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Grand Canyon to celebrate 100 years as national park

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

PHOENIX — The Grand Canyon is celebrating a major milestone this year: It will be mark 100 years as a national park with a ceremony on Tuesday.

President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation to create the northwest Arizona park in 1919, but Teddy Roosevelt is credited for its early preservation as a game reserve and a national monument.

The Grand Canyon now draws more than 6 million tourists a year who peer over the popular South Rim into the gorge a mile deep, navigate river rapids, hike the trails and camp under the stars.

A formal 100th anniversary celebration will take place Tuesday, but the National Parks Service will keep the party going throughout 2019.

Centennial events will include Roosevelt impersonators, a historical symposium, a living history week and efforts to get visitors beyond the South Rim by showcasing lesser-known sites on social media.

Vanessa Ceja Cervantes, one of the centennial coordinators, said the park will broadcast ranger talks, the founder’s day event and other virtual tours throughout the year.

“A lot of our visitors come for the day and they’re drawn here for this amazing landscape,” she said. “But we really want to give them reasons to stay, to learn about the geology, the natural resources, cultural or historic because there’s something here for everyone.”

Visitors might even learn about the Apollo 11 astronauts who trained at the Grand Canyon, a spotted skunk there who does a handstand when it feels threatened, a commercial airline crash that spurred the creation of the Federal Aviation Administration or the story of a heart-shaped rock embedded in wall for a hotel waitress.

The history of the Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon has had a long history of exploration before it was declared a national park.

Marshall Trimble, the official Arizona state historian, told KTAR News 92.3 FM that the some of the first known explorers found the canyon in the 1500s while looking for a waterway passage to Asia.

“The Spanish, they were looking for the Northwest Passage. It was a fabled waterway that had been sought…when people became aware there was a landmass here between Europe and Asia,” Trimble said.

“At first they thought Asia was a short distance across from the Atlantic. They missed the Pacific Ocean and they missed this whole landmass,” he added.

“They had thought with a landmass this size, there has got to be a river that runs east and west, all the way across. They were bent on trying to find a northwest passage, or in other words, a waterway, to the Pacific Ocean to open up trade with Asia.”

Trimble said the Spanish explorers saw the Colorado River running through the Grand Canyon and believed that was the waterway they were looking for.

“When they saw that big river, way down below, they stood on the edge at the South Rim and they saw that river, they thought, ‘Could this be the Northwest Passage?'” he said.

But the explorers could not figure out how to get down to the river, so they simply gave up.

“They tried to go down and they gave up. They were really the first to try and go down into the Canyon,” Trimble said.

“There’s even a great painting of them attempting to do it, but they gave up after a while. They wanted to go down to the river and they couldn’t find a way to go. It was a daunting task to get to it and to get down into it, and for a long time it was just there.”

Trimble said Father Francisco Garcés, the Franciscan priest, visited the Grand Canyon in the 1770s, and Lt. Joseph Christmas Ives of the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers in the 1850s.

Ives, the first European American to reach the Colorado River, was exploring the it to “see how navigable it was and how far up they could go,” he added.

“As he went in there, he came out and said, ‘Once you get into that place, there’s only one thing you can do and that’s try to get out.'”

According to Trimble, Ives believed he would be one of the last explorers — particularly one of the last white men — to ever see the Grand Canyon.

“He said, ‘We would probably be the last explorers, the last white men, to come into this place, because there’s nothing to do here. There’s nothing to do here, or see,'” Trimble said.

“Famous last words, I guess, but he predicted that they would be the last ones to try and come there. But he failed to see the beauty in the place and others saw it.”

John Wesley Powell is credited with being the first person to actually explore the canyon in a 1869 expedition, Trimble added.

After the initial expedition, the U.S. government decided to take advantage of its “newly discovered” landmark.

“The government had thought that we could build a railroad through the canyon and it would be a shortcut to the Pacific coast,” Trimble said.

“There were all kinds of things going on with people wanting to do this and wanting to do that, but it was a daunting — it was insurmountable to get through there, so it was pretty much left alone besides a few daring explorers who went to see it, mostly from the rim,” he added.

“It wasn’t until around 1900 when they built a railroad line. People would go up there in the earlier days in a stagecoach. But they built a railroad line in there in 1901, and now tourists can go in there and they would eventually have a Harvey House and that’s when it really began to attract people,” Trimble said.

“Teddy Roosevelt visited it and he made this memorable remark. He said, ‘Don’t try to change a thing. Leave it as it is.'”

For the most part, the canyon itself hasn’t been changed, but other areas around it have, Trimble said.

“The canyon itself hasn’t changed much in our lifetime, and I’m sure it won’t. It goes back to the original rock down at the bottom — it’s the original time, the beginning of the earth,” he said.

“The changes have mostly been on top. The Village of Grand Canyon (in the 1950s) was just a real small place. And tourism wasn’t anything like it is today.”

The developments with trains and cars over time have also been reflected around the Grand Canyon.

“The highways, Route 66 had opened in the 1920s, opening the area up to tourism and people started rolling in,” Trimble said.

“But to get to the Canyon, it was still a hard trip. When they put the railroad in, in Williams, that’s what really opened it up. Rail traffic, people traveling across the Transcontinental railroad, the Santa Fe railroad, east and west. They’d get off at Williams and take the train up there.”

The legacy of the Grand Canyon

Trimble said that, even at 80, he remains in awe of the Grand Canyon.

“I’ve been there many, many times and have done programs up there, shows, things like that. I have to say, every time I go, I gravitate to El Tovar and I walk to the edge and I’m still in awe,” he said.

“I’m 80 years old now, and it still awes me to see it. I just stand there and stare,” Trimble added.

“Of the seven wonders of the world, only one of them is a canyon, and that’s our Grand Canyon.”

KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Amy Phol and the Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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