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Earth Notes: The Birdseye Expedition

Emery Kolb, USGS Photographic Library

In 1923, the U.S. Geological Survey sponsored its first expedition on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon. The crew of 12 men was led by topographic engineer Claude Birdseye. Eugene LaRue was hydraulic engineer and chief photographer, and Emery Kolb was head boatman. 

They launched at Lees Ferry on Aug. 1, and ended the trip two and a half months later at Needles, California. Among mounds of gear was a novel piece of equipment – a radio – bringing them news of the outside world.

As their diaries reveal, the expeditioners had their share of adventures. Within a week, the small canvas boat was crushed in a rapid and lost, leaving four big wooden boats to get them downriver.  Strong personalities among the crew also clashed often.  

It was also the heyday of water development in the American West, and the “unruly” Colorado was to be tamed to water crops and power electrical generators.  The science-driven Birdseye expedition produced detailed, accurate maps that pinpointed eight potential dam sites along the river.

Today, researchers are matching many photos from the Birdseye expedition. But, one thing they won’t see is any dams in Grand Canyon. Instead of a series of deep lakes, the Colorado still flows wild and free for 277 miles through the Canyon.     

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