In search of White Canyon Town
White Canyon Town
I hopscotched across the crusty mud deposited by Lake Powell. The mud had cracked two feet deep in places, so I needed to watch my step—as if I hadn’t been watching it the entire hike.
It was getting late, but we were searching for where Tom McCourt’s grandparents once lived.
White Canyon Town, which sprang up around a uranium mill in 1949, had a fleeting life, but McCourt, author of White Canyon: Remembering the Little Town at the Bottom of Lake Powell, spent his childhood summers with his grandparents there.
“To me,” he writes, “it was the most beautiful place in the world. A place of red rocks and sand with towering bastions of dark sandstone and cream-colored slickrock spilling down into the valley.
“... A river ran through it, and the sweet, musty smell of the muddy Colorado was always in the air.”
After the uranium mill was dismantled in 1954 and the rest of the White Canyon Town residents dispersed, McCourt’s grandparents, Bertha and Lorin Winn, built a home up the canyon, still seeking uranium and staying for nearly two more years.
Their homesite wasn’t our only quest.
Earlier in the day, on the way to the Colorado, we’d clambered over shale slopes next to lakes filled with ducks, geese, seagulls, and an occasional heron.
We picked our way over downed trees left in Lake Powell’s wake, found a rusty heater, a utility pole, and railroad ties among the rocks, negotiated boulders, waded through tumbleweeds, and hopped through White Canyon Wash with its stagnant, oily-looking water.
At that time, we were looking for the site of Fort Moki, no longer existent, but once a multistoried Ancestral Puebloan ruin which John Wesley Powell documented on his expedition down the Colorado River.
We also looked for the historical signatures which McCourt described.
Although we found neither, we did find thin rocks stacked waist high in a semicircle with an old tape player leaning against the wall, and we knew where White Canyon Town once existed.
The Vanadium Corporation of America developed White Canyon Town across the river from the Hite community and Arthur Chaffin’s ferry which transported the heavy equipment and materials needed to construct the mill. About 200 people settled in the area to provide the workforce.
According to McCourt, along with the mill, the town boasted a post office, trading post, gas pump, one-room school, “mess hall” where McCourt’s grandmother provided meals for company employees, airstrip, diesel generator, cabins, and trailers.
As we explored, I didn’t realize the mill eventually produced 26,000 tons of uranium tailings which were never removed and which Lake Powell eventually covered (McCourt, 65).
Hours later, we traipsed across the hardened mud, heading toward where we thought the Winn’s cabins might have stood after they moved upcanyon.
We had packed McCourt’s book with us and took it out occasionally to compare his photos with the surrounding mesas.
But on that short December day, we didn’t have enough time to walk to where the real-life mesas matched the pictured ones near his grandparents’ cabins, so we finally started back toward our Jeep parked in Farley’s Canyon, disappointed but not defeated.
The next day, Ferd Johnson stopped to talk to us. “Are you the ones chasing down the Colorado River looking for The Hermitage?”
“We are,” I said.
“Well, I was in The Hermitage in 1953,” he said. “It was made out of big cottonwood logs without much chinking because they didn’t need it. I knew Bert Loper when he was an old man in Green River.
“Art Chaffin was my great uncle, and he talked my dad into going down and helping with the ferry after the coal mine shut down in Huntington.
“Dad went in February, and I went down after I graduated in May.”
I was stunned. Here was a living, breathing connection to the past we’d been seeking.
Ferd, who worked in the uranium mill, also helped his dad run the ferry and told us a story about a man who would never pay the dollar to board the ferry.
“He swam across the river with a case of beer around his neck and a half a case in his belly,” Ferd said.
“It’s a wonder he didn’t drown,” my hubby commented.
“He was strong,” Ferd said, smiling.
Then, with an incredible memory for details, he shared more stories about the people and land, making White Canyon Town and Hite come alive for us.
“After the boom was over,” he said, “they dismantled the mill and shipped it to Durango and reassembled it.
“Almost all the other buildings were burned, and after Lake Powell filled, everything was buried under 90 feet of silt and sand.”
“Did you enjoy living there?” I asked
“Not really, not at first,” he said. “I was barely 18 and had to leave all my friends, but after a while I came to love that red rock country with all my heart.”
After Ferd left, I pondered the changes the White Canyon area had undergone from the time of the Ancestral Puebloans, to the Native peoples, to the gold prospectors, river runners, farmers, and uranium miners.
Now the valley had fallen silent under the deeply creviced mud, but with the snow-covered Little Rockies as a backdrop, the red mesas, and the Colorado River running through it, as Tom McCourt said, it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world.