Whitewater Rafting at Turn-of-the-Century Colorado
The men heard the explosion when another rock hit the
ground with all the force of a dynamite blast. Assaulted on
all sides by the sound of whitewater, the two explorers
slogged their way onward thru icy rapids. The explosions
let them know whenever another huge rock had slid down the
sheer black wall into the narrow canyon, and missed them.
Resolutely ignoring the nearness of events that could
put an abrupt end to their journey, Torrence and Fellowes
cautiously continued to make their way downstream thru
W. W. Torrence and A. L. Fellowes were determined to
complete this last attempt to survey the narrow gorge in
Colorado known as the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River.
August 1901 had been chosen as the warmest month of
year in which to traverse ice-cold waters by men similarly
experienced in traveling the Gunnison River. But even the
experienced William Torrence could have not have foreseen
what terrible adventure waited for them at the Falls of
# # #
Earlier that same year:
No man before the party of five had made the trip
downstream and survived to tell about it. The Black Canyon
had swallowed them whole. With that kind of history, few
men desired to face unknown rapids in an impassable canyon.
It was only in a heroic effort to wrest control of life-
giving water away from its iron rock-clad bed that a
previous attempt had been made to explore the dark passage.
Their mission was to save Colorado farmers from a
continuing drought in the Uncompahgre Valley. Men of good
business who are in the majority will run the country. As
it is in the United States Congress, so it was in the state
of Colorado. Commercial farmers had once sent out five
brave men to survey the canyon long before Federal funding
William W. Torrence was a member of this unofficial
survey party. He helped port their sturdy wooden boat over
sharp, protruding spires of rocks more than he would have
liked to, wherever the river went underground. Still, the
survey party continued until they reached a point of no
Where the current flowed swiftly into the depths of
the earth, their boat was left high and dry. Where ancient
slides tumbled huge boulders atop each other to block their
passage, they abandoned the survey. Far above them, their
supply team had lost sight of the men and had given the
entire party up for lost.
Townspeople were informed of the intrepid party’s non-
appearance downstream. Mourning families cast wire netting
across the water disgorged at the bottom of the canyon in
order to retrieve their bodies from the raging river.
The party escaped starvation by a hair’s breadth when
five weary men managed to climb out of the canyon and walk
back to town before memorial services were scheduled. But
they returned in defeat, the exploration failed to locate a
tunneling point into the Gunnison River.
Unless a feasible way could be found to tunnel through
the Black Canyon into the Gunnison River, there would be no
water with which to develop the Uncompahgre Valley. Again
and again, the Black Rock Canyon had defeated visionary men
who attempted an exploration of its depths.
Indians completely bypassed the river gorge to settle
in a valley they named Uncompahgre, which name means ‘hot
water springs.’ Nomadic Utes seasonally irrigated crops
long before the coming of gold miners to Colorado in 1859.
Ironically enough, it was the white man’s horse that
gave these Indians the means by which they hunted on the
plains. And tragically, it was the white man’s horse that
ultimately led to their downfall, unwilling to settle down
according to the white man’s property laws.
Gold mines demanded transportation. Precious metal ore
was carried out to refineries. White settlers were brought
in to raise food crops and families. Miners trucked in food
on ox-drawn wagons, wind-driven schooners, or coaches
pulled by teams of horses, mules, or jackasses. But owners
of precious metal mines demanded even more reliable
transport to cities of industry.
Railroads opened up access to the West in the 1860’s.
Farmers emigrated from overworked lands in the East. With
them came a different breed of men with political ambition,
to served miners and farmers alike.
Both Indian and white man claimed United States
Territory land for their own. The President of the United
States of America would soon be forced to make a decision.
# # #
A little Indian history
In the autumn of 1879, the Secretary of the Interior,
Carl Shurz met with Colorado Representative, Mr. Russell.
They stood with Mr. Manypenny and Mr. Meacham in an august
Washington D.C. office of the Department of the Interior,
where they referred from time to time to a large map of
Colorado on a conference table.
The subject under discussion, a subject hotly pursued
by Russell representing irate citizens of Colorado, was the
extent of arable land consigned to nomadic Indians. The
question was, did the Government plan to appease settlers
who lusted after these lands and who would lay claim to it
despite Indian owners who roamed the land at will?
“If they are to have homes at all, they should go upon
lands in Colorado, and mingle with whites where, in time,
business centers will develop. This blending with the
Caucasian race will eventually teach the Indians the vital
lessons of civilization.” Said Manypenny.
“The ultimatum which you seek,” Meacham addressed his
remarks to the State Represenative, “that they accept lands
separate from settled areas, should not be enforced without
the understanding that the Government will preserve them in
their rights adjacent to the Delta. The President has
appointed us to the Commission in order that a plan be made
to domesticate the Ute Indians.”
Carl Shurz said, “The Utes have not outlived this
treaty. We can’t move them without the consent of three-
fourths of the tribe. We will have to make them come talk
with the Government. I have been so authorized, as
Secretary of State, to make an agreement with the Indians.
After all, we don’t want them to become homeless wanderers
in their native land, do we?”
