White Water Rafting, 1901

Whitewater Rafting at Turn-of-the-Century Colorado  

 

August 1901  

 

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 

whitewater rapids.  

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 

Sorrows. 

 

# # # 

  

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 

came thru. 

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 

return.  

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 

the map. 

“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 

all Indians.” 

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 

Congress.”  

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 

the newspaper. 

‘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 

underground?” 

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 

forbidding gorge.  

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.” 

 

 

 

 

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Comments (1)

  1. jessievera10

    I’ve always wanted to go river rafting in Moab, Utah. I hope one day I can take a family vacation out there to see the beautiful rocks and rivers. I love nature and I want to see as much beauty as I can. http://worldwideriver.com/rivertrips/fishertowers.htm

    September 15, 2014