Powell Expedition—Green River, WY. Then and Now.

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This year marks 150 years since John Wesley Powell and his nine-man crew left the banks of the Green River to venture into the unknown. He disembarked to the cheers of the citizens of Green River Station. Would he recognize these shores today? Guest author Jaci Wells, Historic Preservationist for the BLM, describes the historic context for Powell's launch site and how it has changed.

In the 19th Century

Standing upon the banks of the Green River in 2019, 150 years after his departure from these shores, one wonders if John Wesley Powell would recognize the place he helped make famous. A person viewing the city, landscape and environment today, where Powell launched his expeditions in 1869 and 1871, might think that it was a static thing, and little had changed since Powell walked these shores. In some ways, they would be right. 

The high mountain desert surrounding the Green River was peppered with sagebrush, shrubs, sedges and native grasses covering rolling hills. The banks of the river burst with willows, cottonwood trees and other riparian (river edge) shrubs. 

The river ran through the valley unchecked by any human-made structures. Islands dotted the river, providing habitat for many animal species including mule deer, pronghorn, various waterfowl and many others. The islands were sandy and covered with vegetation including shrubs and tall cottonwood trees. As with most rivers, unstable sandy shorelines were constantly eroding causing persistent, if subtle, change in landform. The islands in the river near Green River Station at the time of Powell’s journey were mostly devoid of human occupation. An occasional trapper or fisherman could be seen bobbing along the river visiting their various posts. 

This is a photo of Boats of Powell's Second Expedition on the Left bank of Green River.

Second Powell River Expedition, May 22, 1871. Photo courtesy of USGS.

Deer, pronghorn antelope and waterfowl were found in abundance as they took advantage of the vegetation along the river banks and the reliable source of water in this high mountain desert. Beavers built dams along the river, creating habitat for the fish and fowl as well as various species of riparian shrubs. 

Nestled in a small valley along the river, surrounded by giant sandstone cliffs standing sentinel as the river winds through the valley, lay Green River Station. Originally a small stage station along the Overland and Cherokee rails, the community around the station expanded with the news that the Union Pacific Railroad would be coming through the territory. The population of the town grew in anticipation of the commerce the railroad would bring, until the railroad decided to establish its switching station further down the line in the town of Bryan instead. This decision caused the population of the town to plummet rapidly from roughly 2,000 people to just over 100 people when Powell chose it as his launching point in 1869.

Powell chose Green River for his launch because this is the only place where the railroad crossed the river he wanted to explore, thus making it possible to transport his boats and supplies directly to the river. The railroad tracks crossed the river on the north side of town. The construction of the tracks and bridge across the river created a gentle slope directly from the tracks to the banks of the river. Powell’s people could easily carry the heavy boats and copious supplies directly from the railroad car to the river. 

Even though humans had begun to settle along the banks of the Green River, it was still a wild and unknown river that would challenge Powell and his crew as they attempted to navigate its deceptively placid waters. 

 

In the 21st Century

Sandstone cliffs still stand watch over the city of Green River, Wyoming today. With these resilient features of the landscape still in place, Powell would likely feel right at home at the origin of his groundbreaking journeys. However, ever the scientist, there is little doubt that Powell would find the changes that have occurred since he travelled the river extraordinary. 

The city now extends on either side of the river and numbers over 12,000 in population. The rolling hills that were empty of development at the time of Powell’s excursions are now lined with homes and other buildings overlooking the river. The Union Pacific Railroad still follows the same route through the city it did in 1869. Perhaps the most striking change to the natural environment would be the vegetation. The banks are lined with sheet grass, tamarisk, Russian olive trees and non-native grasses, all of which are invasive species. Human land use, such as farming, ranching, irrigation, settlement, and development, has taken its toll and affected the stability of the riverbank and riparian ecosystems.2 The local community today works to restore the native vegetation to the shores of the river, but with the ability of the invasive species to out-compete the native species, it is a long battle. 

