GC VILLAGE — In a lesser-known building off the beaten path of tourists and tucked away near the National Park Service’s maintenance yard, sits a structure with some of the most important artifacts in the history of the Grand Canyon.
Colleen Hyde of the Grand Canyon National Park’s Museum Collection staff holds up a piece of the "Nellie Powell," a boat used on John Wesley Powell’s 1871 expedition that was abandoned at Lee’s Ferry.
One of the most popular subjects in books and articles over the years has been the 1869 and 1871 journeys by John Wesley Powell. Actual artifacts from the Powell journeys are rare, although replicas of his boats can be seen in places like Page and Tusayan.
The museum collection, operated under Grand Canyon National Park’s science center division, does possess a few authentic Powell artifacts. One of the most precious is the original diary kept by Walter Clement Powell, who accompanied his uncle on the 1871 journey.
"It’s quite valuable to us," the museum collection’s Colleen Hyde said about the diary. "It may not be valuable dollar-wise, but it is to us."
Through the pages is an account of the 1871 trip down the Colorado River, which would produce a map and scientific publications on the Grand Canyon.
Another valuable Powell artifact in the collection is a piece of one of the boats used on the 1871 expedition. Part of the "Nellie Powell" was discovered in the 1960s at Lee’s Ferry.
"It was field collected along the river during a fire," Hyde said. "There was also a log with his inscription."
The fire was being managed to take care of a pine beetle problem. Luckily, part of the boat and the log were discovered and are now housed in the museum collection’s temperature and humidity controlled facility.
"They walk in with wonderful things," Hyde said about the field collections. "It doesn’t have to be 50 years or older to be historic. We actively collect. In all, we have a collection of 310,000 artifacts."
In February 1948, the park received a nice gift from the Powell family — an old Elgin watch that the major carried on both of his Grand Canyon journeys. It was donated to the park by Fanny Davis, who was a niece to Powell.
"When Major Powell carried it on his trips through the Canyon, it had a silver hunting case," Davis said in a letter to the park superintendent in 1948. "This was replaced later by the case it now has, and the D engraved on the back is the main proof that it was in the hands of a Davis when the change was made."
The watch is now encased in gold. It is believed that Powell gave the watch to Charles Davis, a nephew. Powell had no sons of his own. Later, Kary C. Davis acquired the watch and it remained in a safety box for 27 years until it was donated to the park.
The museum collection also has several photos from the Powell expeditions. Powell had working photographers among his staff on both trips.
Within the walls of the museum collection, the oldest of the 310,000 artifacts dates back 12,000 years. The facility is not open to the public. But the vast collection is used by a variety of researchers.
"Last year, we probably had somewhere around 400 researchers," said Hyde, who receives requests in person, by phone, letter or e-mail. "We loaned out about 2,000 photographs."
Items are catalogued under six categories — paleontology (fossils), geology, biology, historical, archaeological and ethnographic (modern).
The oldest artifact in the facility’s possession is a 12,000-year-old Folsum preform, or stoneline arrowheads. There are also split-twin figurines which date back 3,000 to 5,000 years.
Hyde said that if researchers call ahead (638-7769), arrangements can be made for access to the collection.
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