Flaming Gorge: The place few people knew

Book • The history of what's under Flaming Gorge.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The history of the Flaming Gorge and Glen Canyon dams is intertwined.

Both were built as part of the Colorado River Storage Project with construction starting in the late 1950s. Flaming Gorge was completed in 1962, Glen Canyon in 1963.

Yet, while poets, songwriters, river runners, environmentalists and authors lament the loss of Glen Canyon to the rising waters of Lake Powell, few have said anything about the canyons of the Green River lost to Flaming Gorge Reservoir.

Until now.

Lost Canyons of the Green River: The Story Before Flaming Gorge Dam, by river runner and historian Roy Webb, takes a look at what was under Flaming Gorge before there was a reservoir. Through historical maps, photographs and personal stories, the book, published by The University of Utah Press, offers a snapshot of what was lost.

"Flaming Gorge was the place no one really knew," said Webb, referencing a book on Glen Canyon called The Place No One Knew, by Eliot Porter and David Brower. "It was known only by the people who floated it, a few river runners and [Flaming Gorge] historian Bill Purdy."

Three things are well-known about the Green River at that time: It had big rapids compared with Glen Canyon; it was a haunt for outlaws; and there was no constituency of river runners like Glen Canyon had to save it.

There just wasn't the same passion for saving Flaming Gorge, said Rich Ingrebretsen, a Salt Lake river enthusiast who founded the Glen Canyon Institute, which advocates the draining of Lake Powell.

"We went after the most famous and the most well-known," said Ingebretsen, noting that the building of Flaming Gorge Dam likely saved two dams downstream at Echo Park and Split Mountain inside Dinosaur National Monument.

The big reason Glen Canyon became more famous was that it had fabulous scenery and no rapids, making it easily accessible to the masses, Webb said.

The Green River was a wilder place. Ashley Falls was the biggest rapid on the Green, and Skull Rapid was an adventure. A few river runners offered commercial trips.

Today, Flaming Gorge and the Green River below the dam are known as great trout fisheries. Webb's research shows the fishing and hunting areas inundated by the reservoir also were world-class.

Webb said the area also was "a great place to camp," with bushes filled with currants.

Webb said Purdy and a ranger in Hideout Flat counted almost 1,000 elk one winter. Utah river runner Ken Sleight ran hunting trips on the Green before deer season and told Webb there were deer everywhere.

Yet there were few objections to the reservoir being constructed.

"The only objections were from people getting displaced from the ranches along the river," said Webb. "And some thought they were taking one for the country. There were no objections, no protest movements, no organized opposition."

Linwood, home to about 100 people and the Bucket of Blood Saloon, was the only town of any size lost to Flaming Gorge. For the most part, it was bulldozed, but some buildings were moved before the gates to the dam were closed. Uncle Jack Robinson's cabin, built by a fur trapper in the 1840s, was moved to an area near Green Lakes, making it one of Utah's oldest surviving structures.

William Ashley, an early trapper, was heading down the Green River in 1825 looking for beaver when he stopped at a rapid that would be known as Ashley Falls. He painted his name on a rock above the rapid, something Powell noted when having to line his boats around the falls in 1869.

Webb said there was a major debate about what to name the new reservoir. Some wanted to name it Lake Ashley; others wanted to honor Joseph O'Mahoney, a U.S. Senator from Wyoming.

According to Utah Place Names, the actual Flaming Gorge was at the head of Horseshoe Canyon. But Powell named it Flaming Gorge because he and his men saw the sun reflecting off the red rocks.

Webb dreamed of writing the book about what was lost to Flaming Gorge Dam since writing his first book in 1986, which covered some of the area. He quickly discovered that, unlike Glen Canyon, little research had actually been done on what was flooded.

"It wasn't Glen Canyon, but it deserved its own place [in history]," said Webb.

For his research, Webb found people who had lived on the ranches and who had saved stories, films and photographs. He talked to Sleight, musician Katie Lee and the Hatch families, who ran the river a few times. He earned a fellowship in 2004 and spent a month poring over the Marsden collection in the Huntington Library in California, finding more journals and newspaper articles.

"I wrote three other books between this and the first book," said Webb. "But I always knew I would come back to this subject. It swelled around in my mind like a stick in an eddy. "