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Lee’s Ferry

Down river from Glen Canyon Dam, the historical town of Lees Ferry lies in the break between Glen, Marble and Paria canyons. A natural corridor between Utah and Arizona, Lees Ferry was named for, and settled by Mormon John D. Lee, who established the first Colorado River crossing at this site.

Until Navajo and Glen Canyon Bridges were built in the 20th century, Lees Ferry benefited from a circumstance of geology. Due to the shale deposits which slope gently to the river here, it was the only place to cross the Colorado River for 260 miles. Everywhere else along the Colorado, from Moab, Utah to Laughlin, Nevada, the Colorado has cut through limestone and sandstone which creates vertical cliffs and gorges as it erodes, thus making it impossible to ford.

From 1873 to 1896, the ferry was run by Warren Johnson and his son. A stone fort, built in 1874 as a result of unrest between area Navajo and settlers, and a trading post constructed around 1913, still stand. Note the small fortified windows or gun ports on the right side of the above building. Interpretive trails through the town, along the Colorado River, and at the Lonely Dell Ranch in the adjacent Paria River Valley, offer glimpses of early Mormon pioneer and subsequent mining lifestyles.

The Grand Canyon officially begins here at Lee’s Ferry. The light band of limestone angling out above the water is the Kaibab formation, the upper layer at the rim of the Grand Canyon gorge. This limestone was deposited in horizontal layers at the bottom of an inland sea more than 200 million years ago. Subsequently, as these layers uplifted and warped, the Colorado River sliced down through them. The Kaibab Formation becomes visible here, 3,000 feet above sea level, and climbs to 8500 feet at the North Rim of Grand Canyon, 90 river miles away.

In 1927, construction on Navajo Bridge began across Marble Canyon. When the bridge was completed in 1928, the need for Lees Ferry ended. A newer bridge has recently replaced the old and now parallels the old spanning over 834 feet of the gorge at a height of 467 feet. The next opportunity to cross the Colorado River west of Lees Ferry is Boulder Dam, many miles below the Grand Canyon.

Lee’s Ferry is probably best known today as the launching area for river rafting trips through the Grand Canyon gorge. Permits are required and should be obtained a year or more in advance. Numerous commercial enterprises offer various rafting packages. For information on Grand Canyon river trips, write: Grand Canyon National Park, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023-0129.

Lees Ferry offers a ranger station, campground, launch ramp, courtesy dock, fish-cleaning station and access to 15 miles of the Colorado River (upriver only). A restaurant, service station, post office and store are available at the town of Marble Canyon on Highway 89A, 3.5 miles south of Lees Ferry.

The Orchard

The last private owners of the ranch property planted this orchard in 1965. The apricot, peach, pear, and plum trees have been maintained by the National Park Service to continue the impression of an oasis in a dry, hot desert. From the 1870̓s to 1930's, fruit trees were tended north of the present ranch buildings.

Lonely Dell Ranch

This was home to the families who operated Lees Ferry. In the 1870's and 1880's, this area was so isolated that anyone working at the crossing needed to be self-sufficient, growing food for themselves and their animals. It was hard labor and a difficult challenge, but over the years Lonely Dell Ranch supported many families. The Lees, Johnsons, Emmets, and others made a good life here.

Jacob Hamblin, a Mormon explorer, noted the good land at the mouth of the Paria River in 1858, on the first of his many trips through the area. In 1871, when it was decided to place the Arizona road and ferry here, he dug the first irrigation ditch where he thought a farm should be placed and named the area "Lonely Dell".

On December 25,1871, John D. Lee and his wife Emma arrived to start the ferry operation for the Mormon Church. Wife Rachel arrived a few days later. Emma looked at this patch of barren desert that was to be her new home and apparently agreed with Hamblin. She kept the name "Lonely Dell Ranch" Emma Batchelder Lee became the driving force behind the ferry and ranch, as John D. himself was often absent.

Irrigation System

The desert here is fertile. The problem for the pioneers was getting water onto the dry land. In 1871 the Paria River was diverted into a hand-dug ditch. Unfortunately, every rainstorm filled the ditch with mud or washed it out. Floods down the river destroyed the diversion dams. Eventually, the main ditch was dug two and a half miles up the Paria Canyon and included a series of wooden flumes, tunnels and pipes. It was a constant labor to keep the water flowing. Warren Johnson, especially, never gave up and grew a lush green oasis of pastures, alfalfa fields, orchards and vegetable gardens.

