John D. Lee Hiding
Spot - 1872
point on Colorado River is one of the loneliest spots in the country
By Andrew Gulliford
The Daily Sentinel
Friday, January 16, 2009
had to struggle to make a living out here. You had to have a real
backbone,” Clela Johnson said recently, while visiting Lees Ferry, Ariz.
lives in southern Utah. But her grandfather worked at the Lonely Dell
Ranch on the Paria River just downstream from Lees Ferry. Many Mormon
pioneers lived alone in the Southwest, but few farms were as remote as
Lonely Dell Ranch.
Brigham Young’s leadership, scout Jacob Hamblin identified the only
crossing of the Colorado River for 500 miles. He dug the first
irrigation ditch and named the area Lonely Dell. John D. Lee had been
the ranking militiaman at the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre near Cedar
City, Utah, and he started Lees Ferry at the behest of the Mormon
years later, management of the ferry and farm fell to the Johnson
family and Warren Johnson built a small log cabin on the site in 1881.
Clela Johnson is a descendant of those Mormon pioneers. When I met her
at Lonely Dell last year, she wore a light gray, full-length dress and
both her and her daughter’s long hair was swept into a bun. Scanning
the canyon, looking at the small houses in which her ancestors raised
large families, she sighed. She felt, “Awestruck, because you realize
the hardships they went through and you’re a part of it.” Her family
made a pilgrimage to the farm and she wanted her young daughter and son
to know their family history.
extended families lived at the site including the Lees, Johnsons,
Emmetts, Spencers and LeBarons. By 1934, in the depths of the Great
Depression, everyone departed. Then, in an interesting twist, the
remote farm became a dude ranch, renamed Paradise Canyon Ranch by
owners Leo and Hazel Weaver.
1935 and 1936, Hopi stone mason Poli Hungavi built a Southwestern style
ranch house on the site, complete with tongue-and-groove ponderosa pine
floors, wood-beamed ceilings and stuccoed walls. The new lodge had no
electricity, but it did have a Steinway piano, Mission oak furniture,
Navajo floor rugs and plenty of remote trails for horseback riding.
However, the isolation meant few paying guests, especially during the
1939, the Weavers, like the Mormon families before them, moved on. In
1974, after a series of ranch owners, the National Park Service bought
the site as part of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, including
original buildings, a dugout, pioneer cemetery and vintage equipment.
setting is identical to the 1870s,” says Allen Malmquist, an
interpreter and preservationist with the Park Service. “This is what
has worked to restore the Weavers’ Paradise Canyon Ranch House, which
has single-pane windows with redwood sashes, covered in four layers of
dark green paint. White lead paint is also found on the structure and
Malmquist has donned a hazmat suit and used a special sander that traps
dust to remove the lead paint.
Park Service seeks to preserve the site just as it received it,
including the 1881 Johnson cabin, the main irrigation ditch, whose
lateral canals bring water to the orchard, and various ranch buildings
constructed from 1881 to 1936. Now the site is protected as the Lonely
Dell Ranch and Lees Ferry National Historic District.
though Lees Ferry is the official beginning of the Grand Canyon and the
division point for Colorado River water into upper and lower basins,
it’s still a lonely place. Walking through the farm and up along the
Paria River, visitors feel the dedication of the original Mormon
settlers who sought to make the desert bloom. That dedication and
community commitment is particularly evident in the 1874-1933 pioneer
cemetery where a large Johnson family headstone bears the date 1891.
service existed at the site for 55 years, and Mormon families operating
the ferry helped everyone across who needed assistance. During high
water in May 1891, a family who had lost a child to deadly diphtheria
came to Lonely Dell, but the parents did not tell Warren and Permelia
Johnson of their loss. The Johnsons hosted the travelers in their home
until a safe crossing could be made, and the children all played
together. Six Johnson siblings became infected with deadly microbes.
Folk cures failed and over a seven-week period, the Johnsons painfully
watched four of their own children die of diphtheria.
that story was on Clela Johnson’s mind when she said to me, “I know the
family history and what’s been told.” She shook her head at the
numerous gravestones, many in disrepair, and commented, “What a remote
location and such hard work crossing the river. So many different
looked east at the far canyon wall, the wind slightly ruffling her long
gray dress. Beyond the cemetery, rusted farm equipment and trucks sink
into sand. In his one-ton truck, Clela Johnson’s father freighted in
the center pin for nearby Navajo Bridge that made Lees Ferry obsolete.
left the cemetery she turned to me and said, “How did they live on
nothing? They had to have that real backwoodsman’s spirit.” I mumbled
my agreement and looked around. There were very few trees in sight.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of Southwest Studies and history at Fort Lewis College.
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