Recent History
by Mike Milligan

A wild canyon on the mighty Colorado River

In 1903 the Bureau of Reclamation proposed building a dam on the Colorado River within Westwater Canyon. The site initially selected for the dam was below a rapid now called “Wild Horse” where ancient dark Precambrian cliffs are over 100 feet high. This dam site would have flooded a nearby Westwater railroad town and the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad tracks during spring runoff. The second more feasible location was between two rapids now called “Skull” and “Sock-It-To-Me.” Had a dam been constructed in the early 20th century, thousands of whitewater boaters would never have known Westwater Canyon.

Fortunately the rapid-filled river corridor has been well preserved through time. Few inhabitants called the canyon home for any extended period. Certainly several Indian cultures, trappers, outlaws, miners, cattlemen, and bootleggers during the Prohibition visited the area. A few carved initials or animals in rock faces (see photos).

Early river runners
Westwater Canyon is approximately 17 miles from start to finish and is far less remote than the other Colorado River canyons that were visited more frequently. While numerous boating parties traveled the Green, San Juan and lower Colorado Rivers during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, few attempted the short, treacherous Westwater Canyon. According to river historian Otis Marston, the first 100 individuals to float through the 270-mile Grand Canyon accomplished that feat by 1949. John Weisheit, in his book “Cataract Canyon,” reported the first 100 individuals through the 40-mile Cataract Canyon occurred by 1933. In contrast, it wasn’t until the 1950s, if not later, that the first 25 individuals boated Westwater.

Early boaters had the foresight to recognize how popular the canyon would be and made appeals to protect the canyon and its historical remnants. As recent as August 16, 1962, the first known kayakers, Joseph M. Lacy, Walter Kirschbaum, Ulrich Martins, and Ted Young traversed the canyon (see photo). The following year Kirschbaum returned with the Colorado Rocky Mountain School. In a 1964 letter written by Kirschbaum to fellow adventurer John L. J. Hart, he expressed his fascination of discovering Outlaw (Counterfeit) Cave and wrote, “I made sure that no one, on both of our trips disturbed anything there. It’s a great, to say the least, a great witness of some of the people before us in this kind of country. Actually, knowing a certain sort of people that are more egotistic than respectful, I think someone should take steps to preserve this landmark.”

Politics and protecting the canyon
This desire to protect the river corridor soon extended to include the entire canyon. In October 1971, Dee Holladay of Holladay River Expeditions invited Utah Senator Frank E. Moss on a river trip through Westwater to introduce him to the canyon. The purpose of the trip was simply to allow the canyon, as it has for many people, to speak for itself and convince Senator Moss that it should be protected under the 1968 National Wild and Scenic Act. It worked.

Before the year was over Senator Moss introduced an amendment to include 13.5 miles of Westwater to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Moss testified to the Senate that he had run the Westwater rapids “…and I assure you it is an exhilarating experience in this remote, primitive and completely unspoiled area.”

Two years after the trip with Senator Moss, Dee Holladay (click here for photo) again rowed politicians through the canyon. Four Congressmen including Senator Edward Kennedy experienced Westwater. In 1989, Republican Senator Jake ‘_ introduced Bill S.1719, initially referred to as “Colorado River Westwater Canyon Wild and Scenic River Addition Act of 1989.” The Bill was co-sponsored by fellow Republican ‘_ Hatch. Simultaneously, other Bills were presented in Congress by Representatives Howard C. ‘_ Nielson‘_ (H.R.3399, introduced 10/3/1989) and Wayne Owens (H.R.5183, introduced 6/27/1990). Click here to read the landmark Definition of Wilderness from the Wilderness Act of 1964.

“…where a human being is a visitor who does not remain.”
With so much attention from both political parties, it is an oversight that Westwater has not been designated Wild and Scenic. Westwater Canyon was proposed as a wilderness study area under the Wilderness Act of 1964. Later, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) identified Westwater’s wilderness characteristics, which should have protected it from mining activity. Unfortunately, in 1984 the Pene Mining Company gained controversial mining claims through a government oversight. Additional claims were made in 1991.

“Mining” activity of the 1990s
The mining claims included the first mile into the scenic canyon, through which a road was graded to the claim site by Pene in 1992. Machinery arrived in 1997 (see photo). Machinery and road-building was illegal, as the mining permit only allowed for “pick and shovel” activity. A 501-c6 volunteer non-profit organization, Friends of Westwater (FOW), was established to curtail the degradation of Westwater Canyon by promoting it for wilderness protection. The Friends of Westwater and numerous others mobilized to bring this issue to the attention of the Department of Justice Attorney General's office. They were key in developing and filing the government's legal positon and, ultimately, negotiating the settlement that removed Pene Mining from the canyon in 1999. The remnants of the earth-moving and road grading activities of Pene prompted questions if the sites were being developed for homes, especially given the remoteness of the location and the expense of processing and hauling ore. After 1999, the Friends of Westwater and the BLM revegetated the site for several years to recover the natural landscape.

A popular stretch of the Colorado River
It has been more than 100 years since a dam was proposed that would have buried Westwater
Canyon. Historical remnants of early inhabitants co-exist with the scenic beauty, solitude, and majestic deep Precambrian-walled Westwater Canyon (see photo). It is a canyon beloved by those who experience it. Although thousands of boaters traverse the canyon each year, it remains pristine due to a permitting system that limits access and requires good stewardship practices of the area’s resources.

About the author
Mike Milligan is writer of “Westwater Lost and Found”, a 281 page book published by Utah State University Press in 2004. For more information about the book, click here.

Further reading
Walter Kirschbaum, letter to John L. J. Hart, 27 June 1964, John L. J. Hart, Westwater papers,
in authors possession.
Westwater Canyon Gets Attention From Moss, Times-Independent, 2 December 1971.

Become a Friend of Westwater now
Friends of Westwater is working to acquire the Westwater Ranch at the head of the Westwater Canyon Wilderness Study Area on the Colorado River in Utah to preserve it from future development. Westwater Canyon needs your voice. Please sign up as a "Friend of Westwater" and register your support for this important work. Click here.