Gus Griffin lined this part of the original ditch with flagstone in the 1940's. Presently water is pumped from a well near the Colorado River.

Samantha Johnson Cabin

Warren Johnson built this log cabin in 1881 soon after he took over full responsibility for operation of the ferry with the departure of Emma Lee. It was home for his second wife Samantha and her children. (His first wife Permelia and her children moved into Emma Lee’s cabin, which was located nearby on the site of the future Johnson house.)

Logs were dragged from the driftwood pile along the Colorado at the mouth of the Paria River, then hand hewned. The cabin had a flat log, brush, and dirt roof, simple door and windows, and a dirt floor. Samantha lived in the cabin until 1887 when a new large, two-story frame house was completed next door.

When James S. Emett took over the ferry operation in 1897, he converted this cabin into a schoolhouse for five of his children and others on the ranch.

Emett and his older sons hitched a team to the remains of John R. Neilson’s gold-mining barge Nellie that had been beached near the ferry site and dragged it to the ranch. There they dismantled the boat and used some of the lumber to rebuild the cabin. They extended the walls upward, added a loft, rafters, a peeked roof, new doors, and a floor. Large boards on the east and west walls are sloped at one end and may be part of the gunwales of the boat. They built benches for the children and a table for the teacher, Sadie Staker.

In later years Samantha’s cabin was used to house cowboys and travelers. In the mid-1920's it was a schoolhouse for Jerry Johnson’s polygamous commune. In 1935, Leo Weaver set it up as a guest cabin for his visitors. He whitewashed the interior walls and painted the window trim.

Jeremiah "Jerry" Johnson Cabin.

Jerry Johnson, son of Warren and Samantha Johnson, probably built this cabin in 1925, using logs from other cabins on the ranch. It was part of a polygamist commune he tried to set up at Lonely Dell Ranch. There is no clear record which families lived in the rough building. When Leo Weaver bought the property in 1935, he fixed up the cabin for guests. He built brush-covered ramadas for shade and a fence to keep animals out. Later owners used it as a tool shed.

Warren Johnson House Foundation

In 1886 Warren Johnson received permission from leaders of the LDS Church to use some of the proceeds from the ferry operation to build a large frame house for his families. First they tore down Emma Lee’s old cabin, cutting up the logs for firewood. Thus the last sign of John D. and Emma Lee at the ranch was gone.

The wood framed house was "T"-shaped and two stories high. Lumber was cut and freighted in from near Kanab, Utah. William McAllister was the carpenter. He was never able to finish the interior of the building, but it was livable. Permelia moved into her new home in 1887.

While on a visit, one children had died in central Utah and others were apparently carrying the deadly disease. Not understanding how the disease was transmitted, the Johnson’s took the travelers into their home and their children played together as they waited to make a safe crossing. Six of the Johnson children were infected with diphtheria and four died.

There was no known cure at the time but people all over southern Utah and Northern Arizona tried to help the Johnsons: a family that had dedicated so many years to helping others in any way they could. Folk cures were of no help: teaspoons of turpentine and saltpeter water, or gargling with mercurate of iron! The prayers and genuine concern of everyone from Church leaders to strangers passing through gave the Johnsons strength to endure the tragedy.

James Emett

James "Jim" Emett moved his family into the house when he took over the ferry operation from Warren Johnson in 1897.

In 1909, the Ferry and Lonely Dell were sold to the Grand Canyon Cattle Company and the building became the headquarters for the eastern-most section of their huge ranch. Jerry Johnson, Warren’s oldest son, was hired to run the farm and moved back into the family home in 1910.

By 1926, Jerry was attempting to set up a polygamous commune at the Lonely Dell Ranch. He started dismantling the house and using the lumber from the east wing to build smaller cabins and an apartment building for the families he hoped would join him.

On December 13,1926, a fire started in the kitchen and the women and children were unable to put it out. The remainder of the Johnson house burned to the ground. Only a small table and sewing machine were saved.

People across northern Arizona and southern Utah sent donations of food, clothing and money to aid the family Like his father before him, Jerry was a man who would do anything to assist a traveler in need, and people were glad to help him.

By 1928, Carling Spencer had joined Jerry’s brothers Elmer and Price in bringing their families to live in the communal experiment at the Ranch. Cleve LeBaron arrived from Mexico in 1931. They were all related by blood or marriage.

