There was gold in the ground and Charles H. Spencer wanted it. The problem was the coal to power the steam engines to extract the gold was in Warm Creek Canyon thirty miles away. To get there on foot Spencer had to find a way out of the Grand Canyon to the northeast from Lees Ferry.
“There’s a way,” the ferryman told Spencer in 1910, “there’s a way up through the cliff.”
It could have been a path of the Mormon settlers or an older one of the Navajo. Someone had taught it to him because if you’re looking at the cliff from the silty Colorado it looks impenetrable—a 1500 foot mass of sheer sandstone and calved boulders.
Johnson the ferryman showed them the path up through the cliffs. Spencer hired two men to build a rough trail. When it was ready, they sent mules up and over the plateau, loaded them with coal, and brought them back.
Looking at it in hindsight Spencer’s operation seems ridiculous, doomed to fail. But his idea was big enough to convince investors from Chicago. The investors thought hauling coal by mule was outdated. They wanted Spencer to use modern muscle—more coal—to get the coal. They bought Spencer a wooden steamboat from California and tried to send it up the Colorado. The boat couldn’t breach the strong currents.It floundered and sank and so did Spencer’s operation. By 1914 he had abandoned the gold mine.
A few things amaze me about this story. First, the lengths to which humans go to extract wealth. All of this work, time, money, and energy to mine a heavy lustrous metal primarily used for jewelry. Second, the sheer fortitude of these men. Today, we whisk across the bridge at Marble Canyon and hardly see the Colorado, 460 feet below us. But at that time, in this place of aridness, this landscape of austerity, nothing came easy. Some ventures succeeded, many failed, but they nearly all were stories worth recounting.
The way through tugs at me. I take a few steps up it and try to follow its track with my eyes, but it’s a way that only reveals itself to its follower. It’s the hidden way through, a path borne of necessity and patience.Looking up, I imagine the men and their mules appearing on the cliff face, clinging to an invisible path. They are not ghosts, they are visages of the past on a way that has weathered the century.