Fort Lewis College
Lees Ferry, Arizona
“You had to struggle to make a living out here. You had to have real backbone,” says Clela Johnson, whose grandfather worked at the Lonely Dell Ranch on the Paria River just upstream from Lees Ferry. Warren Johnson built a wooden flume to divert the Paria to irrigate the desert and grew pasture grass, alfalfa, sorghum, vegetables, and a sizable orchard. Many Mormon pioneers lived alone in the Southwest, but few farms were as remote as Lonely Dell Ranch.
Under Brigham Young’s leadership, scout Jacob Hamblin identified the only crossing of the Colorado River for 500 miles. He dug the first irrigation ditch and named the area Lonely Dell. John D. Lee had been the ranking militiaman at the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre near Cedar City, Utah. After the massacre he became a fugitive destined to live at the edges of the Mormon world. Along the Colorado River he started Lee’s Ferry at the behest of the Mormon Church and moved there on December 25, 1871 with wives Emma and Rachel.
Ten years later management of the ferry and farm fell to the Johnson family and Warren Johnson built a small log cabin on the site in 1881. Clela Johnson is a descendant of those Mormon pioneers and when I met her at Lonely Dell she wore a light gray full length dress and both her and her daughter’s long hair was swept into a bun. Scanning the canyon, looking at the small houses in which her ancestors raised large families, she sighed. She felt, “Awestruck, because you realize the hardships they went through and you’re a part of it.” Her family had made a pilgrimage to the farm and she wanted her young daughter and son to know their family history.
Several extended families lived at the site including Lees, Johnsons, Emmetts, Spencers and LeBarons. A large L-shaped two story wood frame house replaced Emma Lee’s original cabin and by the 1920s Jerry Johnson attempted to create a polygamous commune at Lonely Dell, but fire destroyed the house. By 1934 in the depths of the Great Depression, everyone departed.
Then in an interesting twist, the remote farm became a dude ranch renamed Paradise Canyon Ranch by owners Leo and Hazel Weaver. In 1935-36 Hopi stone mason Poli Hungavi built a Southwestern style ranch house on the site complete with tongue and grooved ponderosa pine floors, wood beamed ceilings and stuccoed walls. The new lodge had no electricity but did have a Steinway piano, Mission Oak furniture, Navajo floor rugs, and plenty of remote trails for horseback riding. However, the isolation meant few paying guests, especially during the Depression.
By 1939 the Weavers, like the Mormon families before them, moved on. In 1974 after a series of ranch owners, the National Park Service bought the site as part of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area including original buildings, a dugout, pioneer cemetery, and vintage equipment.
“The setting is identical to the 1870s,” says Allen Malmquist, an interpreter and preservationist with the NPS. “This is what they saw.” He has worked to restore the Weavers’ Paradise Canyon Ranch House, which has single pane windows with redwood sashes covered in four layers of dark green paint. White lead paint is also found on the structure and Malmquist has donned a hazardous materials or hazmat suit and used a special sander that traps dust to remove the leaded paint.
Such attention to detail is a labor of love as is maintaining the orchard’s apricots, peaches, plums and pears. The National Park Service seeks to preserve the site just as they received it including the 1881 Johnson cabin, the main irrigation ditch whose lateral canals bring water to the orchard, and ranch buildings from 1881-1936. Now the site is protected as the Lonely Dell Ranch and Lees Ferry National Historic District. Just upstream, hikers enter the Paria Canyon Wilderness.
Even though Lees Ferry is the official beginning of the Grand Canyon and the division point for Colorado River water into upper and lower basins, it’s still a lonely place. Walking through the farm and up along the Paria River, visitors feel the dedication of the original Mormon settlers who sought to make the desert bloom. That dedication and community commitment is particularly evident in the 1874-1933 pioneer cemetery where a large Johnson family headstone bears the date 1891.
Ferry service existed at the site for 55 years, and Mormon families operating the ferry helped everyone across who needed assistance. During high water in May 1891 a family who had lost a child to deadly diphtheria came to Lonely Dell, but the parents did not tell Warren and Permelia Johnson of their loss. The Johnsons hosted the travelers in their home until a safe crossing could be made, and the children all played together. Six Johnson siblings became infected with deadly microbes. Folk cures failed and over a long seven week period the Johnsons painfully watched four of their own children die of diphtheria.
Perhaps that story was on Clela Johnson’s mind when she said to me, “I know the family history and what’s been told.” We walked together quietly at the cemetery, looking out across the muddy Paria River, her children beside her. She shook her head at the numerous gravestones, many in disrepair, and commented, “What a remote location and such hard work crossing the river. So many different people came.”
She looked east at the far canyon wall, the wind slightly ruffling her long gray dress. Beyond the cemetery rusted farm equipment and trucks sink into sand. A mile upstream near a corral is a tiny isolated wood frame shack not much larger than a queen-sized bed. This was Jerry Johnson’s honeymoon cabin. In his one-ton truck, Clela Johnson’s father freighted in the center pin for nearby Navajo Bridge that made Lees Ferry obsolete.
As we left the cemetery she turned to me and said, “How did they live on nothing? They had to have that real backwoodsman’s spirit.” I mumbled my agreement and looked around. There were very few trees in sight.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of Southwest Studies and history at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at email@example.com