Exhibit depicts drama, hardship of 1869 Powell river expedition

By Nathaniel Smith • The Times-Independent

To commemorate the 150th anniversary of John Wesley Powell’s historic expedition down the Green and Colorado rivers, the Moab Information Center has installed a new display with paintings depicting the tumultuous journey.

On May 24, 1869, Powell and nine other men departed from Green River Station in present-day Wyoming on a journey that would make history. The crew of adventure-seeking volunteers included hardened war veterans, a mountain man, a fur trapper, a newspaper editor and a teenage muleskinner.

Despite the considerable amount of wilderness survival knowledge among them, none of the men had any experience navigating the whitewater of the West’s mighty rivers. They took their four wooden boats loaded with 10 months’ worth of rations donated by the U.S. Army, an assortment of scientific instruments, as well as guns and ammunition, and set out into the great unknown.

For approximately three months, Powell, the one-armed Civil War veteran, and his crew braved the dangers of the untamed Green and Colorado rivers. They were the first white men to complete a voyage through the entirety of the Grand Canyon, and Powell’s poetic recounting of the geology and imposing rapids they encountered helped turn the canyon into a national icon.

Boats were smashed upon rocks, supplies were lost, some men nearly drowned and several departed before the journey was over, but Powell managed to keep the expedition together. On Aug. 30, Powell and his five remaining crewmembers reached the Mormon settlement of St. Thomas near the mouth of the Virgin River. It was there they brought the remarkable journey to a close.

The expedition resulted in the first detailed descriptions of the Colorado Plateau’s canyon country and the names given to many places still hold today. Though the struggle for survival limited the scientific value of the trip, Powell’s adventure opened the doors for further cartographic work, anthropological studies and other scientific research.

In celebration of the anniversary of one of the last major voyages of exploration in United States history, Frank Lister, with Time Traveler Maps, commissioned artist Glen Hopkinson to paint seven vignettes depicting scenes described in journal entries from the 1869 expedition. Those seven paintings are now on display at the Moab Information Center in conjunction with a map that traces the entire length of the nearly 1,000-mile journey and points out notable events that occurred along the way.

The exhibit states Hopkinson is “renowned as one of the most important painters of history in the West.” His artwork is displayed in permanent collections in both the Montana and Wyoming Historical Society museums and the Whitney Museum of Western Art. Hopkinson is known for the mix of realism and impressionism he uses to depict Western landscapes and visually tell the stories of tall tales and true histories.

Those interested in seeing a striking portrayal of the expedition’s drama or reading more about Powell and the journey should visit the Moab Information Center. The special exhibit will be on display through next October.