Earth Notes: Grand Canyon Centennial

Feb 20, 2019

The Grand Canyon became a national park one hundred years ago this month, on Feb. 26, 1919. Forty-four thousand visitors came that year, most by train on a spur line of the Santa Fe Railway from Williams, Ariz.

Bright Angel Point, 1922
Credit Library of Congress

They could buy roundtrip tickets from “end of track” to “rim of canyon”—and stay at El Tovar Hotel and or buy souvenirs at the Hopi House. Ladies rented split skirts to ride horseback down the Bright Angel Trail, built along a Havasupai path and operated as a toll road.

The railroad’s era was waning though, as more and more visitors began arriving by automobile. These so-called “sagebrushers” had little money but lots of camping gear. The new national park wasn’t ready for them. It had few campgrounds, no sewage system, and no trash service. Water was hauled in by rail. The roads were rutted wagon tracks.

The National Park Service—itself only three years old—hurriedly made improvements. It purchased private property, cancelled mining claims, and cleared away the shacks of early entrepreneurs. It built housing for employees, who were sleeping in tents and empty boxcars. Construction crews paved the roads with rock, added campgrounds, and extended trails.

A patriotic campaign urged tourists to “See America First” before spending dollars in Europe. Ten years after Grand Canyon National Park was created, visitation had quadrupled.

Now, more than 6 million people flock to the canyon every year—marveling at “the one great sight which every American should see,” said President Teddy Roosevelt.   

Events for the park’s 100th Anniversary Celebration can be found at www.nps.gov/grca