A century after it was built, the secluded resort below the rim is still an architectural marvel
Zachary Petit – Smithsonian – 19 Aug 2022
“A labyrinth of trails branches miles and miles out from the bustling, tourist-packed South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
The hike down the South Kaibab Trail is intense: seven-and-a-half miles of sunbaked switchbacks and thousands of feet of elevation change, past endless prickly pear and alien blooms of agave. After five hours of descent, calves wobbling and fortitude waning, you cross a foot bridge spanning the Colorado River and round a final corner, and there it is, against all odds: Phantom Ranch.
Currently celebrating its centennial, Grand Canyon’s Phantom Ranch is considered one of the world’s most exclusive accommodations, requiring a win in a lottery system more than a year in advance to nab a reservation. Accessible only by foot, mule or raft, it is secluded, and, like the canyon that cradles it, it’s a place frozen in time. Cell phones don’t work. There is no internet. Instead, people sit around and swap tales over stew from the canteen while mule deer graze mere feet away. Once the day hikers depart, you’re left in solitude, silence and perpetual stars, a feeling that is at once jarring and wondrous.
Designed to channel a dude ranch, the site consists of a handful of cabins and dorms situated around a canteen that’s home to the ranch’s kitchen and dining hall. But in those modest buildings is an aesthetic that would help define the look of nearly all the historic buildings at the park, from the Bright Angel Lodge to the Desert View Watchtower and beyond—and others around the country dating to the National Park system’s formative years.
Even today, Phantom Ranch, nearly one vertical mile below the canyon’s rim, is a marvel—a fact that only underscores its improbable construction a century ago.
Which raises the question: Why was it built here in the first place?
Bringing tourists to the Grand Canyon.
The Grand Canyon, a place that appears devoid of human life from the rim, has long brimmed with it. The Ancestral Puebloan, Cohonina, Havasupai, Zuni, Navajo and other Native American tribes traversed the inner canyon for thousands of years before European explorers arrived. Beginning in the late 1800s, a wave of prospectors began descending into the canyon in search of copper, asbestos and other ore.
“These places were all open for exploitation,” says former Kaibab National Forest historian Teri Cleeland, who has richly documented the significance of Phantom Ranch and the surrounding canyon corridor, while making a case for its preservation. “That was the default—go homestead it, go put a mining claim on it.”
As Cleeland has noted, explorer Joseph Christmas Ives declared the area “a profitless locality” in 1861. After investing time and effort into developing mining sites, the return was, in most cases, pretty dismal.
Tourism, however, was a much easier way to turn a profit. The railroad arrived at the Grand Canyon in 1901, and entrepreneurs charged curious visitors a $1 toll to explore the inner canyon on privately owned trails that had been used for mining not long before. Meanwhile, Ellsworth and Emery Kolb—photographers whose work is a hallmark of the canyon’s early days—captured images of these tourists on mules, developing the photos in a mineshaft nearby to sell to them on their return. In 1907, deeper in the canyon, the enterprising David Rust set up a tent camp near a crossing of the Colorado River—laying the foundation for Phantom Ranch as we know it today.
Rust planted cottonwood trees and other flora, and in the absence of any bridges spanning the Colorado, ferried tourists and their (likely terrified) mules from one side to the other with a gravity- and crank-driven cable car, a precarious cage that dangled 60 feet above the river. National Park Service documents quote one early rider who described the experience as like “being the clapper in a bell” on a windy day.
Theodore Roosevelt, who delighted in riding it multiple times, was a fan of the cable car. Rust’s development was later renamed “Roosevelt Camp” in honor of the president—and after the Grand Canyon became a national park in 1919, plans began to take shape to offer the first (and to this day, only) inner-canyon hotel for tourists trekking to the bottom.
The first order of business was building a critical piece of infrastructure: a bridge to bring tourists and building supplies from the South Rim to the property’s site just across the river. According to the journal Construction History, an excess of 40 tons of materials for the bridge were ferried in on daily mule trains. The most difficult task came when it was time to haul the 1,000-pound, 550-foot-long cables down; through a carefully choreographed distribution of man and mule, “the whole procession slowly moved down the perilous and torturous trail.” At one point during construction, three “unruly” horses hauling more than 150 pounds of TNT slipped over a cliff.