“I tell you that people of Colorado would have them
driven out already. Let them become wanderers, paupers,
vagabonds. They must be removed from the state before more
blood is shed,” replied the Colorado representative.
“According to the Treaty of 1868,” Carl pointed out,
“The Utes say they are willing to accept a move to lands
separate from their present home, provided they be allowed
to go upon a restricted reservation in Colorado.”
Russell merely grunted, then added, “They are already
the most smug of beings living in state in Colorado.”
“Gentlemen.” Carl Shurz nodded to his aide. Manypenny
and Meacham stepped forward to trace proposed boundaries on
“We have determined the bounds of a new reservation,
to include land at the mouth of the Uncompahgre and the
adjacent Grand Valley. The alluvial soil is plentiful
there. The Indians will be able to grow crops. A new agency
building is to be built on an island at the delta where the
Uncompahgre joins the Gunnison.”
Russell shook his head. “The Ute Indians claimed
eleven million acres of arable land in Colorado. Agent
Meeker turned over the soil in one field and he was
murdered. The men were killed, the women taken. By their
own treachery, the Utes have forfeited their rights and
nullified their treaty.”
“Mr. Russell, Mr. Bowman agrees with you, in
principal. But you must understand this Government
appointed a commission because we want to give the Indians
improved conditions to live as men, and to give them a
chance at civilization.”
Russell replied, his voice rising in pitch, “How long
will this Government suffer distress in the attempt to
sustain an impossible policy by promising seclusion to the
Indians against the demands of taxpaying settlers ever
advancing civilization into Colorado? We can not keep these
Indians in cattle, we can not support their laziness and
unemployment forever. Give them a separate land, and let
them support themselves. Indians do not wish to embrace our
civilized way of life any more than Coloradoans wish to
join in their savage fight for survival.”
Manypenny and Meacham glanced at each other, knowing
exactly how white settlers regarded the Indian way of life.
Many a politician sympathetic to the first Americans cursed
the day those horses escaped Cortez’ expedition.
Carl Shurz tried another tact, “What do you have?
Twelve Indian warriors that went on a killing spree? Could
it be possible that the people of Colorado would be so
heartless as to demand an entire tribe of Indians should
suffer for the sins of the few? That they should be
banished from the homes of their fathers, endeared to them
by memories from childhood?”
Russell was not to be dissuaded from his argument. Too
many farmers, too many settlers had elected him for him to
change loyalties in the face of tolerance.
“The Indians perpetrated murder upon innocent and
unarmed men. They took white women, and traded one of them
off to drunken warriors twenty-seven times before she was
rescued. You must get the Indians to agree to exile
themselves, or we citizens of Colorado will be at war with
Carl Shurz nodded to his aide and the man knocked on a
connecting door three times. Two well-known men of the time
appeared, a civilian and an officer in military uniform.
“We were never able to bring out Chief Ouray’s son
from the Sioux Indian Tribe.” Said the Secretary, “General
Adams, Mr. Mears.” Carl Shurz introduced his authorized
agents who had negotiated with the old, wise chief.
“Can you bring these perpetrators out from their
tribe, and deliver them to Washington?”
“Yes, sir.” General Charles Adams quickly replied. “We
have been enabled by their tribal leader, Chief Ouray, to
go in and bring out the warriors who were in the attack on
the agency. The Indians know they are guilty. It is a
matter of tribal justice that they not be given up to a
court in Colorado, rather the old chief demands they be
brought here to Washington.”
“There are twelve young warrior Indians who committed
murder.” Otto Mears said. Mears would serve as guide to the
military man. Mears knew the land better than anyone,
having built roads through passes on which miners conveyed
their riches safely past Indian tribes.
“Ah, well.” General Adams harrumphed. “We believe it
was actually only eleven who are guilty.”
Mr. Russell snorted, “The guilty would go into exile
rather than be sent to prison, if they had the opportunity
to choose between the two.”
Carl Shurz, Secretary of Interior, smiled patiently.
“Then, Gentlemen, I suggest you give them the
opportunity. Bring them to me. Congress has authorized me
to make a new agreement with the Ute Indians. The people of
Colorado, Sir, will just have to be patient until a new
agreement can be reached.”
Mr. Russell did not appear to be happy at this delay.
“The will of the people has been set to naught by this
The Secretary of State looked thoughtful, then said,
“The machinery of Government is slow, but sure to bring
civilization to fruition for the people of Colorado. Bear
with Special Agents Adams and Mears but a little while, and
we shall get an agreement.”
# # #
The free-roving Ute Indians rebelled against the
threat of losing their ponies. They were removed from
Colorado to be confined on reservation lands. Indians and
settlers had viewed their valley as a paradise whereas thru
Captain Gunnison’s eyes could be seen only a desert unfit
for cultivation…inhabitable only by savages in the year of
its discovery, 1853.
Early farmers proved Gunnison to be wrong, but it
became clear to landowners, that without a sure source of
water, the Uncompahgre Valley would soon return to the
desert environment described by Gunnison.
A truism of the west is that where there is water,
people will come. More ditches were constructed. Studies
were commissioned, Engineers confirmed the difference in
elevation between the Uncompahgre and the Gunnison River.