Eventually, a new schoolhouse, ten-room apartment, and four cabins were built from wood recycled from the Johnson house and scrap lumber salvaged from the construction of the Navajo Bridge. The group grew plenty of food to survive but the isolation they valued prevented them from earning enough cash to make payments on the land. By 1934 everyone had moved on to towns in southern Utah.

Lonely Dell Dugout

A partially dugout building such as this was common on most Mormon pioneer farms and ranches. Also called the Root Cellar, it was a place to store potatoes, carrots, and cabbages over the winter where they would be cold but not freeze. In the summer it was a cool place for milk, butter and cheese. Families would often spend part of the afternoon there on the hottest days.

There is very little historical information about this building. This would have been a logical location for a root cellar to go with Emma Lee’s log cabin and then the Johnson house that was built on the same site. Regardless of who started the building, what we see today has probably been remodeled and improved many times over the years.

Weaver Ranch House

This is the most modern of the buildings on Lonely Dell Ranch. A Hopi stone mason, Poli Hungavi, built it for Leo and Hazel Weaver in 1935-36. They had operated dude ranches on land rented near Wickenburg and Flagstaff, Arizona. They saw the ranch at the mouth of the Paria River as the perfect place for their own "guest ranch" They named it the "Paradise Canyon Ranch" Leo had visited the Wigwam Resort in Litchfield Park near Phoenix and considered it the best in southwestern ranch style. He tried to recreate that style in the interior of his building.

The first phase included a large living room, dining room and kitchen. It had stuccoed walls, wood floors and beamed ceilings. The Weavers used the hubs of broken wagon wheels they found on the old ferry road for lamp fixtures. Navajo and Mexican rugs and old ox yokes completed the rustic theme. The dining room table was made on site from thick planks hauled directly from a sawmill in Flagstaff.

The first phase included a large living room, dining room and kitchen. It had stuccoed walls, wood floors and beamed ceilings. The Weavers used the hubs of broken wagon wheels they found on the old ferry road for lamp fixtures. Navajo and Mexican rugs and old ox yokes completed the rustic theme. The dining room table was made on site from thick planks hauled directly from a sawmill in Flagstaff.

There was no electricity to the "Paradise Canyon Lodge" and water was hauled to a tank on the nearby hillside. Guests were to be housed in cabins left over from the Jerry Johnson polygamous commune. In 1937, they tore down the old county schoolhouse and used the lumber to build a wood framed bedroom addition on the east end of the ranch house.

Leo placed his Steinway baby grand piano in the living room and entertained his guests almost every night. By most accounts Leo Weaver was an excellent host. Guests enjoyed his company and the horseback rides in the canyon. But he was not a very good businessman. The isolation of the ranch and poor economics of the 1930's made it hard to make a profit. One of their guests, Essy Bowers took over their debts in 1939 and the Weavers left.

Gus and Ramona Griffin purchased the ranch in 1940 and moved in full-time in 1958 after Gus retired from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They upgraded the building and modernized the kitchen. Electricity finally arrived in 1965.

Pump site and Paria Canyon Wilderness

The last owners of the ranch put the pump here, in about 1965. It replaced one that was installed by Gus Griffin in the mid-1940̓s. He gave up trying to maintain the two-mile irrigation ditch and pumped water right out of the river. Unfortunately, the sand in the muddy water ruined the pump soit could only be used when the Paria ran clear.

Here you are looking up into the Paria Canyon Wilderness, administered by the Bureau of Land Management. Many backpackers hike the 45-mile trip down the canyon from Highway 89 in Utah. Overnight hikes from here require a permit from the BLM. You can day-hike upstream and see the remains of the irrigation system, ranch buildings, and spectacular red rock desert.

The beginning of the trail along the ledge to your left is part of the original irrigation ditch that was carved into the face of the cliff. In the summer months take plenty of water and beware of flash floods.

This completes the Lonely Dell Ranch walking tour. Please walk back down the road to your vehicle.

Preserving the past.

Now that you have completed the Lonely Dell Ranch tour, please consider why this place is important and worth preserving. The story of the Lees, Johnsons and Emetts, is one of so-called ordinary people who never gave up, no matter how hard life got. To them, this was a place of joy and hardship, success and failure. The ranch they built was a good home to their families and a welcome stop for travelers. It was a place crafted by people of strong faith and purpose dedicated to serving others.


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