Completed in 1921, the wooden bridge was only marginally better than the cable car. Prone to flipping in high winds, the structure could only support a single mule at a time. According to the National Park Service, the bridge moved with such force in the wind that it made those mules seasick. But, despite its flaws, it linked the North and South Rim at the Colorado River, establishing a firm route to the planned development that was being dubbed “Roosevelt Chalet.”
An architect named Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter would have other plans for the name.
“Colter was, I think, quite an enigmatic person,” says Robert W. Audretsch, author of Grand Canyon’s Phantom Ranch.
The chain-smoking, Pittsburgh-born designer and architect had developed an interest in Native American art at a young age. A lone female in a male-dominated field, especially at the turn of the century, Colter began working for the Fred Harvey Company, a key Grand Canyon development concessionaire, in 1902. Lore and legend tend to play a role in most discussions about Colter, and definitive facts about her personal life can be fleeting. What experts agree on is that her work was her life, and she was wholly invested in it.
As Virginia L. Grattan notes in her biography Mary Colter: Builder Upon the Red Earth, at the time when Colter began her professional career, American architecture was still heavily influenced by European trends. “Foreign style superimposed on the American landscape,” she writes. The National Park Service, meanwhile, had decreed that park developments should be in harmony with the surrounding landscape. And that was something Colter wholly excelled at.
“Her approach was to infuse the landscape and geology of the Southwest, and its cultural history, into the exteriors, interiors and settings of her buildings,” says Arnold Berke, author of Mary Colter: Architect of the Southwest. “The results were cleverly comprehensive, A-to-Z bundles of expression designed to delight—and inform—travelers.”
After initially working as an interior designer for the Fred Harvey Company, Colter soon ascended to the position of architect, and began her work at the Grand Canyon with the Hopi House in 1905. She followed it with Hermit’s Rest and Lookout Studio in 1914. When the idea for a tourist hotel at the bottom of the canyon began percolating, Colter would have likely been an ideal contender to continue building out the park’s architectural language.
No known record exists of when Colter first visited the site that would become Phantom Ranch. “There are no drawings of any kind of Phantom Ranch that I’ve ever seen,” Cleeland says. Berke concurs, speculating that Colter might have figured the project just wasn’t going to be feasible at the outset given the remoteness of the location.
“But she was so driven and so imaginative,” he says. “I think at a certain point, she and her colleagues all agreed, well, we can do this. And this will be something new, because it’ll be the first time we get people down into the canyon.”
Per Colter’s approach to design, the site dictated the materials: rocks and boulders from the area were gathered and used in the creation of the buildings. Everything else—quite literally, from doors to windows and everything in between—had to be hauled down by mule. Cleeland says nothing could be longer than the length of a mule because of the trail’s tight turns and switchbacks. She adds that upon close inspection of the Phantom Ranch buildings, one can identify where rafters and beams were spliced together.
“The remoteness of [this project] necessitated an attention to material and resource efficiency that anticipated today’s sustainable approach to materials in design and construction,” Construction History notes.
Colter was a perfectionist, famously exacting, confident and tough. “She picked every color and design used on the inside and outside of the structure,” Audretsch writes “She even stood over individual workmen, picking out specific materials and directing their exact position.”
While primary documents about the original build are elusive, Phantom Ranch officially opened on November 9, 1922, with a lodge with a dining hall, and four distinct Craftsman bungalow cabins. It was built at a cost of $20,000.
Thanks to the organic nature of the build, the structures appeared to be born of their environment, rather than created by a designer working intently behind the scenes.
“It takes a lot of art to do something that looks artless,” Berke says. “And that’s Colter.”