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison River was chosen as
the most likely source of water to allow gravity feed of
irrigation water into the valley and bring the promise of
paradise to fruition.
These visionary men had nothing to lose by sending a
Representative to Congress who pushed thru Federal funding.
Congress rewrote the laws governing western water
rights because, in order to sustain farms in semi-arid
regions such as the American west, nature’s immutable laws
placed farmers in desperate need of water.
In the City of Denver, the Colorado State Capitol,
where the thirteenth General Assembly called a vote for or
against an irrigation engineering study to divert the
Gunnison River water to the Uncompahgre Desert, the
Honorable Meade Hammond vowed to see another study
completed because of the importance in bringing agriculture
to Colorado, for future growth.
“The Gunnison Tunnel and kindred projects are demanded
by the times. The whole Great East is filled to overflowing
with congested populations. Countless acres of fertile land
now lie waiting the application of water to transform vast
barren wastes into gardens, Edenic in their beauty and
productiveness. The restrained thousands in our Eastern
states are eagerly seeking some outlet for their overflow
population; there is no country so inviting as the
homeland, and there is no place in the homeland that offers
such inducements to homemakers as the great, unsettled
west. And what can a great and magnanimous Government do
but say to its loyal subjects, ‘We will bring this water
within your reach.’”
Senator Buckley voted ‘Aye’ but unfortunately would
not live to see its completion. He spent his last days in a
wheelchair in a Colorado Springs Tuberculosis Sanitarium.
Just before Professor Mead lost his arm by falling
under a streetcar, he testified before the Industrial
commission in Washington and was quoted in the Garfield
County June 21, 1901 edition of the Rifle Reveille.
“He said that irrigation is necessary in two-fifths of
the area of the United States to make farming profitable.
To those inclined to consider it a sectional question he
would say that irrigation within the past few years had
redeemed an area in Louisiana and Texas larger than some
New England states, causing an increase in the value of
land from $5 to from %50 to $100 an acre. He said that
irrigation is becoming a necessary adjunct to make
gardening successful along the Atlantic coast. He estimated
that there are not fewer than 75,000 irrigation ditches in
the United States costing a total of less that $200,000,000
and possibly much more. He advocated government aid under
certain restrictions in reclaiming some sections of the
country by Irrigation.”
Mortal men, these Coloradans be, but somehow these
visionary politicians set out to find a knowledgeable
engineer foolhardy enough to descend into the maelstrom of
the Black Canyon. When the name of Professor Fellowes came
up, the man was described as a knowledgeable desk jockey
who buried himself in water-flow data collection.
Although Fellowes knew his stuff, Mead had to admit,
he himself did not think him capable of risking his life
until he heard that Fellowes was able to convince angry
laborers that they must obey his orders. It seemed that
Fellowes could make believers out of true skeptics.
Fellowes’ experience was found to include working for
the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company as an assistant and
Chief Engineer, transferring water from the Dolores River
to the fields around Cortez.
“It’s valuable ten year experience in creating tunnels
and irrigation systems that could be developed in turning
the Uncompahgre into a valley.” One man said.
“He is an engineer and jots down every detail of the
landscape.” Said another.
F. H. Newell, Chief Hydrographer for the United States
Geological Survey (USGS) clinched the recommendation with a
simple statement of fact, “If anyone can talk a sensible
man into throwing himself into unknown churning rapids,
Fellowes is your man.”
Abraham Fellowes was approved in due course and hired
as District Engineer to the Uncompahgre Valley region. His
first assignment from the Capitol Building in Denver read,
‘Find feasible connection point for tunnel from Gunnison
River to Uncompahgre Valley.’
Professor Fellowes filed his data filled record books
in a safe place and bade farewell to his fellow engineers
in Room 10 of the Capitol Building in Denver. Taking his
black bowler from the hat rack, he gladly set off on a
journey to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River.
# # #
Fellowes was able to travel to his new post by rail,
the newly opened Denver and Rio Grande line that was
guaranteed to reach Texas Creek at 4 p.m. each day.
Breathtaking mountain views seen from a roadway
created by blasting out opposing precipitous mountains left
Fellowes awed at the marvels of modern engineering. Rail
travel was comfortably safe, compared to riding the stage.
While it would take him only two days to travel from Denver
to Montrose, Fellowes strongly sympathized with the miners
in many camps who still waited the advent of the railway.
A newspaper account of railway construction gave him
new courage to tackle an unknown river survey. There was no
task too great that it could not be tackled by engineering.
The words presented by the Rifle Reveille in June of 1901
affirmed his opinion of modern engineering.
‘The present route is built with no grade greater that
two and one-half per cent, and is said to be a marvel of
railway construction.’ Fellowes nodded in agreement.
‘It leads near the tops of commanding mountains and
the scenery is equal to any presented from Boreas Hill or
the famed Marshall pass. The valleys along the route are
among the most fertile in the state and it is expected that
shipping will greatly encourage mining development.’
An uncomfortable stage ride carried Fellowes thru to
his office in Montrose, where he rented a horse and wagon
with which to tour the Uncompahgre Valley, an agricultural
mesa protected by snowlined San Jaun Mountains. Fellowes
found 170,000 arable acres lined with irrigation canals.
