“Captain” John Hance was reputedly the Canyon’s first non-Native American resident. He built a cabin east of Grandview Point at the trailhead of an ancient Native American trail he improved to allow access to his asbestos mining claim in the Canyon. He started giving tours of the canyon after his attempts at mining asbestos failed, largely due to the expense of removing the asbestos from the canyon.
The trail, completed in 1884 and commonly called the Old Hance Trail by historians, was to become Grand Canyon’s first tourist trail, as Hance quickly realized there was money to be made guiding wide-eyed tourists into the depths of the Canyon.
I love this. This is what makes America great. Hance abandoned mining for tourism in the mid-1880s. To me that’s just a man seeing a way to make money, supplying a product others want, a product that is born out of his life and his skill and his hard work.
Hance delighted in telling canyon stories to visitors, favoring the whopper of a tale over mere facts. With a straight face, Hance told travelers how he had dug the canyon himself, piling the excavated earth down near Flagstaff (a dirt pile now known as the San Francisco Peaks).
I exchanged emails with a man who works at Grand Canyon National Park and does re-enactments of John Hance’s tall tales. I asked him if any of those tales were written down and he directed me to one recording of a tale similar to one John Hance told. But Hance never told the same story, the same way, twice and he never wrote any of them down, so only oral history survives. Despite his many outrageous claims, Hance left a lasting legacy at the Grand Canyon, passing away in 1919, the year the Grand Canyon became a National Park. Hance was the first person buried in what would become the Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery.
The trail John Hance found still exists. It’s listed as unmaintained and in poor condition. A Falcon Guidebook, Hiking Grand Canyon National Park, calls it a vigorous rim-to-rim backpack of three or more days—the South Rim’s most difficult trail. One man, an experience back country hiker said that even having been over the trail before, the time he took the trail with it in mind to report on it, he got lost five different times-by lost I mean he realized he’d gotten off the trail and had to backtrack to find it. There are miles with no discernable trail. I also, just because research is maddening, found this account of the Hance Trail.
The New Hance descends into Red Canyon (a side canyon of the Grand) and arrives at Hance Rapids on the Colorado River. Although the New Hance is a secondary trail, it is well marked and easy to follow. Note that this is really different than the other report. So what is the truth? Ah, research! Such fun.
One picture I found showed people rock climbing down a stretch of rock face, so that seems pretty challenging to me but when you think back to those days, it was probably a wonder to even find a way down. No state roads department was in there clearing it and paving it.
So, has anyone been there? Have any of you gone down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon? Anyone spent the night at Phantom Ranch or taken the burro ride? If so, you have my deepest respect because this is a truly rugged place.
Tell me about it if you were down there.