South Kaibab Suspension Bridge

Grand Canyon Experts | A conversation with Richard Quartaroli

Q Can you describe how you got interested in Grand Canyon and what got you started on your historical research path?

South Kaibab Suspension Bridge

Photo by P.J. O'Malley

A  I got into research through Colorado River running and librarianship. The first time I’d seen the Grand Canyon was in 1971. I came out and camped out at the South Rim and North Rim. I really was speechless the first time I saw it. From that first visit I decided the next time I came back I am going to do a River trip – I’m going to experience the Canyon from the bottom. I knew that I was going to take the longest trip available and thorough research discovered that there were two 18-day trips: one was Grand Canyon Dories and one was Grand Canyon Youth Expeditions. So in 1973 I was a passenger on a guided trip.

For the Grand Canyon Youth Expeditions trip they used 22-foot snout rigs and you did everything. I wanted to be sure that I’d be doing something – that’s why I chose that trip. I wanted to participate in this trip.

Then in 1975 I got on as a “swamper” with White Water River Expeditions. A swamper assists on a motor trip, back then you didn’t get paid you worked for your trip.  I was working full time in California, and I’d take a couple of weeks off and come out and be a swamper on River trips. Through those experiences I got interested in the history, the early expeditions. I started using the library. I read the Grand Canyon books in general. I was really interested in River expeditions – in River trips.

Interviewer’s note to readers: please note that any and all content, including Web links, below that appears in italics, is intended as explanatory or interview transitional notes and are not direct quotations from Grand Canyon history expert Richard Quartaroli. Any distortions, inaccuracies, or misconceptions resulting from these notes and items in brackets are solely the responsibility of the interviewer.

Q  So it is a pretty amazing and unusual career path to go from river runner to librarian. Can you describe this route you took a little more?

A  I just started doing a lot of reading, doing research on my own. I read David Lavender’s River Runners of the Grand Canyon. I also visited the Huntington Library in California and read the Dock Otis Reed Marston collection. I went there and read what Marston had; there were 432 boxes in the collection. I moved to Flagstaff in 1988 and was still doing river trips and I took history and library science classes. After that I received a Master of Library and Information Science degree from the University of Texas. It’s all because of river running – that is why I became a library scientist.

Q  So at the risk of jumping ahead or fast forwarding too much, what are you working on now?

A  I’m working on this Kolb exhibit scheduled to open at the Kolb Studio in December. That is for Grand Canyon Association. Back when I was starting out, the more research I did – I started looking into trivial details, something that piques my interest. For example, Ellsworth Kolb’s birthday – I’ve got three different dates for his birthday. The date on his headstone may be wrong.  There are so many stories about the Kolbs – the stories become legend. But are they accurate? As part of the research on the Kolbs I found out that the Kolbs had another building in addition to the Kolb studio. They owned another property than the studio at Grand Canyon. It is no longer there; it burned down. That second building was at one time at a place called Tent City. They also knew it as Pinon (Piñyon) Park. I thought:  look at this – there’s some pictures that said it was the Kolb House but I didn’t have any information about it. I asked about it and came across an appraisal for that second building. The appraisal documents a lot of information. It turns out it was used by the Kolbs and they used it as a rental house for employees. It was referred to as the Kolb house but apparently they probably never lived in it.

Q  What are some other details that you have investigated?

A  Originally the Bright Angel Trail was right by ran right past the Kolb Studio. Ralph Cameron controlled the Bright Angel Trail by establishing mine claims the length of the trail – it was a toll road. So Cameron allowed the Kolbs to build the studio and allowed them to go to Indian Gardens to photograph tourists riding mules to Indian Gardens and back to the South Rim. The Kolbs built a darkroom at Indian Gardens. But how long did that continue? When did the dark room get torn down? When did the Kolbs get reliable water at their studio? There are just these things I run across – there’s so much material out there. I try to verify what they actually did, to be accurate. So, of course the research never does stop – the research continues. You always come across more information that pertains to it.