Fruit orchards displayed their crops, wheat and barley
grew in abundance as far as his eye could see, and still
there was acreage out of reach of water that bore stunted
trees and browned grass. Where there was water, trees were
green and bore fruit. Where irrigation water did not reach,
there was evidence of dusty drought.
Upon his arrival at a dusty, Montrose main street
office, Fellowes first official act was to place an ad in
‘Wanted! Assistant to explore Gunnison River Route for
engineering study. Must be male, temperate and unmarried.
Swimming a must. Interviews will be held one week from this
notice at Government Agency Office in Montrose, Colorado.’
Fellowes’ ad was answered by three men who had been
members of previously failed surveys. Although interviewed,
two of these experienced surveyors refused the job outright
when they heard the conditions of exploration as set forth
by Abraham Fellowes.
W. W. Torrence was an inventive sort of man who spent
his spare time tinkering with electricity. He studied the
emerging technology of taking photographs, and greatly
desired to take more pictures of the Black Canyon.
Fellowes became more hopeful that Torrence would be
the man to accept his method of river transportation as
Torrence related his previous experience with the river.
“J.E. Pelton, J.A. Curtis, M.F. Hovey, E.B. Anderson
and myself set out in two boats with supplies for a thirty-
day trip downstream. The second day in, we lost a boat and
half our supplies. We slept in a cave the first night,
completely exhausted from fighting the current. We did not
even attempt looking beyond the depths of the cave where we
slept. Our clothes were soaked, we were in the water more
than in the boat. We couldn’t hear each other over an
incessant roar of the ice cold water. I took eighty
photographs of the grandeur of the canyon. We found three
different places where there was a natural bridge across
the river, whether from rockslides or natural granite
formations the water had to travel underneath to continue
towards the sea.”
“Hm. I fancy you did not dare go underground with an
unwieldy, wooden boat.” Was Fellowes comment.
“No, sir.” Torrence looked blank for an instant but
quickly recovered. “We did see an opening but the boat was
too large to pass thru.”
Fellowes could not contain his natural curiosity. “Can
you describe it to me? Was the opening big enough that you
or I could be lowered thru it?”
“It might be, but if the rush of water carried us off,
then where would we be?” Torrence eyed the professor, a
little suspicious of his engineering qualifications.
Fellowes eyes gleamed. “Ah, that is the question.
Given that underground water flows downstream, one might
find himself carried by the current downstream to another
opening. The Gunnison River does emerge from the earth
beyond the Black Canyon.”
“So it does.” Torrence admitted.
It was a gleam of determination or, who can say it was
not perhaps an inner glow of his true genius, that lit up
Fellowes' face. He stood up and said, “Tell me, Sir, would
you give any credence to the possibility of swimming
Torrence did not reply, but gazed at the professor
with question marks in his eyes.
Fellowes could not contain his argument. “Since we
must search the river to find a tunneling site, what better
place to look for a site than inside a tunnel?”
Torrence hesitated. He did not dismiss the proposition
because Torrence heard a certain logic in the professor’s
madness. His answer was honest. “Sir, I cannot say what the
outcome would be for an underground swimmer. No one, to my
knowledge, has ever attempted such a course of action.”
Fellowes nodded. Nor did he possess knowledge of such
an attempt to follow an underground passage. What he did
possess was a unique knowledge of rapine geology and the
forces of water velocity. He took his seat, holding his
reference book close to his chest.
“My friend, water carves a deeper bed below grade
whilst the current carves away any sediment that blankets
its flow.” Fellowes shifted his weight in the sturdy desk
chair and noted the slight nod of acknowledgement that
Torrence gave his statement.
Fellowes relaxed. He had made his point. “Please, Sir,
continue with the telling of your journey.”
“We finally reached a place where the canyon walls are
twenty-three hundred feet high, straight up and down and
very narrow. There was no beach. There was no bank. We had
to get into deep, rapid water and it seemed almost as much
as life was worth to get into it. Then we ported boat and
supplies over boulders under which the river disappeared
altogether, only to be confronted by a canyon twenty-three
hundred feet deep, and only twenty-eight feet wide.”
“Would it have been possible to go with the river
underground?” Fellowes asked.
Torrence gazed at him thoughtfully, as if trying to
read the man’s true intention.
“I think there was. But we were too exhausted to
venture a look.”
“Ah.” Fellowes sighed, contentedly. “So, you say you
could not attempt going underground with a wooden boat?”
William Torrence shook his head, “No, of course not.”
He said, staring at Fellowes, putting off his questions
while he recounted his own experience with the river.
“Language cannot describe the terrific force with
which the torrent rushes through this narrow outlet. The
canyon walls are worn just as smooth as glass, a naturally
occurring water sluice. We named the place ‘The Falls of
Sorrow.’ We just left the boat there and headed down a
narrow opening to the side of that impossible place. We had
to climb up a twenty-five hundred foot wall that took us
laterally just 600 feet away from the canyon floor. That
comes out to be a 24 percent grade. It was a stiff climb.
