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Walter Henry Powell 1842-1915

Utah Historical Quarterly

Vol. XV, 1947, Nos. 1-4


Walter Henry Powell, the Major's younger brother, was born in Jackson, Ohio, in 1842. He received most of his education at Illinois Institute (Wheaton College) at Wheaton, Illinois. At the age of sixteen he left the farm and commenced teaching in a district school. He was engaged in this work until the outbreak of hostilities in the Civi 1 War. He enlisted for a short term at Lacon, Illinois, in the home guards. In February, 1862, Walter Powell joined his brother's Battery F, 2nd Regiment, Illinois Light Artillery, and became a Second Lieutenant. He engaged in the battle of Shiloh and in subsequent operations. Walter Powell took part in the campaign of Vicksburg and in 1864 with one section of the battery, fought at Atlanta. In the battle of Atlanta, Captain Powell was captured with most of his men and sent to a Confederate prison. Camp Sorghum, where he suffered terribly from fever and want of food. He escaped from the prison hospital but was recaptured several days later, quite out of his mind, and returned to the hospital. He was exchanged as a prisoner of war on March 1, 1865.

Walter Powell did not recover from his derangement. He had neither the patience nor the dependability to do sustained work. His moody disposition, and occasionally ungovernable temper, rendered him especially unfit for school teaching. Walter Powell proved to be a competent member of Major Powell's expedition to Colorado in 1868, and the following year took part in the exploration of the Colorado River. Walter had a fine bass voice with a great repertoire of popular ballads among which was "Ole Shady," by Handy. Inasmuch as he sang this number often by request, he was dubbed "Old Shady" accordingly. The name does not refer to any dour disposition as some historians have suggested.

Following the 1869 expedition, Walter Powell's mental health gradually deteriorated. He found fitful employment, but was annoyed by severe headaches and long periods of depression. By the early 1870's it was impossible for him to seek sustained employment. He lived for a time with his sister and brotherin-law, Nell (Ellen) and Harry (A.H.) Thompson. It was Mrs. Thompson who made a home for her brother as long as she lived, giving him the most understanding care possible. After her death Walter Powell was admitted to a military hospital in Washington, D. C, where he died March 10, 1915. Aside from a few published letters and family papers, Walter Powell left no records of his experiences.


Letter of W. H. Powell to the Chicago Evening Journal

Colorado River Exploring Expedition, Camp in the Red Canon, Green River, July 3, 1869.

The object of the expedition of which I am a member is well known to the readers of your paper, and anything in regard to it is unnecessary at this time. Our boats having arrived at Green River City, on the Union Pacific Railroad, were launched on the 24th of May and loaded with the freight, consisting of the instruments necessary for the scientific work of the expedition, and provisions, chiefly flour, bacon, coffee and sugar, with such other creature comforts as the nature of the voyage and the capacity of the boats would allow.

We were thoroughly tired of our sojourn at Green River City, which is situated in a desolate region, surrounded by sandy, barren bluffs, and at 1 o'clock in the afternoon of the 24th, we rowed into the stream and were soon out of sight of the town. Dropping down the river ten or twelve miles, we landed and camped in a cottonwood grove, well satisfied with the trial trip of our little fleet of four boats, which were built with all the "logic" displayed in the construction of the "wonderful onehoss shay."

Continuing on our voyage the next morning, we made a distance of seventy-five miles during the 25th and 26th, and on the 27th passed the mouth of Henry's Fork—a small stream flowing into Green River from the west—when the vertical walls of "Flaming Gorge," the entrance to the upper canon of the Green, came in view, but a few miles distant. As we entered the narrow canon the walls of brilliant red sandstone, rising to a height of 1,200 feet, looked threatening and ( ominous. The low, narrow banks between the river and the walls were covered with cottonwood and box-elders.

