MARBLE CANYON, Ariz. -
Something unexpected happened on my way across the bridge.
Only two bridges top the Grand Canyon, and they sit side by side. I'd driven across the modern highway bridge a few
times to get to the remote Arizona Strip, but this time I wanted to study the original historic 1927-28 bridge that is
now a walking bridge with bronze plaques and memorials. I thought
I'd stroll across the bridge and contemplate Southwestern history, but what I spied stopped me in my tracks.
Navajo Bridge spans 50-mile-long Marble Canyon almost 500 feet above the swirling Colorado River. Just upstream at Lees
Ferry, rafters begin their memorable Grand Canyon float trips. Spanning the river had been an epic task now listed as a
National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. My walk began on the Navajo Reservation as I surveyed the canyon
landscape, which had almost been ruined in the 1960s by proposed dams.
The professional beavers at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation sought to place dams in Marble Canyon, but the public said
no," especially after Sierra Club
Executive Director David Brower launched an effective media campaign in the New York Times. The dams would have flooded
the canyon and permitted power boaters to motor close to the canyon's rim. Outraged, the Sierra Club inserted full-page
ads in the Times with the memorable slogan Should we also flood the Sistine Chapel, so tourists can get nearer the
But the historic bridge holds no signs of environmental controversy; instead, monuments honor the historic river
crossing and boaters who died in the river's rapids. On the Navajo side, the Gap
Bodway Chapter House remembers John Deering or Bih Bitoodini Nez of the Maii Deeshgiizhini clan, who fathered nine
children with his wife Susie, transported supplies and mail from Flagstaff, Ariz., to Salt Lake City by team and wagon,hunted the area and raised
Another bronze plaque reveres Lewis Nez, born of the To'DiChi'l'Nii or Bitter Water clan who, with two wives, fathered
10 children and hauled freight and mail between Kanab, Utah, and Flagstaff. A friend to everyone," he died with two
other men on June 7, 1928, when the ferry at Lees Ferry overturned into the Colorado. His body never was recovered.
Such a tragic accident, the last one for the ferry, spurred the need for a bridge to have the only safe crossing of the
river between Moab, Utah, and all of northern Arizona.
Made of Kansas City structural steel and 500 cubic yards of concrete, the
834-foot-long, 18-foot-wide bridge has a magnificent 616-foot cantilevered arch. Construction crews dangled 500 feet
over the river as they built the bridge in two halves out from each side of the canyon until finally connecting it in
the middle. When Navajo Bridge officially opened Jan. 12, 1929, the Flagstaff paper proclaimed it the biggest news in
Between 1938 and 1941, the Civilian Conservation Corps built a rustic stone wayside observation shelter on the
northwest side. Plaques commemorate pioneers and early river runners. In 1961, the state of Arizona placed a large
granite monument honoring John D. Lee as frontiersman, trail blazer, builder, a man of great faith, sound judgment and
indomitable courage." The monument omits mention of Lee's execution by the U.S. Army for his pivotal role in the
Mountain Meadows Massacre.
Boatman Norman D. Nevills and his wife, Doris, died in a plane crash at
Mexican Hat, Utah, on Sept. 19, 1949, and a bronze plaque states, They run the rivers of eternity." The couple began
modern river running on the San Juan and through the Grand Canyon, so in their honor By the river they loved so well
in the desert that was their home, this record is placed by the Canyoneers." A smaller, simpler bronze memorial
picturing a lone paddler in a wooden boat proclaims, In memory of the adventuresome spirit of Gilbert H. Hansen who
became part of the river he loved near Powell's Music Temple in Glen Canyon."
I admired the craftsmanship of the CCC boys who built the observation shelter. I was touched by commemorative plaques
on both sides of the historic bridge, but it was something under the modern 1994 highway bridge that caught my eye.
Walking across the historic span and looking over to the new bridge, I saw a black plastic garbage bag suspended on one
of the bridge girders. Then I thought to myself, That's not a garbage bag - that's one helluva big raven." I reached
for my small birder's binoculars and finally what I saw made sense. I yelled to my wife across the bridge, Come here!
Come quick!" She thought I'd gone nuts. In a way, I had.
To the northwest of Navajo Bridge the vivid escarpment of the Vermilion Cliffs towers above Marble Canyon. I'd spent
days on top of Vermilion Cliffs National Monument exploring, hiking and scanning the skies seeking endangered
California condors released into the wild. So you can imagine my shock to spy one of my feathered friends with a
10-foot wing span actually below me hunkered down on a cold metal bridge girder and looking like a punk rock star in
need of a hot latte.
There was No. 69, according to the tag attached to his wing, with his shaved fluffy head, his red condor neck and a
rather morose look. Occasionally he'd tuck his head under his wing. It was an overcast morning, and clearly he needed a
breakfast burrito, or perhaps half a toasted mastodon like the good old days during the Pleistocene when condors would
swoop down after Paleo-Indians finished feasting. But that had been Ice Ages ago, long before this bridge was built,and here I was staring at the largest bird in North America just back from the brink of extinction. I yelled again for
Then I saw the others. No. 76 sat on a stone ledge where the bridge connected to the canyon and a third one, perhaps
No. 54, stayed in seclusion against the rocks. We watched them for nearly half an hour as they used sharp beaks to
preen their feathers and then they took off, quickly becoming tiny black eyebrows flying away against the immensity of
the Grand Canyon.
The condors had been too far away for photos, but their memory vividly remains with me. In search of history on a
bridge I'd found something else. Yes, Navajo Bridge is an engineering marvel that united southern and northern Arizona,but too much of the American West in the 20th century was about building, changing and manipulating the environment for
We learned restraint when we stopped needless dams in Marble Canyon, but our real accomplishment was the Endangered
Species Act of 1973, which puts humanity in its place as a member of the vast community of life - not the pre-eminent
eco-bully that it's become. I respect the bridge's bronze memorials, but even more I treasure the living feathered
memorial of Ice Age California condors once again flying above their ancient turf.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Andrew Gulliford is a professor
of Southwest studies and history at Fort Lewis College.