Cover image for Down the great unknown : John Wesley Powell's 1869 journey of discovery and tragedy through the Grand Canyon
Down the great unknown : John Wesley Powell's 1869 journey of discovery and tragedy through the Grand Canyon
Dolnick, Edward, 1952-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : HarperCollins, [2001]

Physical Description:
viii, 367 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
F788 .D65 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Drawing on rarely examined diaries and journals, Down the Great Unknown is the first book to tell the full, dramatic story of the Powell expedition.

On May 24, 1869 a one-armed Civil War veteran, John Wesley Powell and a ragtag band of nine mountain men embarked on the last great quest in the American West. The Grand Canyon, not explored before, was as mysterious as Atlantis--and as perilous. The ten men set out from Green River Station, Wyoming Territory down the Colorado in four wooden rowboats. Ninety-nine days later, six half-starved wretches came ashore near Callville, Arizona.

Lewis and Clark opened the West in 1803, six decades later Powell and his scruffy band aimed to resolve the West's last mystery. A brilliant narrative, a thrilling journey, a cast of memorable heroes--all these mark Down the Great Unknown, the true story of the last epic adventure on American soil.

Author Notes

Edward Doinick is the former chief science writer at the Boston Globe. He has written for the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, and many other publications. He made his first Grand Canyon river trip twenty years ago. He is married and has two children

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

John Wesley Powell wrote about his descent of the Colorado River canyons in 1869 in Exploration of the Colorado River, now considered a classic in discovery annals. Dolnick, a science journalist who has rafted down the Grand, turns in a most estimable rendition of that storied expedition. It skillfully integrates the notes and journals of expedition members with technical insight about the perils of roiling whitewater. At present, some rapids, in particular those not affected by the building of dams, are nearly identical, boulder-for-boulder, to what Powell and his nine men encountered--with the difference that they could not know what dangers lay ahead, as today's rafting guides do. The expedition's embodiment of adventure and courage gives it a timelessness that Dolnick positively reinforces with well-detailed characterizations of the expedition members and their motivations and dissensions. Dolnick's account will no doubt be popular, and libraries should consider ordering as well the recent full-scale biography of Powell, A River Running West, by Donald Worster [BKL Ja 1 & 15 01]. --Gilbert Taylor

Publisher's Weekly Review

Powell led his band of stalwart trappers and ex-soldiers down the Green River in Wyoming Territory, heading for the last bit of terra incognita in the U.S.: the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. The expedition had plenty of supplies, but the wrong type of boats for shooting rapids. Moreover, their inexperience with rapids cost them one of the boats and many provisions. There was little game to supplement their rapidly dwindling food supply. And being the first to chart the river, they didn't know what lay beyond each twist. These handicaps, along with deadly river rocks, soaring canyon walls and one-armed Powell's impressive feat of scaling them to measure their height, make for a remarkable journey. Unfortunately, Dolnick does the story a disservice in overwriting the expedition's slower moments. He frequently overexplains, and he never meets a simile he doesn't like. Every description, no matter how effective, is carried too far, suggesting Dolnick doesn't trust his story or his readers: "rapids... do not murmur. They rumble. They roar. They crash. The sound evokes a thunderstorm just overhead, a jet skimming the ground, a runaway train.... The message is worse than the sound itself the roar of a rapid is a proclamation of danger as clear as a giant's bellowed curse in a fairy tale." After passages like that, readers may want to jump ship, or like Powell's band, they can struggle through and emerge battered but illuminated. Photos and illus. (Oct. 2) Forecast: Will a 15-city NPR campaign, six-city author tour and big-time advertising help the story trump the writing? Yes. The adventure is that good. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