When I got to the top, I heaved a rock over the cliff and
it fell smack into the boat we left at the bottom.”
Fellowes sat still, his finger held in place to mark a
chapter of historical exploration.
“How big of a rock?” He suddenly asked.
“The rock was not heavy enough to explode at the
bottom of the canyon.” Torrence replied. “Boulder-sized
rocks fall into the canyon, and they explode on impact as
if they were dynamited.”
After a moment’s silence in which Fellowes digested
this hint of Torrence’s powers of scientific observation,
he opened his book and placed it on the desk so that
Torrence could read the marked passages.
“Let me tell you the story of Fremont’s exploration.”
He began to relate a story of John C. Fremont’s exploration
of the Platte River. In order to stay waterborne over
rapids, he had four rubber tubes attached end-to-end under
a raft with a cloth floor, and secured with rope.
“This is how Fremont explored the Platte River in
Nebraska. I am convinced that this is the only way we’ll be
able to explore the Gunnison River in Colorado.” He said.
Torrence had a few doubts of Fellowes working theory.
“Fremont successfully ran rapids that would have
smashed a wooden boat to smithereens.” Fellowes argued.
“Have you been to Nebraska and seen the rapids?”
Torrence had not seen the Platte River, but he had
ridden the Gunnison. “Do you think we could more safely run
the rapids if we used a rubber raft?” asked Torrence.
Fellowes bright eyes gleamed with anticipation.
“Sir, I know we will succeed where others have failed.
We will succeed as Fremont succeeded with a rubber raft!”
Torrence needed a few moments to digest the new
engineer’s daring proposition. He knew all too well the
pros and cons to porting heavy wooden boats over falls. He
could still taste the bitterness of defeat from his last
foray into the rapine wilderness of the Black Canyon.
“Are you sure this raft will ride over a waterfall?”
he asked, tempted with success yet not foolhardy
“We’ll use a smaller raft than this one, big enough
for just two men. A smaller raft will be more manageable
than Fremont’s was. I am sure we’ll be able to ride past
anything the Gunnison has to offer.”
“Well, sir,” said Torrence. “If you’re sure that
riding a rubber raft is safer than sticking with the
protection of a solid boat, I might be willing to try it.”
Torrence was the right man for the job, and Fellowes
succeeded in hiring him.
# # #
Fellowes obtained supplies needed for the trip: a
rubber raft on which two men could float downstream and
sleep on at night, rubber bags to hold their Kodaks,
foodstuff, camping gear, knives and engineering tools, two
silk lifelines both 600 feet long. They tied up their gear,
paper for notes and a first aid kit.
It was arranged for two more men to keep watch on
their progress downstream from above the canyon, and to
drop new supplies as necessary. A signaling system was
worked out for two-way communication.
If Fellows and Torrence were to drown in the
exploration attempt, the townsfolk would be notified.
“But how will they know we’ve drowned if our bodies
are caught underground?” Torrence asked.
“We’ll know what’s wrong if we don’t catch sight of
you for two days.” And so it was agreed.
As Fellowes and Torrence angled their way down,
rappelling off the rocky face of the canyon’s Mesozoic
cliff, the professor paid close attention to Torrence’s
instructions. He expounded on the history of the canyon
they planned to explore at each stop where Torrance would
establish another pin on which to hang their lines.
“Captain Gunnison followed this river’s plunging
waters down mountain side through smiling valleys, past
forests of stately spruce and pine, and broad meadows of
waving grass, until he found it swallowed up in a recess so
dark and forbidding that he named it the ‘Black Canyon’ the
yawning depths of which he did not care to explore. He
veered to the left and sought an outlet to the sea through
a less difficult country. He finally left his bones, with
those of his companions, to bleach upon the plains of Utah,
victims to the cruel hate of the savage redskins.”
Even as Torrence eyed the ribbon of water below their
resting point near the top of the gorge, Fellowes continued
lecturing to him on the canyon’s history. Torrence wrestled
ropes around his body and pounded metal stakes into the
rock face while Fellowes kept right on talking.
“This canyon has always been considered inaccessible.
But now the time has come, in the twentieth century, that
science and necessity demand its depths be traced and their
mysteries given to the world.”
Upon lighting at the bottom of the cliff, however,
Torrence was more prepared than the professor was at the
assault of sound on their ears. A ceaseless noise emanated
from violent water as it ran through a deep cut canyon on
its 1,450-mile journey to Mexico. Fellowes soon learned to
speak with his mouth adjacent to Torrence’s ear.
The two men watched their meager supplies lowered down
to where they stood on the banks of a raging river. It did
not take long to secure their supplies to the frail raft.
Floating downstream, Torrence remarked on the beauty
of the stars as they appeared in broad daylight. Fellowes
gave a detailed explanation of nature ofthis phenomena.
“High, shear walls block out the sun at the bottom of
the gorge. If you bother to look up your chimney,” Fellowes
suggested wryly, “You can see stars there, too.”
The sheer beauty of the canyon was merely remarked
upon by W.W. Torrence who rested from his arduous labors as
their small raft floated gently downstream.