Most wildlife species that Powell and his crew observed in 1869 are still found along the river. Mule deer and pronghorn antelope frequent the city and the island, as do waterfowl. The most notable missing wildlife is the beaver which was heavily impacted by the fur trade around the era of Powell’s journeys. 

Powell would also be amazed to see the landscape changes that the city of Green River has undertaken along the river. Concrete walking paths line the banks of the river and wind through the city. Several new bridges span the river providing for pedestrian and automobile traffic. The trainyard has expanded significantly since Powell’s journey as the switching station was moved to Green River city after drought struck the town of Bryan, Wyoming, a few years after the expeditions. Now several tracks and warehouses are aligned alongside the river. 

The largest island within the city limits of the river is known as Expedition Island — in honor of Powell — and many have come to believe it is the location where Powell’s expedition was launched. The island is located just a half mile downstream of the bridge where the railroad crosses the river. The citizens identified the island early on in the history of the city as a good spot to recreate. Originally known as Island Park, it became the best location in the region for picnics, dances and river boat cruises on steamboats starting in the 1900s. 

It is unlikely that Expedition Island was the launch point for Powell’s expeditions. The island is well down the river from the railroad crossing and was not easily accessible in 1869. It would have been difficult to remove the boats and supplies from the train, and then carry or float them down to the island. If the boats were on the island, that would have meant plenty of trips back and forth to the island hauling supplies on a daily basis. It was much more likely the launch point was further up the river, just off the side of the railroad bridge. J.K. Hiller’s photograph from 1871 is a close match to the view today next to the railroad bridge (see photos). To further support this, an article from a 1908 Green River Star newspaper discusses the steamboat launch point as being “above Railroad Bridge.” This is because the easy access to the river and the gentler slopes from those banks were an ideal location to launch boats from and became the official launch point of the Green River Navigation Company.3

This aerial photograph of Green River, Wyoming shows the town of Green River, the railroad, and the Green River.

This aerial photograph of Green River, Wyoming shows the town of Green River, the railroad, and the Green River.

(Credit: Google Earth. Public domain.)

Sometime in the mid-1900s, the citizens began to refer to the island as Expedition Island. The name was officially changed in 1969 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Powell’s expeditions. Today, the island hosts a community building, a parking lot and a city park. It is lushly covered with Kentucky bluegrass and lined around the perimeter with trees, including cottonwoods. Walking paths cover the island and two bridges connect the island to either side of the river providing a wonderful place for recreation for the citizens of Green River.4

Along the shoreline of Expedition Island, the city has taken measures to stabilize the banks on the island and on either side of the main shoreline in order to prevent the erosion of the sandy island. Large boulders are held in place by concrete, guiding the river neatly around the island. In order to further enhance recreation, the city has developed a small, sheltered cove on the west side of the island where visitors can swim without fighting the natural current of the river. Within the river, false rapids have been built in order to provide some adventure for those who seek to float or kayak the river.

It is doubtful Powell knew the impact his expeditions would have on the city of Green River when he chose it for his launching point. His venture left its mark in the place names across the region that he explored, and it all began in a small stage station town, population 100. 

 

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1 Bureau of Land Management, “Land Patent Search,” digital images, General Land Office Records (http://www.glorecords.blm.gov/PatentSearch : accessed 26 June 2019), Green River City 1876 (Sweetwater County, WY). : Fowler, Don D. Cleaving an Unknown World: The Powell Expeditions and the Scientific Exploration of the Colorado Plateau. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2012.: 1870 Federal Census, Sweetwater County, http://www.usgwcensus.org/, accessed 26 July 2019; Del Bene, Terry. “Green River, Wyoming.” WyoHistory.org (2014). Accessed July 31, 2019. https://www.wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/green-river-wyoming

2 Paige Woken, BLM Botanist, personal communication via email, 23 July 2019.

3 Fowler, Don D. Cleaving an Unknown World: The Powell Expeditions and the Scientific Exploration of the Colorado Plateau. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2012.: Advertisement ‘Excursion on Steamboat Comet.’ The Green River Star. May 8, 1908.

4 The Green River Star. February 1957.

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Date published: April 15, 2019
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