-visited national park in Utah, Capitol Reef had ample opportunities for exploration and solitude. Within its boundaries I continued to contemplate—and appreciate—the mission of the National Park Service: to provide for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations. This geologic and scenic wonder became my new ‘stomping grounds’ and the inspiration for my master’s thesis topic: a case study on the impacts of a proposed coal-fired power plant adjacent to the northern part of Capitol Reef National Park, and ways to protect the Park.

When I recently uncovered the long-buried journals and maps from my Waterpocket Fold trek, after an inquiry from Jedediah Rogers, I reflected on that period in my life; how both I and the place have changed, my subsequent experiences in the region, and the future of this remarkable spot on earth. A note from my journal that especially strikes me today was that I had only scratched the surface of the Waterpocket Fold, and it would take many return visits to see all that Capitol Reef National Park truly has to offer. I’ve been back many times, but still have only continued to scratch the Waterpocket Fold’s vast and intriguing environs.

While it would be wonderful and, happily, still physically possible for me to repeat my 1980 trek, family life, work, and competing interests have stopped me from retracing those steps. I have, however, returned to hike some of the more accessible places that I visited on my 1980 hike, including Burro Wash and Coleman Canyons. I’ve enjoyed introducing family and friends to some of the areas I hiked those many years ago, always looking for new routes and experiences, while reveling in the memory of those first forays. And I have now explored by vehicle, bike, boat and foot more of the immediate region around Capitol Reef National Park—including the limitless treasures of Boulder Mountain, the Henry Mountains, Thousand Lakes Mountain, the territories of the Dirty Devil River, and host of stunning canyons of the Escalante.

Never have I grown tired of the environs of the Waterpocket Fold. I am awed by its brilliant days and starry nights; the ever-shifting perspectives of deep canyons and mountain tops; inspiring vistas, life forms, and subtle colors; it’s surprising diversity. And, over time, I’ve also increased my appreciation for the cultural world in and around Capitol Reef National Park: native peoples, early settlers, steadfast inhabitants, and many friends who have made the communities around Capitol Reef National Park their home.

The natural world works wonders on my psyche. It breathes life into a tired or muddled mind. It provides perspective and solace. It astonishes and comforts. Whether I am out enjoying Salt Lake’s backyard playground—the Wasatch Mountains and Great Basin, the chasm of the Grand Canyon, the wonderful ranges of the Rocky Mountains, or the canyons and mountains of the Colorado Plateau, I feel fortunate to live in a time and place that allows me the luxury of absorption in these landscapes.

As Ken Burns so eloquently reminds us in his recent PBS series on national parks, we are fortunate to even have national parks. I know I am not alone in the joy, the serenity, the education and sometimes even the melancholy that I experience whenever I visit a national park. For me, Capitol Reef National Park and the Waterpocket Fold embody that experience. Thankfully, the national park system’s 400 units have protected large swaths of our country’s natural and cultural diversity.

Still, places set aside for protection and enjoyment have not always been adequately protected. For example, I was distressed during a recent visit to the western edge of the Grand Canyon’s North Rim to discover a four-wheel drive trail leading to Point Sublime is now a grated road open to regular vehicular traffic. As an employee there 40 years ago, we had painstakingly protected and identified that area for wilderness in Grand Canyon National Park. That designation never happened, and the wilderness qualities of the area are significantly diminished. Though no less magnificent, the area is lesser for the motorized intrusion.

Fortunately, in the 35 years since my trek through the Waterpocket Fold, little has changed in the backcountry of Capitol Reef National Park. The proposed coal-fired power plant adjacent to the park was never developed. No new roads have been constructed, and improvements have been focused around the heavily visited Fruita area, creating new opportunities for visitors without sacrificing opportunities for solitude and enjoyment in wilder areas.

Vehicular access in the areas surrounding Capitol Reef National Park has improved. While new roads and four-wheeling access (which did not exist in 1980) have decreased wild acreage in areas like Thousand Lake Mountain and Boulder Mountain, the management protections within the boundaries of the Park have preserved and protected landscapes and solitude, underscoring the enduring value and potential of the National Park mission.

