Preserving Grand Canyon's River-Running History

The history of whitewater boating in Grand Canyon was started by the one-armed veteran and naturalist, John Wesley Powell. Journeying the treacherous river in small wooden boats, his first expedition ignited a passion in others to explore the Colorado River. Powell and his crew inspired many to seek the thrill of river-running at Grand Canyon. But nothing captures the history and story of boating more than the evolution of boats and techniques that challenged the unparalleled fastwater.

Boat Preservation and Exhibition

Currently, there are 19 regionally significant boats in the Historic Colorado River boat collection at Grand Canyon National Park. The earliest boat in the collection is from 1909. All of the boats have suffered years of deterioration from being in uncontrolled conditions with inadequate storage.

In 2003, a project to rehabilitate and conserve the boats to get them back on public display started. Thanks to a number of partners including Grand Canyon National Park, Grand Canyon River Heritage Coalition, and Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association the boats are in the process of conservation.

While some are on display throughout the park, the river community and park leadership hope to one day present a permanent venue for the display and interpretation of the rich and exciting history of boating on the Colorado River for visitors. 

Content derived from Grand Canyon National Park.  


Old grey boat with partitions around it.
Photo description: The Stone Boat, 1909
Inflatable neoprene raft painted silver with red lettering that reads
Photo description: Neoprene boat used by Georgie White to run the Colorado River
Front view of the wooden jet boat, the Esmeralda II. Painted white with red trim and black molding.
Photo description: The first power boat to run through Grand Canyon, the "Esmeralda II"
Black and white photo of the first kayak used to run the Colorado River against a white backdrop.
Photo description: The Kirschbaum Kayak was the first kayak to run the Colorado River in Grand Canyon. June 1960.

Make a Splash


Grand Canyon explorer, river runner, and advocate for environmental causes, Philip M. Smith devoted his five-decade-long career to science, technology, and public policy. Being an avid whitewater enthusiast, Smith participated in a now-famous powerboat run against the current up the Colorado River in 1960. Before passing in February 2014, Smith had a true passion for the historic boats that journeyed down the Colorado River and wanted to share their history with park visitors. 

Thanks to generous gifts from Smith's estate and the Grand Canyon River Heritage Coalition, Grand Canyon Conservancy has created a special fund to restore the boats and one day create a venue to share the historic collection with visitors. 

You too can help share our riveting river history with park visitors with a gift to our Historic Boat Collection fund.


River Runner History

Do you know your historic river runners?

John Wesley Powell was the first to explore the Colorado River and brought the Colorado River and Grand Canyon to American consciousness. 

Nathaniel Galloway was a trapper from Utah who devised his own boat and rowing style. Galloway boats dominated the river for four decades before plywood and neoprene brought new designs to the river.

Norman Nevills devised a new boat that mirrored some seen in the Yukon, known as cataract boats, to journey down the Colorado River and become America's top fast waterman. Dr. Clover and her assistant, Lois Jotter, accompanied him on the second leg of his trip, becoming known as the first two women to traverse the canyon. 

Bert Loper, also known as the "Grand Old Man of the Colorado," became one of the first parties to run every rapid in the canyon with the young boatman Don Harris. After flipping his boat and dying on the river, his boat was dragged and left on the shore near mile 41 which can still be seen today. 

Ed Hudson, in attempting to make a successful up-river run, became famous for his downriver run on the first motorboat on the Colorado River, the Esmeralda II

Georgie White helped pioneer inflatable rafts on the Colorado River, becoming famous for her "big rig" business that landed her as the most famous female boatperson of all time. 


Content derived from Grand Canyon River Heritage Coalition

Black and white portrait of John Wesley Powell on horseback
Photo description: John Wesley Powell, 1891
Black and white image of Emery Kolb posing next to his boat, Edith.
Photo description: Emery Kolb with his boat, Edith, in May 1959
Black and white image of two boats on the Colorado River
Photo description: "Cataract Boats" 1952 Mexican Hat Expedition
Esmeralda being towed by a pickup truck to the NPS warehouse
Photo description: Esmeralda II first motorboat to run the Colorado River, being delivered to the NPS warehouse. 17 Oct. 1950. NPS, garrison.

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