The technique of white water rafting came naturally to
W.W. Torrence, well over a century before it became a known
sport. For their first two days journey, Torrence deftly
steered their rubber craft into tongues of water that
beckoned them to fly over rapids and land into the small
eddies beyond protruding rocks. He felt the collisions as
their flexible craft caromed off hard rock surfaces
smoothed by water action over the centuries.
Being a man of few words, Torrence did not compete
with the noise of the canyon to congratulate Fellowes on
his successful choice of craft.
Fellowes took notes, and constantly had Torrence halt
their progress in order to take measurements. They were,
after all, two men on a mission, Fellowes reminded him.
Torrence did not mind. He anchored the raft and kept
their supplies afloat while the professor bent his ear with
more lectures on the Black Canyon’s geology. To his mind,
the professor’s theory of a cave opening sounded logical.
It was almost unsettling to hear Fellowes proclaim
that the canyon gave up mere fractions of an inch from its
solid rock surface to the river’s relentless flow per eons
in time. It was most unsettling to watch Fellowes’ adverse
reaction to the lack of a beach, the lack of footholds
where the canyon narrowed to the point where they could
find no handholds in the glassy, smooth rock wall that
stretched half a mile over their heads.
There was nothing for it but for Fellowes and Torrence
to wade knee deep into an ice-cold current. When occasional
boulderss exploded to bits behind them or in front of them,
each man silently faced the probability that this might be
their last day to come.
Roaring water ripped thru the air, driving sound into
their ears as if from a continual spray of bullets. They
heard only the explosion when the rock hit bottom. With a
silent but knowing glance at each other, Fellowes and
Torrence continued on their journey.
On the third day, they came to the first spot where
the river went underground. They find a rocky opening too
small to let either of them pass through. Just as the first
party of five men had to walk around this area, so did they
have to pack up and port their raft over boulders as big as
houses before the river resurfaced.
Not nearly as tired from this exertion as from his
labors with the wooden boat, Torrence made camp as daylight
faded. They ate dried food that had been kept dry in rubber
bags. Refreshed, Torrence left Fellowes to his notes and
went in solitude to take more pictures.
But on that evening of the third day, Torrence and
Fellowes saw the Gunnison’s water level rise. Scrambling to
collect their gear, Torrence roped it to the raft, where
both men spent an uncomfortable night on the water, in
constant motion as their raft butted up against cold
inanimate rocks under cover of darkness.
The fourth day was spent in rougher white water. They
rafted until the river suddenly plunged through an opening
barely twenty-eight feet wide. The water flow speeded up at
a terrifying rate. The pressure of the water squeezed into
tighter confines sent forth a roar not unlike artillery
fired in a full-scale war.
Fellowes and Torrence found themselves pulled sharply
between two pillars in the river gorge. They had come to a
place where the river flow was obstructed by huge boulders,
but forces of nature had carved out a new bed beneath the
rocks, so that the scene resembled two pillars standing
guard over a mighty cataract.
Was there room to breathe once their craft fell below
the surface of the earth? Would they survive the fall?
What thoughts ran through the minds of Fellowes and
Torrence as their raft crested the wave before descending
into the depths of the earth, we can only imagine.
There could be no doubt in their minds at this point,
both men knew they had to ride it out. Boulders blocked the
river above ground, too large to climb over, and canyon
walls rose up over two thousand feet. There was no other
way out. Neither man harbored hopes of returning upstream.
The die was cast. Their raft dove underground. The
thrill of diving underwater ride left Torrence weak with
fear, but downstream, a light could be seen. He dared not
speak of hope for deliverance from the depths of darkness.
Then he realized that the light originated from an opening
far below them, and terror, not a nameless terror of the
unknown, but an all too familiar terror at the prospect of
sudden death crept back over him.
“Hold on! We’ll be thrown out at this speed!”
Fellowes said nothing. He knew the end was near and
death sped toward them as they cascaded down toward the
light. No amount of planning could have prevented this
fall. His fists clenched tightly to the ropes as their raft
plunged down the underground waterfall.
Torrence wrapped his hands about his paddle, hoping
their craft would remain stable during the wild, heart-
stopping ride. He felt his knuckles go white with the
effort to hang on, but he had no chance to paddle.
Their small craft was spewed from the darkness of the
cave back into the stark Colorado sunlight, spinning in
white water rapids. The raft hit a rock straight on, and
the two men were thrown clear against a rocky ledge.
Torrence, dazed from their hard landing, watched as
Fellowes’ remarkable rubber craft caromed off rocks that
would have smashed a wooden boat to smithereens. Torrence,
his spirits flagging, watched the raft disappear into the
spray with all their supplies, and with all their food.
“You were right, Professor.” He said. “See how
flexible your raft really is. Water carries it away and
nothing stops it’s progress. Look, you can see how it
bounces off rocks and keeps right on going.”
For once, Professor Fellowes had nothing to say. He
too, was badly shaken at their predicament. Indeed, the man
of science felt his confidence so shaken that he prayed for
divine intervention in this, their present predicament.