My reluctance to publish my Waterpocket Fold experience 35 years ago stemmed from a fear that publicizing it would increase visitation and diminish opportunities for future intrepid walkers to enjoy the same solitude and untouched landscapes that I experienced. While scores of hiking guides, maps, and books have since been written about Capitol Reef National Park, I’m heartened that today someone could repeat a version of my trek and still experience the same solitude and serenity.

My hope is that in the years and decades to come, the magnificent Capitol Reef National Park will continue to be protected. Our growing population is continually searching for outdoor recreation opportunities. We need places for both mechanized access and for solitude. We need places where the natural world can exist with limited human impact. We need to provide and expand opportunities for children to discover and enjoy the outdoors so they can both realize personal enrichment and continue to find ways to protect this important heritage.

Everyone in our increasingly urban world should have an opportunity to experience the natural world and the national parks that were created for their enjoyment. Fortunately, the Waterpocket Fold continues to offer that opportunity today, as it did 35 years ago.

Haldane “Buzz” Holmstrom on the Colorado River: A Gallery

In 1937, Haldane “Buzz” Holmstrom became the first person to successfully navigate the Colorado River alone. Holmstrom grew up in southern Oregon logging camps; after his father’s death, the young Holmstrom took a job at a filling station to help support his family. Then in the 1930s, Holmstrom began to dream of river running—and to build and design boats at home and to study everything he could about the subject. After a solo run of the Salmon and Snake rivers in central Idaho, Holmstrom set his sight on John Wesley Powell’s route on the Green and Colorado. For this feat, he built Julius F. Launching at Green River, Wyoming, on October 4, 1937, Holmstrom spent over six weeks on the water before arriving at Lake Mead.

Holmstrom’s accomplishment earned him unwanted fame and attracted the attention of another adventurer from Oregon, Amos Burg. Burg had himself navigated rivers throughout North America, using his travels as material for articles, photographs, lectures. He approached Holmstrom and suggested a second voyage down the Green and Colorado rivers—this time with the cameras rolling. Holmstrom agreed, and the second run began late in the summer of 1938. Two men joined Holmstrom and Burg on separate stretches of their journey: Phil Lundstrom, a Portland cartographer, and Willis Johnson, a young Utah miner. Among the many remarkable aspects of this adventure was Burg’s choice of an inflatable rubber raft, which he ordered from the B. F. Goodrich Tire Company for the trip and christened Charlie.[1]

The following photographs dated from Holmstrom’s second trip down the Green and the Colorado accompanied by Burg, Lundstrom, and Johnson.


With Julius F. and Charlie at headwaters of the Green River, with Squaretop Mountain in the background. The men embarked on their trip from Green River Lakes in Wyoming in late August 1938.


Buzz Holmstrom in Julius F., running Triplet Falls in Lodore Canyon, mile 232.3. Of his September 11, 1938, run of Triplet Falls, Holmstrom wrote, “Triplet Falls Ran both boats ok—I scraped rock in head of rap—rest OK . . . Amos hung up on a sharp rock at head—pushed bottom of boat up in his face—but got loose.”


Buzz Holmstrom at Fort Bottom, looking downstream. Big Horn Mesa is in the left foreground; Steer Mesa is in the background.


Amos Burg viewing inscriptions in Cataract Canyon, mile 204.5, 1938. John Wesley Powell named the canyon—which is also known as the Graveyard of the Colorado—for its dangerous rapids. On shore, Holmstrom and Burg hiked to the canyon rim, carrying the camera equipment with them, while Willis Johnson stayed with the boats. When the two boatmen reached the rim, they called down to Johnson, who wrote “They are a long ways a way but I could hear them distinctly.” In his own journal, Holmstrom made notations of the inscriptions pictured here.


“On the Colorado River 1938”: Amos Burg sent these postcards, designed by Phil Lundstrom, throughout the 1938 adventure. Burg mailed this postcard, dated October 16, 1938, from Marble Canyon to Russell “Doc” Frazier in Bingham Canyon, Utah. Frazier was a local river runner who had introduced Buzz Holmstrom to another boatman and the namesake of Holmstrom’s craft, Julius F. Stone.