Eight cabins, a rec hall, a shower house and more would be added later in the ’20s, completing a loop of buildings anchored by the canteen. From the outset, the ranch was a perfect embodiment of the “Park Rustic” style that Colter played a key role in pioneering and that would become the dominant look of National Park architecture from 1916 to 1942. As the National Park Service breaks it down, “Infused with native materials, natural whole logs, and built by hand (or meant to look as if it was), ‘Parkitecture’ defines the National Park Service experience in the collective memories of visitors just as much as our natural landscapes.” Popular examples include the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone, and Colter’s other buildings at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
As for how “Phantom” Ranch got its name—well, that’s another mystery. Newspapers told tales of apparitions and haunts at the site. Most sources today agree that Colter was unsatisfied with the perhaps banal “Roosevelt’s Chalet,” and wanted something with a bit more mystique.
Berke says the nearby Phantom Canyon—a slot canyon that could be difficult to find depending on the time of year and the time of day—no doubt inspired the name Phantom Ranch.
The opening of Phantom Ranch
On December 10, 1922, The Arizona Republican headlined an article, “Americans Find Finer Scenery Right at Home Than in Europe,” detailing how the Grand Canyon’s annual visitorship had rocketed to 84,700—and touting the new tourist facility below the rim, Phantom Ranch. That figure would rise to 134,053 by 1925, and more than double by 1929.
Meanwhile, a travel agency’s ad from 1923 detailed a destination “miles wide and colored like a sunset … where you can enjoy an unordinary out-west outing a few days or weeks,” again citing the ranch.
“The specific goal was to lure tourists,” Berke says. “Colter did it. She did it brilliantly.”
Given the small number of available cabins, Phantom Ranch represented the most exclusive and exotic of getaways. In 1926, Swedish Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf and Princess Louise rode through Phantom Ranch on mules named Bob and Flo. In 1939, the Los Angeles Times noted that “the scenic beauties of Grand Canyon were a poor second in guest interest” when film idol Tyrone Power and his bride, French actress Annabella, visited. Guides drew straws to determine who would shepard them down to Phantom Ranch. Actress and writer Signe Hassodropped by in 1941. Prince Albert of Belgium followed in 1955. Barry Goldwater and Robert Kennedy arrived via river raft trips in 1965 and 1967—though the former had to be rescued by helicopter when his group encountered impassable rapids.
Shortly after Phantom Ranch opened, the new South Kaibab Trail was blasted and jackhammered in to create a shorter, safer approach to the ranch and the Colorado River than was currently available. The wooden suspension bridge was replaced with a better bridge in 1928 that stands to this day, thanks to the group of 42 primarily Havasupai workers who carried the 550-foot cables down on their shoulders. Construction took place at night to avoid the searing inner-canyon summer temperatures.
Over the next few years, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) completed Phantom Ranch and the surrounding area as we know it today, with the help of a mule train that averaged 200 pounds of freight per animal, hauling 30,000 pounds of supplies every week, according to Audretsch’s research. CCC enrollees built trails, hanging precariously from ropes with jackhammers suspended on lines next to them; they landscaped the area, planting nascent trees that now offer shade; they created the transcanyon telephone line, drilling and pounding iron pipe into rock; they even constructed the storied swimming pool at Phantom Ranch, now closed and filled in.
As Audretsch also documents, in a time of segregation at the rim, Black and white men worked alongside each other, doing the same tasks at the canyon floor. And miraculously, in the midst of intensely dangerous work in such a remote location, not a single person died—even blasting in the River Trailleading to Phantom Ranch, which the foreman assumed would be named after the first person killed in the endeavor.
When the CCC left in 1937, the remarkable feat of a decade-and-a-half of inner-canyon development came to a close—in many ways, sealing Phantom Ranch in time like a bug in amber.
The cabins now have air conditioning units, and infrastructure updates and improvements happen from time to time—including the massive transcanyon water pipeline initiative that is primed to pass through Phantom Ranch, pausing reservations as the National Park Service replaces the nearly 60-year-old waterlines that break numerous times each year, disrupting service to the tourist-heavy South Rim.
But by and large, one gets the impression that not all that much has changed over the decades.
“About the last thing a visitor to the Grand Canyon would expect to find at the bottom of this mile-deep chasm would be a farm—yet that is what has been established there to greet the wayfarer at the end of his thrilling descent,” wrote The Arizona Republican on June 21, 1922. “The Ranch is a veritable pastoral gem set in a wilderness of vividly colored and gigantic cliffs and rocky slopes.”
The same could be said today.