There’s an inscription carved into an aspen tree on the old dirt road into Grand Canyon National Park at the North Rim that says “water ½ mile” and an arrow pointing downhill where, after about a half an hour hike, if you looked carefully, you’d find a spring. Water flows out of a pipe into a hollowed log, sweet water spilling over onto green grass. It’s about 15 miles south of the last place to get water, in De Motte Park, that last big meadow before the Entrance Station.

If you were driving into the park on the old road, at the time Wylie Way was running a camp of tent cabins at the rim, it was important to notice this carving. You’d just climbed up a big hill and you’d better go after water because your radiator was probably boiling over.

One hundred years ago, the fact you were on this dirt road in the first place was because you were following the road the first automobile had driven to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon from Kanab.

Actually it was two cars that made that epic journey back in 1909. But it’s our tendency to give most of the credit to the machines and less to the man behind the idea.

And he was quite the man, E.D. Wooley. You would be correct in calling him the first visionary of the North Rim and this side of the Grand Canyon.

A Mormon official and a big man in the small hamlet of Kanab, which is a Paiute name for willow, E. D., or “Uncle Wooley”, wanted people to see the Grand Canyon from this side. It wasn’t easy, to the east was the dangerous ferry across the unruly Colorado, to the west were the steep Hurricane Cliffs and to the north, well, pretty much dirt roads that wagons and horses used because they had to, not because they liked to and no tourist traffic. An automobile had never tried to maneuver the route. 

In those days to be an official of the L.D.S. Church in Kanab was similar to being a political as well as a spiritual authority.  E.D. wanted Kanab and the North Rim to be connected both by road and by publicity.

The South Rim was close enough to the Santa Fe Railroad for stagecoaches to bring tourists to view the canyon and was eventually reached by a rail spur from Williams, Arizona. But, the north side of the Grand Canyon was very remote.

Neither the Union Pacific nor the Denver Rio Grande thought it profitable to run another track away from the mainline just to get to this little town on the edge of nowhere. (Later the U.P. would run busses from Cedar City through Kanab)

E.D., as we’ll refer to him, just wanted the world to know and experience the north side of this stupendous chasm. So, he came up with the idea to get people to cross over to the North Rim after riding down on a mule from the South Rim to the bottom of the canyon and come on up to Bright Angel Point.

He got together with his son-in-law, David Rust, a Kanab resident, and they got men and mules  together, and made a useable trail down from the North Rim, now called the Old Bright Angel Trail, to the Colorado River where Bright Angel Creek flows into the Colorado.

They carried down enough steel cable and materials from the South Rim to string a cable across the river, so a passenger could be towed across suspended in a steel cage. David Rust built up a camp nearby called appropriately Rust Camp and is the site of today’s Phantom Ranch. Teddy Roosevelt went over to the North Rim to hunt mountain lions with game warden Uncle Jimmy Owens in that cage.

They used a bonfire signal system to let guides waiting to take parties up to the North Rim know that people were coming. They’d set fires alight on the South Rim at night to indicate how many parties were coming, then the guides would start down the Old Bright Angel Trail (north side) to meet them at the river with horses.

About this time, E.D., being an authority of the Mormon Church, went to Salt Lake City to attend one of the annual conferences. There he took his first automobile ride in his nephew Gordon’s brand new roadster. A light bulb went on in E.D.’s head. “Yeah, we’ll bring em up to the North Rim in this machine!”

E.D. had come to the conference in a horse drawn wagon or carriage, over roads fit for no better than that. Nowadays, we distinguish between on- road and off- road vehicles, but a horseless carriage was both in those days. By the spring of 1909, he had convinced Gordon to give it a go.

There were obstacles! The roads from Salt Lake City south were meant for horse drawn wagons at best. The real problem was like our idea of having hydrogen fueled, non-polluting, cars; where are we going to fill up? Where were E.D. and his nephew going to get gas? There were no gas stations for more than 200 miles north of Kanab. The closest was in Provo near Salt Lake City.

You’d be underestimating old E.D. if you thought that was going to stop him. He had five gallon cans of gasoline brought down on the railroad to Marysvale, Utah, about halfway down, and cached two cans every 30 miles all the way to Kanab. He had the remainder staged on the trail up on the roughest leg to come -Kanab to the North Rim.

E.D. got the cans dropped off and with a crew of men, worked to improve the road from Marysvale down to Kanab. In June, Gordon started down from Salt Lake with the hand written map E.D. had made showing where the gasoline was cached. Gordon and his brother-in-law drove the roadster in front with axe, shovel, crowbar etc. and would leap out and fix any obstacle in front while a chauffeur drove a big red touring car behind with their families aboard.

On the third day, after crossing deep sand by driving over canvas laid out in front and carried around to be driven and after crossing a deep sandy wash E.D. had men covered with straw, E.D. jumped onto the hood of the lead roadster and yelled over and over, “Hurrah, I told you so,” as the caravan rode into a town that had never seen a car.

They rested for three days in Kanab and then using the same tactics plus sawing down trees they made their way over the Kanab Desert, now Arizona south of Fredonia, and up onto the Kaibab Plateau. Scaring horses, cowboys and wild animals alike in the process, they managed to arrive in three days triumphantly four miles from Bright Angel Point.

Others would follow just as E.D. Wooley had predicted. This man with a big imagination would never realize fame or fortune (his name isn’t on anything here). But look at it this way; he had a heck of a good time. Most of us wouldn’t want to travel at three miles an hour considering we can drive up in mere hours, but we would miss most of the adventure.