Living at the Edge of the World
February 25, 2012
The Scene: The Grand Canyon
The Setting: The Tovar Hotel
It sits perched on the edge of a canyon that conservationist John Muir called “God’s Spectacle.”
And maybe it is.
Naturalist John Burroughs described it as the “divine abyss.”
Maybe both were right.
They were in awe of a massive hole in the ground that would become known as the Grand Canyon, so far removed from any traces or hints of civilization, carved for eons by the sometimes gentle and sometimes wild, churning waters of the Colorado River.
Prospectors thought they might find gold upon or within the South Rim.
Miners dug for copper.
Both finally realized that a man’s fortunes did not lie in the ground but with the dollars left behind by those who dared journey great distances to gaze upon a spectacle so divine. Mining was dangerous. A man could get himself killed that way. Catering to weary bands of wide-eyed travelers was the gentleman’s way to get rich.
By September of 1901, the first passenger train came lumbering across a hard, magical land to the South Rim. And only four years later, those passengers stepped down from their cars after a rough ride up the spur line from Williams and found luxury accommodations at El Tovar, a hotel reputed to be as grand as the canyon.
President Theodore Roosevelt stood on the rim, gazed across the great chasm of the high desert, and said: “In the Grand Canyon, Arizona has a natural wonder which, so far as I know, is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world. I want to ask you to do one thing in connection with it in your own interest and in the interest of the country – to keep this great wonder of nature as it is now … I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loveliness and beauty of the Canyon. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve upon it.”
Arizona smiled and politely applauded.
So did those who ran the Santa Fe Railroad. Arizona knew it could never improve the Grand Canyon. Those who ran the Santa Fe thought they might. Travelers needed a place of rest. They would provide them one and hired architect Charles Whittlesey to design a modest little hotel called the Bright Angel Tavern.
But Whittlesey had a much grander vision, and the Santa Fe Railroad kept pumping in a new bucket load of dollars every time he needed them. Even the name was changed to El Tovar as a tribute to Spanish explorer Pedro de Tobar, who never saw the Grand Canyon or knew it existed. In time, the architecture of the hotel would be described as a combination of “Swiss chateaux” and “castles of the Rhine.” Others thought it possessed the elegance of a European villa and rose above the rim like an American hunting lodge.
Even during the early years of the twentieth century, El Tovar offered steam heat, electric lights, and indoor plumbing, making it “the most expensively constructed and appointed log house in America.” It had been built with huge Douglas firs, shipped from Oregon, and offered, one newspaper said, accommodations with “a quiet dignity and assuming luxury” for 250 guests.
The hotel had been placed on a precipice where one corner came within twenty feet from the 7,000-foot canyon rim. The Santa Fe Railroad, in a 1905 brochure said: “It is not until the sightseer reaches the edge that the full force of the view strikes him with a shock that makes him gasp.
And an early promotional brochure pointed out that El Tovar was “Not a Waldorf-Astoria – admirable as that type is for the city – but a big country clubhouse, where the traveler seeking high-class accommodations also finds freedom from ultra fashionable restrictions. You may wear a dress suit at dinner or not. You may mix with the jolly crowd or sit alone in a quiet nook. Good fellowship perhaps best expresses the motto of El Tovar.” And all the rooms cost in 1905, on the American Plan, was $3.50 to $4.50 a day.”
Little has changed except, of course, the price of a room.
Even though Teddy Roosevelt feared it would, El Tovar did not ruin the view, the mood, or the beauty of Muir’s “God’s spectacle,” of Burroughs’ “ divine abyss.” The hotel remains now, as it was then, the