Q  You have also done significant research on John Wesley Powell. Can you tell us about a couple of details, maybe things that are perhaps not as widely known about Powell and his Grand Canyon expeditions?

A  Powell did all the triangulation land surveying for this area. They established the Kanab baseline – out West it’s baselines and meridians – that’s the basis for all the triangulation. I looked into the surveys and mapping and a friend compared them to modern maps. Ninety five percent of Powell’s data points are accurate to within two standard deviations. Which is very accurate for the time and conditions they were surveying. As a Grand Canyon historian all I really need to know is that it’s pretty good Powell’s original survey.

Also, the first telegraph in Arizona was at Pipe Springs up on the Arizona Strip. That’s real important for establishing longitude because using a telegraph was the most accurate means at the time for getting time; the time is essential for calculating accurate longitude. They still have a telegraph office there at Pipe Springs. There is also some of the Powell survey memorabilia there.

Q  So, I gather from what you have mentioned before that not all of the research material you are interested in pertaining to Grand Canyon – it is not all in one place. Can you tell us about the places where you have been to further your Grand Canyon research?

A  I had a sabbatical a few years ago and visited a number of places for research source material. I went to the New York Public Library for Powell and railroad engineer Robert Brewster Stanton stuff, Frederick Samuel Dellenbaugh stuff, to Washington, DC to the National Archives and the Library of Congress, to the National Anthropological Archives in the Smithsonian, to the Smithsonian, to Chicago to the Newberry Library to look at maps – they have a huge map collection, maps from hundreds of years. I also visited Illinois Wesleyn because Powell talked there and he took college students on natural history trips. I went to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to see Dellenbaugh maps and to the American Geographical Society map library there.

Q  So in light of what you have said that the research never does stop, it continues – what else stands out for you in your Grand Canyon and Colorado River investigations?

A  I never intended to research Powell – there are major biographies out there. But for one thing I was trying to figure out all of Powell’s campsites through Grand Canyon from both expeditions. I discovered that nobody’s done all of them and put them all together. One example is Shinumo Creek camp on the right that’s still used. This camp is located between River miles 107 and 109 near Bass Rapid.  It is theoretically possible that you could do a Colorado River trip through Grand Canyon and you could camp at a number of those Powell camps.

Richard Quartaroli has been running the Colorado River through Grand Canyon since 1973 and has completed over 160 Grand Canyon river trips; lately he has been running more of the rivers and canyons in the Upper Colorado River Basin.  He credits river running with his avocation of River and Canyon historical research and his vocation in librarianship, earning his Master of Library and Information Science degree from the University of Texas (Austin).  As the first Research Librarian at the Glen Canyon Environmental Studies office under the Bureau of Reclamation (now the Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center under the U.S. Geological Survey), 1993-1997, he established their research library, was a research boatman, and conducted research on campsite changes, among other things.  He was The Special Collections Librarian, 1997-2011, (retired July 1, 2011, and now Librarian Emeritus), Cline Library, Northern Arizona University; their focus and his was the history and development of the Colorado Plateau.  His particular Canyon and River research interests tend toward the picayune, as he feels there is no nit too small not to pick.  Topics include: the plaques at Separation; John Wesley Powell; surveying and cartography; historical river runners; printed river guides; and rapid rating systems.

Resources and for further reading:

Evolution of the Printed Colorado River Gude in Grand Canyon, Arizona, by Richard D. Quartaroli, in A Gathering of Grand Canyon Historians, 2002. Grand Canyon Association,

GPS in 1869: The Geographical Powell Survey, by Richard D. Quartaroli, in A Gathering of Grand Canyon Historians, 2002. Grand Canyon Association,

The Kolb Brothers: Grand Canyon Pioneers, a Steiger Bros. Production, originally aired in 2004. KAET, Channel 8, Arizona PBS

Frederick Samuel Dellenbaugh Collection of Photographs and Drawings of the Colorado River Region. Western Americana Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.