Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: A Tale of Two Cabins

May 12, 2015

Hull Cabin is the oldest remaining cabin in the Grand Canyon region of the Kaibab National Forest. It was built 125 years ago by brothers William and Philip Hull - early ranchers, prospectors and guiding entrepreneurs. It's near the remnants of another cabin which belonged to John Hance, the first resident of the South Rim. And as commentator Scott Thybony says, between the sublime views and the deep solitude, it's not hard to see why these early pioneers set up shop where they did.

Hull Cabin, the oldest remaining cabin in the Grand Canyon region of the Kaibab National Forest.
Credit Scott Thybony

No sound reaches us except for the currents of air sifting through the highest branches of an ancient ponderosa. We are sitting on the porch of Hull Cabin, absorbing the solitude, only a mile from Grand Canyon. Last year, 4.7 million visitors traveled to the national park, but we won't meet another soul for two days.

Three of us are spending the night in the oldest remaining cabin in the Grand Canyon region. Set in a corner of the Kaibab National Forest, it appears much the way it did when built by William and Philip Hull 125 years ago. The brothers were ranchers who branched into prospecting and guiding, along with their partner, John Hance.

The Hull brothers built their cabin with hand-hewn logs with V-notches and dovetailed corners
Credit Scott Thybony

Forest Service crews and volunteers have done a remarkable job renovating the log cabin. And it can now e rented under the Rooms with a View program - sort of a bed and breakfast...without the breakfast. John Azar, who has a passion for Grand Canyon history, worked on the preservation effort. "I didn't keep my hours," he told me, "but they probably count over a thousand." The experience taught him to appreciate the skill of the Hull brothers who fit the hand-hewn logs with V notches and dovetailed the corners of the barn.

Next morning I walk with my friends, Steve Martin and Tony Williams, along an old wagon road to the rim. We're planning to search for the site of John Hance's home. When he first saw the Grand Canyon, Hance experienced our local version of rapture of the deep. Once he put down roots he never left, becoming the first South Rim resident.

We weave through a Gambel Oak thicket at the rim and soon find the stone footing of a chimney, the ghost of Hance's cabin. He chose the spot, directly across from Angels Gate, for its stunning view of the great canyon. I pick up an old can nearby and notice it was opened by knife cuts instead of a can opener, reminding me how Hance pared down his life to the essentials - not much more than a cabin with a view and stories stretching as far as his imagination could take them.

In 1896, Pulitzer Prize winning author Hamblin Garland visited Hance at his rim-side home. "The door of his little cabin," he wrote, "commands one of the finest views of the most tremendous gulf in the world...at sunset...John can pull a stool to the very edge of the awful chasm and there sit and smoke his pipe and watch the splendid colors shift and glow and cool and darken in deeps..."

This is the vantage point near Hance and Hull cabins where stagecoach riders in the late 1800's and early 1900's got their first view of the Grand Canyon.
Credit Scott Thybony

Garland recorded Hance's inventive tales, noting how he spoke with a soft, Tennessee drawl. And he understood Hance's deep connection to the Canyon. "He talks of it, dreams of it, his gestures delineate it...He would be lost, and helpless, and ill at ease in Chicago or New York, but here is is native."

The three of us drift along the rim to where the stagecoach road reached the Canyon. Before the railroad, it was the end-point of a jolting, 2-day journey by horse-drawn carriage. Riders would climb down stiff and dusty and head straight up the ridge to a viewpoint where each would experience the sudden shock of the encounter differently: One would be stunned into silence, the next would throw up her arms and scream, while another would stand there with tears streaking his face.

Where the stagecoach travelers took in their first view of the Canyon, we take our last and turn back through the old-growth forest to Hull Cabin.

Scott Thybony is a Flagstaff-based writer. His Canyon Commentaries can be heard monthly on KNAU, Arizona Public Radio.