For more than 200 years, Lee’s Ferry has figured prominently in Utah and Arizona history, and in the history of the Colorado River, at which the place is located, fifteen miles south of the Utah-Arizona border. Lee’s Ferry is not a town, but rather a semi-wilderness site in a canyon-floor setting; it is now administered by the National Park Service as both a historic site and as a fishing and boating site within the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. It also marks the upstream boundary of Grand Canyon National Park.
In the year 1776 the first non-Indian visitors, Fray Atanasio Dominguez and Fray Silvestre Velez de Escalante, searching for a route for their expedition to return to Santa Fe, gazed desperately at the nearby towering cliffs and named the place “Salsipuedes,” translated as “get out if you can!” In spite of the cliffs, Lee’s Ferry later was found to be the only place between Moab, Utah, and Needles, California, where a wagon could be driven to both sides of the Colorado River. Thus its importance was magnified for travelers headed either north or south, as well as for river voyagers.
Originally, it was called the “Paria Crossing,” because the Paria River (usually a muddy or dried-up creek), enters the Colorado at that point. The first recorded crossing of the river was made in 1864 by Jacob Hamblin and his small group of Mormon missionaries headed for the Hopi villages. Lee’s Ferry received its present name after John D. Lee was asked by Mormon church officials to establish and operate a ferry that could be used by church emigrants traveling south on colonizing missions. Even though Lee had already been excommunicated for his part in the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre, he accepted the assignment in late 1871.
During the 1870s and 1880s, Lee’s Ferry was used as a crossing point by thousands of emigrants bound for the Arizona, but John D. Lee saw little of this pioneering effort. Much of his time was spent evading law enforcement officials or visiting his polygamous wives. He was arrested by federal officials in Panguitch, Utah, in 1874, tried twice, convicted, and executed by firing squad at Mountain Meadows in 1877. The Mormon Church continued to operate the ferry until 1909. It was later operated by Coconino County, Arizona.
Several emigrant journals record the attendant agonies of using Lee’s Ferry as a river crossing point. Roads on either side of the river consisted of bone-jarring, wagon-breaking rock, bereft of any soil. At the river’s edge, travelers faced muddy banks, a fluctuating, sediment-filled, dangerous river, and a ferryboat that had been involved in several accidents. Navajo Bridge, opened to traffic in 1929 and just five miles from Lee’s Ferry, effectively eliminated the need for ferry service.
Several attempts were made to mine mineral deposits in or beside the Colorado River, or from the surrounding cliffs. From 1872 to the 1930s, the search was for gold; during the 1950s, prospectors looked for uranium. However, no commercial deposits of either mineral were ever found. A large gold-mining company headed by Charles H. Spencer operated experimentally at Lee’s Ferry from 1910 to about 1913, but departed in failure, leaving several buildings and large pieces of equipment–including a 92-foot-long steamboat–to weather and rust.
Major John Wesley Powell temporarily suspended his second voyage of exploration in 1871 at Lee’s Ferry, then completed the trip down the river in August 1872. After Powell’s trips, a series of daring (and sometimes foolhardy) river runners used Lee’s Ferry as both a supply point and as a point of embarkation. Today, Lee’s Ferry remains the vital launching point for the thousands of tourists, vacationers, and adventurers who each year boat through the Grand Canyon, either on commercial or private trips.
The Colorado River Compact of 1922 created the Upper and Lower Basins, with the dividing point set at Lee’s Ferry. An all-important river water-flow gauge was installed by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1921. It was partly to meet the water-supply requirements of the compact that Glen Canyon Dam was built 15.2 miles upstream from Lee’s Ferry during the period from 1956 to 1964.