Back side of “On the Colorado River 1938” postcard. Burg mailed this postcard, dated October 16, 1938, from Marble Canyon to Russell “Doc” Frazier in Bingham Canyon, Utah. Frazier was a local river runner who had introduced Buzz Holmstrom to another boatman and the namesake of Holmstrom’s craft, Julius F. Stone.


Looking upstream below Granite Rapid (also called Grand Falls or Granite Ledge Rapid), Grand Canyon, mile 93.7.


Buzz Holmstrom, Amos Burg, and Willis Johnson arrived at Hoover (or Boulder) Dam on November 7, 1938. The journey had spanned seventy-four days and 1,100 miles. From Boulder City, Nevada, Holmstrom telegraphed his mother in Oregon: “OK Again. Haldane. 11 AM.”


[1] Brad Dimock, ed., Every Rapid Speaks Plainly: The Salmon, Green and Colorado River Journals of Buzz Holmstrom (Flagstaff, AZ: Fretwater Press, 2003), ix–xix; Vince Welch, The Last Voyageur: Amos Burg and the Rivers of the West (Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 2012), 180–217.

Q&A with Susan Rhoades Neel about Earl and Pearl Douglass

In her article in the fall 2015 Utah Historical Quarterly, Susan Rhoades Neel, an associate professor of history at Utah State University tells the bittersweet story of Earl and Pearl Douglass. Earl Douglass worked his way from a meager Minnesota childhood to become a scientist for the Carnegie Museum and discover, in 1909, the deposit of fossils that would become Dinosaur National Monument. Along the slow road to these accomplishments, Earl met Pearl Goetschius, whom he married in 1905. Together they founded a homestead in the Uintah Basin called Dinosaur Ranch.

In the following interview, Neel shares her reaction to conducting research in the Douglass Papers at the University of Utah’s Marriott Library, approach to telling rich stories, and reflections on the broader meaning of the Douglasses in eastern Utah. We also asked about how her scholarship and teaching in environmental history and the national park system informed her work on the Douglasses. The Q&A is followed by early photographs of Dinosaur National Monument from the collection of the Utah State Historical Society (USHS).

How did you come to the subject of Earl Douglass and his personal life?

I first encountered Earl Douglass years ago when I was doing research on the debate in the 1950s over the proposal to construct a dam in Dinosaur National Monument. That debate was an important milestone in the emergence of the modern environmental movement. It seemed like I should know something about how the area became a national monument in the first place. As an undergraduate I’d worked in the manuscripts division of the Marriott Library, and I knew they held a collection of papers from the paleontologist who first discovered the fossils at Dinosaur National Monument, so that seemed a good place to start.

As I dove into the huge collection of Douglass papers, I was struck by the richness of the record—diaries, notebooks, personal and professional correspondence, reams of poetry, essays, and miscellaneous musings. These documents were quite a contrast in tone to the official government agency memos and reports that made up most of my research on the Echo Park dam controversy.

For me, history, at its core, is a bunch of really compelling stories about the human experience. A geeky paleontologist falling in love with one of his students, courting her over years through dozens of sometimes awkward and sometimes beautiful love letters, a life of personal and professional triumphs and disasters, all unfolding in two places that I personally adore, Montana and Dinosaur National Monument—it was like being in a historian’s version of a candy shop.

Of course, a good historian can’t spend all her time in the candy shop—you have to visit the salad bar, too. My task was to understand the Echo Park dam controversy, so I reluctantly set aside the Douglass family, vowing to return some day. This article is the fulfillment of that commitment.

And how did Douglass’s discoveries and work influence perceptions of wilderness and nature in the later debates over Echo Park, of which you’ve written a great deal?

By the 1950s, when the debate over Echo Park took place, Earl Douglass was pretty much a forgotten man. I don’t think either the supporters or opponents of the dam knew much about him; none of the contending parties made any reference to his work in their arguments before Congress and the public.

I’m not sure what Earl would have thought about the proposed Echo Park Dam. The concept of wilderness, as we think of it today, did not exist in Douglass’s age. He rarely used the word “wilderness” in his writings. He had a very nineteenth-century conception of nature. In terms of aesthetics the ideas of grandeur and the sublime seemed most compelling to Douglass, especially as a way of conceptualizing the relationship between nature, humans, and God. Like his contemporary, John Muir, Douglass sought spiritual sustenance in nature and hoped others would as well (interestingly, I found no evidence among all of Douglass’s many musings and writings that he was familiar with Muir’s work). But that didn’t necessarily mean Douglass felt places like Dinosaur National Monument should be left untouched by human activity. After all, his greatest ambition was to have a successful homestead in the area. In his last years, working as a field geologist, he sought to develop the region’s mineral resources. He also worked closely with the commercial interests in Vernal to encourage tourism, partly by building more roads in the Uintah Basin.

