Lee’s Ferry, Arizona
This article originally appeared in Vol.51, No.4 (2004) of Pioneer Magazine.
by W.L. Rusho
For more than 200 years, Lee’s Ferry has figured prominently in Utah and Arizona history, and in the history of the colorado river, at which the place is located, fifteen miles south of the Utah— Arizona border, Lee’s Ferry is not a town, but rather a semi-wilderness site in a canyon-floor setting; it is now administered by the National Park Service as both a historic site and as a fishing and boating site within the glen canyon National Recreation Area. It also marks the upstream boundary of grand canyon National Park.
Originally, it was called the “paria crossing,” because the Paria River (usually a muddy or dried-up creek), enters the Colorado at that point. The first recorded crossing of the river was made in 1864 by Jacob Hamblin and his small group of Mormon missionaries headed for the Hopi villages. Lee’s Ferry received its present name after John D. Lee was asked by Mormon church officials to establish and operate a ferry that could be used by Church emigrants traveling south on colonizing missions. Even though Lee had already been excommunicated for his part in the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre, he accepted the assignment in late 1871.
During the 1870s and 1880s, Lee’s Ferry was used as a crossing point by thousands of emigrants bound for the Arizona, The Mormon church continued to operate the ferry until 1909. It was later operated by Coconino County, Arizona,
Several emigrant journals record the attendant agonies of using Lee’s Ferry as a river crossing point. Roads on either side of the river consisted of bone-jarring, wagon-breaking rock, bereft of any soil. At the river’s edge, travelers faced muddy banks, a fluctuating, sediment-filled, dangerous river, and a ferryboat that had been involved in several accidents. Navajo Bridge, opened to traffic in 1929 and just five miles from Lee’s Ferry, effectively eliminated the need for ferry service.
Today, Lees Ferry remains the vital launching point for the thousands of tourists, vacationers, and adventurers who each year boat through the Grand Canyon, either on commercial or private trips.