On May 24, 1869, John Wesley Powell and a band of nine volunteer frontiersmen embarked from Green River Station, Wyoming Territory, in four wooden boats. The one-armed Union veteran and geology professor set out to explore the uncharted Green and Colorado rivers and pass through the mysterious Grand Canyon, reaching his destination at the mouth of the Virgin River in Arizona in late August. To research this journey, former Boston Globe science writer Dolnick relied on Powell's river and postexpedition diaries and his crew's journals. These accounts reveal the friction between the overbearing Powell and his independent mountain men, which resulted in defections and the mysterious disappearance of three crew members. Dolnick's study offers excellent descriptions of the riverine obstacles, the inadequacy of the boats employed, the back-breaking tasks of lining and portaging, the constant threat of death from starvation and hostiles, and the wildly speculative press accounts. The author's liberal use of corroborative testimony from contemporary whitewater professionals may, however, prove distracting. Dolnick's concluding chapter shows how Powell's eventual campaign of self-promotion both secured for him a place in history and effectively eclipsed (by design) the amazing contributions of his men. Recommended for Western collections and all libraries. [For a fictional account of Powell's sojourn, see John Vernon's The Last Canyon, p. 144. Ed.] John Carver Edwards, Univ. of Georgia Libs., Athens (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Down the Great Unknown John Wesley Powell's 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy Through the Grand Canyon Chapter One The Challenge Noon, May 24, 1869 The few inhabitants of Green River Station, Wyoming Territory, gather at the river front to cheer off a rowdy bunch of adventurers. Ten hardy men in four wooden boats had spent the morning checking their gear and their provisions one last time--bacon, flour, coffee, spare oars, sextants and barometers (their leader, the skinny, one-armed man in the Emma Dean, fancied himself ascientist). Their plan could hardly be simpler. They will follow the Green River downstream until it merges with the Grand to become the Colorado, and then they will stay with the Colorado wherever it takes them. They intend in particular to run the river through the fabled chasm variously called Big Canyon or Great Canyon or Grand Canyon, a region scarcely better known than Atlantis. No one has ever done it. The men hope to make their fortunes; their leader plans to emblazon his name across the heavens. They are brave, they have new boats and supplies to last ten months, they are at home in the outdoors. Most important, they are ready to risk their lives. At one o'clock, the Emma Dean, the Kitty Clyde's Sister, the Maid of the Cañon, and the No Name push themselves out into the current. A small American flag mounted on the Emma Dean flaps proudly in the breeze. Most of the crew are still a bit bleary-eyed. As a farewell to civilization, they have done their best to drink Green River Station's only saloon dry. Now they are suffering what one of them describes as "foggy ideas and snarly hair." The small crowd gives a cheer, the leader doffs his hat, and the four boats disappear around the river's first bend. John Wesley Powell, the trip leader, was a Civil War veteran who had lost his right arm at Shiloh. Thirty-five years old and unknown, Powell was a tenderfoot who barely knew the West, a geology professor at a no-name college, an amateur explorer with so little clout that he had ended up reaching into his own (nearly empty) pocket to finance this makeshift expedition. His appearance was as unimpressive as his résumé--at 5 feet, 6 1/2 inches and 120 pounds, he was small and scrawny even by the standards of the age, a stick of beef jerky adorned with whiskers. To Powell, a natural leader, all that was unimportant. Overflowing with energy and ambition, he was a man of almost pathological optimism. With a goal in mind, he was impossible to discourage. He had devised an extraordinary goal. In 1803, with the full and enthusiastic backing of the president of the United States, Lewis and Clark had opened the door to the American West. In 1869, with almost no government support, John Wesley Powell intended to resolve its last great mystery. By this time, the map of the United States had long since been filled in. For two centuries, Boston had been a center of learning and culture. New York and Philadelphia were booming, Nashville and New Orleans struggling to recover from the Civil War. California's gold rush was almost a generation in the past. In May 1869, the pounding of a ceremonial spike at Promontory Summit, Utah, marked the completion of the transcontinental railroad. The Rockies and the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite and Death Valley were old news. Miners in search of gold, trappers in quest of beavers whose pelts could be transformed into hats for London dandies, a host of government and railroad surveying parties, all had criss crossed one another's steps in even the most isolated spots of the American continent. Except one. One mystery remained. In the American Southwest an immense area--an area as large as any state in the Union, as large as any country in Europe--remained blank. Here mapmakers abandoned the careful notations that applied elsewhere and wrote simply "unexplored." Venture some Westerners knew that the region was desolate and bone-dry; they knew the Colorado River ran through it; they knew that canyons cleaved the ground like gouges cut by a titanic axe. Beyond that, rumor would have to do. Men whispered tales of waterfalls that dwarfed Niagara and of places where the mighty Colorado vanished underground like an enormous snake suddenly slithering down a hole. Powell aimed to fill in that blank in the map. His plan, such as it was, took audacity to the brink of lunacy. Once they were well under way, he and his men would have no supplies other than those they could carry. They had no reliable maps--none existed--and their route stretched across a thousand miles of high desert. It was Indian territory, and peace had yet to break out. There were no white settlements (or settlers, for that matter) anywhere along their river route nor within a hundred miles on either side. The Grand Canyon itself, Powell knew, was many hundreds of miles, downstream. It was the final canyon the expedition would pass through--and the longest and the deepest and the least known--but they would have to confront countless obstacles before they ever drew near it. The first three-fourths of the route, Powell guessed, led through a series of virtually unexplored canyons. The last one-fourth, if he and the crew were still alive, would be the Grand Canyon. Powell's friends feared he was throwing his life away. On May 24, the day he set out, his hometown newspaper had reported on his plans. "It would be impossible for a boat constructed of any known material, upon any conceivable plan, to live through the canyon," one supposed expert declared. "We do not know what kind of boats Professor Powell purposes to descend the Grand Canyon," the newspaper cautioned, "but we greatly fear that the attempt to navigate by any means whatever will result fatally to those who undertake it." Down the Great Unknown John Wesley Powell's 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy Through the Grand Canyon . Copyright © by Edward Dolnick. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold. Excerpted from Down the Great Unknown: John Wesley Powell's 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy Through the Grand Canyon by Edward Dolnick All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 The Challengep. 1
Chapter 2 The Crewp. 9
Chapter 3 The Launchp. 23
Chapter 4 Ashley Fallsp. 37
Chapter 5 Paradisep. 53
Chapter 6 Disasterp. 57
Chapter 7 Shilohp. 69
Chapter 8 The Hornets' Nestp. 79
Chapter 9 Hell's Half Milep. 91
Chapter 10 Firep. 105
Chapter 11 The First Milestonep. 115
Chapter 12 Hoaxp. 127
Chapter 13 Last Taste of Civilizationp. 137
Chapter 14 Trappedp. 147
Chapter 15 "Hurra! Hurra! Hurra!"p. 159
Chapter 16 Outmatchedp. 169
Chapter 17 Flash Floodp. 181
Chapter 18 To the Taj Mahalp. 193
Chapter 19 Grand Canyonp. 205
Chapter 20 Time's Abyssp. 215
Chapter 21 The Great Unknownp. 227
Chapter 22 Sockdolagerp. 239
Chapter 23 Fightp. 251
Chapter 24 Miseryp. 259
Chapter 25 Separation Rapidp. 267
Chapter 26 Deliverancep. 275
Chapter 27 The Vanishingp. 279
Epiloguep. 287
Notesp. 293
Bibliographyp. 341
Acknowledgmentsp. 353
Indexp. 355