# # #
The two men at the top of the gorge watched and waited
to catch sight of Fellowes and Torrence downstream from the
Falls of Sorrow. Uncomfortable at finding a necessity for
action since their last sighting of the two explorers,
nevertheless they returned with the news that the explorers
had been taken by the gorge.
The townsfolk promptly dispatched these messengers to
the lower end of the canyon to set up camp and span the
river so bodies could be retrieved as well as supplies.
Fellowes and Torrence, unable to see past the roaring
spray of the falls, were unaware they had been so easily
given up for dead. Emerging from the shadows of the cave on
the morning of the fifth day, the two men found themselves
at a point of no possible return.
Behind them, roiled a steep waterfall impossible to
climb, before them lay a waterfall of unknown proportions.
To leap into the unknown, to throw themselves physically
off a cliff was to be their only means of escape from this
Through a narrow opening, green tops of trees could be
seen, but neither man can come up with an estimate as to
the height of those trees. And neither can they guess at
the height of the falls, or at how far their bodies must
fall before they would hit bottom.
The day wore on as they wasted precious daylight
hours, each man in turn trying to slip thru by hugging the
wall, and each man in turn beaten back against the rocks so
hard that his strength waned. Both men found a need to rest
before they could make another futile attempt to pass.
At their darkest hour came a moment of truth. Torrence
and Fellowes decided to take a giant leap forward into the
heart of the maelstrom. This time, Fellowes rested on his
experience with a current’s flow. He would make the first
leap. Fellowes closed his eyes and moved his lips.
Torrence did not stand close enough to hear his words.
He felt that he too, should be brave and step closer to the
edge, but he hesitated. Torrence did not, could not share
the confidence in the raging water’s flow as did that man
of science, Professor A.L. Fellowes.
Torrence tried to read the man’s lips to no avail. He
never knew for sure when Fellowes turned to speak to him if
his parting words contained one last lecture, or if asking
Torrence for forgiveness in foregoing a wooden boat was an
effort for Fellowes to make his peace with God.
Nevertheless,Torrence was touched at the fear he saw
in the man’s eyes. He waved a hand in encouragement.
“Goodbye!” he shouted, but knew the professor could
not have heard his farewell. He watched Fellowes throw
himself off the cliff, his body buffeted by the cascading
water, his feet hurled helter skelter and out of sight.
Torrence found himself alone, staring blindly at the
spot where the professor’s booted ankle had disappeared
from view. In his heart, Torrence never really expected to
see Fellowes alive again.
Torrence prayed. It took two hours for him to make his
peace with God. Then lunging forward from the safety of
his rock, he let go and threw himself into thin air.
Falling through a thickening spray, he too, felt his
torso hammered down into the water but just managed to keep
control of his limbs so that he remained in a swimmer’s
position for a dive, his hands pushing off from the jagged
rockbed which might have smashed his skull to smithereens.
Torrence surfaced in a matter of minutes. Looking
about him, he caught sight of the professor’s body, bruised
and beaten, but resting against a wide boulder. Forcibly
ejected from a point of not return, yet they had survived.
Torrence breathed a silent prayer of gratitude and
then dragged Fellowes body to the lip of a shear black wall
that rose almost straight up over their heads, towering
above them at three thousand feet.
Torrence had no way to make a fire, the two men had no
food to eat. Night fell, and they spent the darkest hours
before dawn shivering uncontrollably against the cold. If
either man hoped for rescue, they kept such thoughts to
themselves. Then came the dawn on the seventh day.
Daybreak found Torrence and Fellowes huddled, dejected
on their tiny, rocky terrace. The sun rose higher as the
shadows grew shorter. They soon baked under a glowing sun.
As the sun stood directly overhead, Torrnece saw white
water came swirling about his feet. He realized the canyon
was again flooding.
“Get up!” He shouted at Fellowes.
The professor’s head sagged against his chest.
Torrence slapped him.
“What in the hell did you do that for?” Fellowes eyes
flashed in anger. He struggled to his feet.
“Flood!” Torrence pointed to his feet.
Fellowes did not need further instruction. He was
familiar with the ebb and flow of rivers all over Colorado.
Finding new strength as turbid water lapped angrily at
their boots, Fellowes and Torrence reached for previously
invisible footholds and finger holds heretofore undetected
by man or beast.
They climbed with hearts pounding, and stopped only to
listen for possible rock-slides, sounds hard to detect over
the noise of their own rumbling hunger pangs.
Exhausted, sweating, they finally were able to take
refuge on a ledge about twenty feet above the muddy waters.
Relentless as ever, the sun bore down on them until it
crossed the narrow gorge and slid down beyond the other
side of the canyon.
Fellowes became painfully aware that his foot was
sprained. He took off a neckerchief and bound it tightly
about his swollen ankle.
Torrence knew from experience that they now looked
starvation in the face. Despairing, he took stock of what
few materials were left. They had very little.
Fellowes carried in his pocket his engineering calcs.
Torrence carried his photographic plates, notebooks,
pencils and a single hunting knife.
Resting, Fellowes and Torrence sat for a long time on
the ledge without words, although they were at a height
that might have allowed conversation above the noise of
water. Neither man could find words to fit the occasion.
