The Great "Race" to "Discover" Rainbow Natural Bridge in 1909

Stephen C. Jett
1992 KIVA  
Orthodox history has it that Rainbow Bridge, the world's largest natural stone span, was first seen by literate whites on August 14, 1909, on an expedition consisting of the rival but combined parties of University of Utah archaeologists Byron Cummings and U. S. government surveyor William Boone Douglass. After a difficult journey to discover the bridge, the Cummings group and Douglass each claimed the credit, and the controversy as to "who was first" has continued to the present. There are
more » ... sent. There are contradictions and inconsistencies in eyewitness reports, and this paper reconstructs, to the extent possible, how John and Louisa Wetherill heard of Rainbow Bridge from Indians; how Cummings and Douglass learned of it; the actual events of the 1909 journeys to and from the bridge; and the attitudes and behaviors of the disputants before, during, and after the expedition. The article also presents evidence that neither Cummings nor Douglass was "first," that in fact the Wetherills had visited Rainbow Bridge months previous but had kept the trip a secret in order to let Cummings think he was the first white ever to see this natural wonder. There also is reason to believe that Rainbow Bridge had been seen (but not formally reported) decades earlier by prospectors, cowboys, and perhaps others. Rainbow Natural Bridge, Utah, is the acknowledged premier example of its kind, being a feature not only of extreme beauty but also of great size, its smoothly curved 290-foot-high opening spanning a space 275 feet across (Vreeland 1976:56; Anonymous 1979; for a general discuss of the feature, see Jett 1980). Despite, or because of, its isolation in the rugged slickrock and canyon country between Navajo Mountain and Glen Canyon, the bridge has been the focus of more than one dispute during the decades since it was first brought to the world's attention in 1909. The most recent controversy relates to the waters of the Lake Powell reservoir backing up beneath the bridge, along with increased tourist visitation and visitors' lack of respectful behavior toward this Indian sacred place. An issue of longer standing has to do with the priority of "discovery" of this natural wonder (Barnes 1987:64-7). It is the older controversy with which this narrative is concerned.
doi:10.1080/00231940.1992.11758201 fatcat:vwsxczv7bjcdzojsm2auu7x2um