We remained at this place during the 28th and 29th, engaged in measuring the height of the walls of the canon, collecting fossils, mending broken instruments, etc., and resumed our voyage again on the 30th. Through this canon the river has cut a narrow channel a distance of fifty miles, with often just sufficient room for the water to flow between the walls, leavingno bank of dirt or rock on either side. Sometimes, at irregular intervals, are low, narrow banks of sandy soil, dotted with small groves of cottonwood trees, with an undergrowth of box-elder.Wild grapevines trail on the ground, or festoon the undergrowth of the groves. Flocks of wild geese paddle in the shoal water along the banks or hurry across the rapid current in front of our boats as we pass. The stream is comparatively sluggish for some distance from the entrance, and then rapidly increases in speed 'til it becomes a mountain torrent, with often a succession of rapids and cataracts, where the bed of the river is encumbered with large rocks, that sometimes rise a number of feet above the water.

On the night of the 30th we camped at a bend of the river, which we called "Bee-Hive Point," for the appearance of a cliff, on the left side of the river, rounded to the shape of a dome at the top, and covered with cells carved by the action of the water during some past age, in which hundreds of swallows had built their nests of clay. As the swallows flit about the cliff they look like swarms of bees, and the cliff has the appearance of a colossal bee-hive. Opposite this cliff, and where we camped, is a vast amphitheatre, composed of a succession of terraces, rising to a height of 1,500 feet; each platform or terrace is built of red sandstone, and the space between them is a gentle slope clothed in green verdure, and on which a row of pine trees grow in the arc of a circle and the amphitheatre is painted with alternate bands of green and red. As we near this marvelous work of nature in our little boats, a herd of mountain sheep are seen standing in a line on a terrace two or three hundred feet above the river, and as they remain motionless, watching our approach, they look like statues exquisitely chiseled by some master artist, and we are half surprised to see them suddenly wheel around like a| platoon of well-drilled soldiers, and leaping gracefully to a platform above, file again into line and eye us with suspicionas we land our boats. This animal is much larger than the domestic sheep, and is pursued with the greatest persistency by hunters on account of the fine flavor of the meat, but is less frequently secured than other game, because of the ease and rapidity with which he climbs the highest cliffs and most precipitous peaks, of which he is sovereign and sole inheritor.

Continuing our way from this place on the morning of the 31st, it became necessary to proceed with the greatest caution, as the rapids became more and more dangerous; and the most skilful handling of the oars was required to prevent the boats from being hurled by the water against the rocks that strewed the bed of the river, and dashed to pieces. Finding now only a succession of rapids, many of which we had to let the boats over with ropes, we proceeded in this manner. The light boat, carrying no freight, and manned by two oarsmen and a pilot, the commander of the expedition, took the lead. The pilot closely observing the best course to take to avoid the rocks, ran the boat ashore as soon as possible after running the rapids, and then signaled the direction, with a red flag, to the other boats. After bailing the water from the boats, which were often half filled by the waves and breakers of the rapids, and if the next rapid was thought to be practicable, we rowed into the stream, and the current soon carried us to the next signal station. In this manner 25 or 30 miles were made during the 31st of May and the 1st day of June, and on the afternoon of the latter day we came to a direct fall of twelve or fourteen feet. The current is scarcely perceptible for some distance above the falls, and we ran our boats ashore, without danger, within but a few feet of where the water makes a perpendicular descent, and is beaten into foam on the rocks below. On the morning of the 2nd we unloaded our boats and let them over the falls by tying a rope to either end of a boat, and then fastening one of the ropes to a rock below the falls, held the boat with the other till taken from our hands by the force of the water, but held by the rope below; and by 11 o'clock in the morning the portage was made, and we continued down the stream. The velocity of the current now steadily increased till we attained a rate of almost railroad speed. The river, however, was comparatively free from rocks, and we stopped only to bail the water from the boats. And now, as we looked down the long vista of the narrow canon, while we were sliding down an inclined plane, in fact "coasting," the walls seemed to meet where the river turned 'round a short bend; the water was lost from sight, and the earth had opened, we imagined, to gulp us down. The illusion is dispelled as we round the bend of the river, and dashing through a succession of breakers, we suddenly debouch into a beautiful valley.

W. H. Powell.


Reprinted from the Chicago Evening Journal, July 19, 1869.