When their silence was broken, it was as loud a sound
as an angel’s trumpet. A piteous bleat broke through their
sad reveries. The strange sound emitted from a wounded
mountain sheep. The animal’s voice miraculously called to
them as it peered over the lip of a ledge above them.
Fellowes stared in horror as he watched Torrence place
the knife between his teeth.
“Take care!” He instructed, too weak to offer help.
Torrence climbed up to where he saw not one, but two
shy mountain sheep hidden in the rocks. The female, a young
healthy animal took immediate flight. The older male, lame
in one leg, did not look round, but with head lowered, made
straight for an opening between the rocks.
No athlete could have run faster than did that
survivor of a failed exploration, survivor of plunging
maelstroms and waterfall dives that defied the laws of
gravity, none other that that starving explorer, Torrence.
Just as the animal plunged between rocks, Torrence
headed him off. In trying blindly to escape man, the animal
fairly leaped into the man’s arms. Though he struggled with
all the desperation of a wild animal, the sheep fell prey
to natural laws that ensure survival of the fittest.
Torrence proved himself to be a survivor. He somehow
managed to stab the hapless animal to death in the only
known instance of man capturing a mountain sheep with no
more than his bare hands.
Torrence and Fellowes both consumed what they could of
the meat. Sustenance gave them the strength to leave the
ledge and climb to higher ground. They were grateful to
leave the dangers of the river gorge, and the remains of a
sacrificial lamb behind them.
Limping towards town, Fellowes and Torrence
walked into the camp where their watchmen had
collected their runaway raft and now waited
patiently for their missing corpses. Relieved that both
Fellowes and Torrence had survived the arduous journey, the
men revived their spirits with hot food and fresh coffee. A
picture was taken of the two survivors by which that moment
in time could be commemorated.
The whole trip took them ten days. Back in his office,
Fellowes composed a second telegram that read simply,
‘Gunnison tunnel feasible; have located route.’
The Honorable John C. Bell passed a Resolution of
Congress in October of 1901 to bring in Engineers to
complete a construction study. Engineers from the Army
Corps of Engineers arrived in Montrose, Colorado with the
added Congressional requirement for endorsement of the
project by residents of Uncompahgre Valley.
The endorsement was unanimous. A contract was written
to bore tunnel sites from three points, the east portal,
the west portal and straight down, digging through rocks
and tons of dirt.
Come October 5, 1904, bids were opened for the
project. Giant earthmoving equipment promptly moved in to
lay out a small town, with dirt roads, a government store
and a schoolhouse for children of the project workers to be
housed in typically rudimentary one-room shanties.
In December of 1904, Fellowes resigned his post. He
found no reason to remain in Montrose. After their life and
death struggle to survive the wild gorge, Fellowes found it
difficult to maintain a lasting friendship with Torrence.
Torrence still found time to give Fellows a lift to
the station, and to this offer Fellowes reluctantly agreed.
Lessons of survival come hard to men of western
civilization. Fellowes only comment when he saw Torrence
approach him wearing goggles and duster and gloves was: “I
guess if a motor car is good enough for Teddy Rossevelt, I
can trust my life to your driving contraption.”
Torrence replied, “It is no more dangerous to ride in
a motorized vehicle than it was to ride thru whitewater
rapids on a rubber raft. Our time will not be wasted.”
Fellowes made no apology, nor did Torrence ask for
one. No apology was needed. The short time they had spent
together had brought new life to a thirsty Colorado.
The two men bade each other a final farewell. Fellowes
waved goodbye at the lone figure of Torrence who stood
framed against a rising cloud of dusty construction blasts
as could be seen thru the window of his motorized coach.
Both Fellowes and Torrence would live to see more days
to come. Each man felt blessed at how his days were spent.
W. McConnell soon arrived to guide the six-mile, five-
million-dollar project and five-year government contract to
completion. President William Howard Taft dedicated the
Gunnison Tunnel in the year 1909. The Uncompahgre Valley
bloomed from that day to this in a patchwork of farms and a
profusion of modern day cities.
# # #
Almost a century later, a National Park Service
employee leads a bevy of V.I.P.’s into the Visitor’s Center
at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River. The small group
is made up of Civil Service people as well as Government
engineers from the Department of the Interior and the
Bureau of Land Reclamation.
Gail Norton, the presidential appointee, carries the
central authority within the group, having the last word on
what questions will be asked. Others defer to her any
remarks concerning a proposed plan to siphon water away
from the Black Canyon in order to quench thirsty populated
areas within the state of Colorado.
Gail Norton has agreed with Colorado landowners that
water from the Gunnison River must be used upstream.
The National Park Service Specialist pauses at a wall
lined with old-fashioned, sepia-toned photographs that have
been reproduced as wall hangings. He points to a photograph
of W.W. Torrence and Abraham Lincoln Fellowes taken not
long after the two men miraculously emerged alive from
their wild ride thru Black Canyon whitewater in 1901.
“The story of Torrence and Fellowes is an entertaining
tale of high adventure, but Colorado’s quest for irrigation
is driven by people who own the land. Times change. Still
today, just as back then, it is the people of Colorado who
must ultimately decide how their most precious resources
are to be spent.”