Canyon Club hosts presentation on Crossing of the Fathers

Approaching the Crossing of the Fathers in Glen Canyon in 1922.

Paul Ostapuk, a retired engineer and meteorologist for the Navajo Generating Station and former president of the Old Spanish Trail Association, gave a presentation on the “Crossing of the Fathers” at a meeting of the Canyon Club at Courtyard by Marriott in Page on April 15. 

Ostapuk has lived in Arizona since he was a child and attended Northern Arizona University in the 1970s. After college, he started working at the Navajo Generating Station and has explored the area extensively on foot and horseback.

At last Friday’s presentation, Ostapuk shared his knowledge about the different expeditions that passed through the Crossing of the Fathers from 1776 to the mid-20th century.  

The Crossing of the Fathers became part of a branch of the Old Spanish Trail that connected Santa Fe, New Mexico, with Los Angeles, California. It was used between 1828 and 1849 until Lees Ferry provided a new way to cross the river.

The actual Crossing of the Fathers is now within the boundaries of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The Old Spanish Trail had several routes: the Armijo Route, the Main Branch, and the mountainous North Branch with East and West Forks.

The Dominguez-Escalante Expedition forded the Colorado River near modern-day Kane Wash in what became known as the Crossing of the Fathers. Before Lake Powell filled, there was a sign above the canyon marking the crossing.

The original goal of the Dominguez-Escalante Expedition was to find a route to Monterey, California, from Santa Fe. After crossing southern Utah, the expedition was running low on supplies as winter arrived.

They faced a choice in October of 1776 after experiencing snowstorms and abandonment by their Native American guide: continue west or return to Santa Fe. The members of the expedition drew lots in Cedar City, Utah, on October 8, 1776, and returned to Santa Fe by a different route.   They worked their way across northern Arizona without much to go on for direction and took most of the month of October to cross the Colorado River.  

By October 25, the expedition reached the Colorado River, downstream from present-day Lees Ferry, and followed the Colorado River north into Utah. They forded the river after chiseling footholds in the sandstone for livestock and crossed the river. Upon successfully crossing, they celebrated by firing their muskets in the air on November 7, 1776. They engraved the inscription “Paso por aqui 1776” (passed here in 1776).

Ostapuk presented a chronology of usage of the route. Early native Americans were the first known humans in the area. Later, Antonio Armijo used the route in 1829 while following the Old Spanish Trail. Other expeditions used the route, including Jacob Hamblin (1858), the Mormon Militia (1869), John Wesley Powell’s Second expedition (1871), the George Wheeler Topographical Survey (1872), Survey of the 37th Latitude (1901), Kolb Brothers (1911), Herbert Gregory Geographic and Hydrographic Reconnaissance (1913), Russell Fraser and David Rust (1922), the “Lost and Found” expedition with Frazier, Kelly and Davies (1939), and The National Geographic Society (1949).  

Ostapuk shared photos of early Lake Powell when there were few boat ramps. One of the most-used ramps in the 1970s was in Kane Wash. He also listed some of the early movies filmed in the Page area, including “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1962) and “Planet of the Apes” (1967). One of the members of the audience remembered watching the filming of “Planet of the Apes” as a teenager. Ostapuk showed historic photographs of the movie sets.

In 2002, the Old Spanish Trail was recognized as the nation’s 15th National Historic Trail. In 2006, graffiti-removal volunteers reported finding the Dominguez-Escalante inscription, which had been attracting the attention of hikers and boaters and was getting damaged.

In 2016, Glen Canyon NRA had a protective enclosure built by a contractor to protect the inscription. Some of the Page old timers recalled hearing about the inscription as early as 1989, but no documentation older than 2006 was found.

The 20th annual Old Santa Fe Trail Association conference will be held this year in Page on October 20 to 23.  More information available at https://oldspanishtrail.org/news.

The Canyon Club is a non-profit organization whose purpose, according to its website, “is to actively pursue improvements to the community in which we live. Through our involvement in our community we will create an atmosphere where local citizens can participate in activities that will enrich their lives and the lives of those living in this community.”  

Those interested in joining or attending the monthly presentations can contact the Canyon Club at [email protected]

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