It’s important to remember that the original boundary of Dinosaur National Monument encompassed just 80 acres surrounding the fossil quarry. The government extended monument status to the quarry only to protect the excavation from possible plunder by amateur bone hunters; the scenery did not factor into the government’s action in setting the area aside as a monument. It was not until much later, during the New Deal, that the scenic Green and Yampa river canyons were added to the monument. It was only in the 1930s that some people began to suggest that the area had particular qualities, which they described as “wilderness,” that warranted preservation.

It’s hard not to become fond of our subjects—especially ones so endearing as the Douglasses. How did you maintain a critical distance when researching and writing this article?

The key to maintaining critical distance is the same for biographical studies as it is with any historical subject: stick to the story, stick to the evidence. Fondness can help motivate your work, but the task is to narrate events based on documentary sources. Attributing particular meanings to the narrative requires circumspection firmly rooted in the historical evidence on the one hand and historiography on the other. For example, I suggest that one of the formative episodes in Earl’s early life was his rejection of formalized religion and the search for a substitute spirituality in science. This was not an uncommon experience in the late nineteenth century as historians of science and of the Gilded Age have noted. The historiography helped me interpret the many documents Douglass wrote discussing his personal beliefs.

Likewise, historical studies of Victorian-era romance and courtship helped me to understand Earl’s often oblique references to women in his diaries and also the long, correspondence-based love affair between Earl and Pearl.

I have formed some personal impressions of the Douglasses, especially Earl, but I refrained from expressing them in the article because I didn’t feel there was adequate documentary evidence. And I was less confident that I could appropriately apply work by scholars in fields such as psychology to the Douglasses’ personalities or motives for particular actions—just not my area of expertise.

This article extends your previous work on the environment, tourism, and the West. How do you think Earl Douglass and Pearl Goetschius Douglass will affect your future work?

I don’t have any particular biographical subjects in mind right now. My current interest is the role that Utah’s remarkable collection of national parks and monuments has played in the historical evolution of the national park idea. The Echo Park dam controversy was just one example of how national trends in thinking about and managing parklands played out on a Utah stage. Subsequent debates about Rainbow Bridge, Canyonlands, and most recently the Escalante-Grand Staircase have set national trends. Even in the early twentieth century, the very young state of Utah became one of the leading supporters of the national park idea. The state government supported national tourism promotion projects like the See America First campaign, the construction of regional highways systems aimed at circulating tourists through the national parks, and, of course, encouraging Utah citizens to visit the national parks.

As I do this work, I will always have Earl and Pearl in mind. They have reinforced what I’ve always known, but sometimes have too easily set aside, and that is the value and pure pleasure of telling a good human story.


This east-facing view shows the opening of the quarry at Dinosaur National Monument in 1910. The work was done with blasting powder, hand drills, a team and scrapers, picks, and shovels. In this image, the fossil-bearing layer is to the left of the cut. Photograph by A. S. Coggeshall; gift of Dinosaur National Monument. USHS classified photograph collection.


Excavation of the dinosaur quarry in 1910, Uintah County. This specimen probably represents a brontosaurus; pelvis, femur, and anterior caudals are to the right of the man. USHS classified photograph collection.


A mule team hauls a crated dinosaur specimen out of the quarry, 1910. Alf Ainge of Jensen, Utah, is the teamster. Photo by A.S. Coggeshall; gift of Dinosaur National Monument Park Service; USHS classified photograph collection.


Mule teams bring wagon loads of dinosaur bones, excavated from what is now Dinosaur National Monument, to the University of Utah, 1924. USHS classified photograph collection, donated by the University of Utah Public Relations Office.


Visitors to Dinosaur National Monument looking at specimens, October 1937. Gift of Dinosaur National Monument; USHS classified photograph collection.