Thursday, August 11, 2011

No Life-jackets Allowed: Glen & Bessie Hyde Run the Grand Canyon

My own experience of the Grand Canyon has been so brief as to really not count at all.  During an ill-conceived move to California back in the early 90s, I picked up a friend in Fort Collins, CO on my way west.  He’d been participating in an Ultimate Frisbee tournament and needed a ride back to San Francisco – my destination.  We decided it was a good opportunity to do some sightseeing along the way so we stopped at various places all deserving of weeks of our time rather than hours, but such is youth.  Zion, Bryce Canyon and Las Vegas all got cursory visits, but our stop at the Grand Canyon was the stingiest.  We arrived at dark and spent the night in a cabin and the next morning headed over to the South Rim, walked a little bit, peered over the side and snapped some photos before eating breakfast and continuing on our way to the Golden State.  I’m almost ashamed to call myself an American.

I got no closer on a recent trip from Utah back to Oklahoma (taking the very southerly route...), but did pick up an interesting book about the Grand Canyon at The Little America hotel in Flagstaff, AZ.  I love The Little America.  Tall pine trees surround the hotel and obscure the view of the highway.  The room decor is pure 1970s, but spotless and very comfortable.  Giant logs in a huge stone fireplace pop and snap as the flames warm the lobby.  The gift shop sells fringed leather coats, cowboy boots and chunky turquoise jewelry.  They also sell books about regional topics and I picked up one titled, Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon, by Michael Ghiglieri & Thomas Myers.  I can’t resist books whose topics are death: coroners’ memoirs, stories from the Body Farm, true murder mysteries.  Death in Grand Canyon goes into exhaustive detail about the ways and hows of every known fatality in the park.  Exhaustive as in lists of names, dates and the sordid details.  But it’s more than dry lists.  The narrative is fascinating and entertaining. 

Danny Ray Horning
There are the, well, run-of-the-mill mishaps – people slipping into the abyss, people playing practical jokes that go horribly wrong, suicides, rafting accidents, heat- and thirst-related deaths, distance misjudgments and the occasional murder.  There are the characters you may already know something about: John Wesley Powell who navigated the Green and Colorado Rivers (three of his men were murdered after they left the expedition), The Kolb Brothers, skilled river-runners and photographers who filmed their journeys down the Green and Colorado Rivers; the fugitive, Danny Ray Horning, a convicted bank robber, child molester and murderer who had escaped from prison and went on the lam for 54 days in 1992 (complete with kidnappings, thefts, shoot-outs and car chases.  Coincidentally, Horning trawled for kidnap victims at the above-mentioned Little America hotel.).  

Glen & Bessie Hyde
Photo courtesy of Emery Kolb Collection/
Northern Arizona University Cline Library

One story that caught my eye was about Bessie Haley and Glen Rollin Hyde.  Back in 1927 Bessie was a 21-year old divorcee from West Virginia who’d moved to San Francisco for a fresh start and to study at an arts academy.  Apparently not content, she and her roommate bought one way tickets on a ship bound for Los Angeles.  The roommate had plans to make it big in Hollywood and Bessie went along for the adventure.  Bessie apparently was prone to going along for adventures.  During the trip, Bessie met Glen and the sparks flew.  They became inseparable and Bessie's roommate sought her fortune in LA without her friend.  

Glen was from Idaho and with a few river runs under his belt nursed a dream of running the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon – with Bessie – making them the first couple ever to have done it and her the first woman to complete the journey.  If they made it.  The two married and fleshed out their dream.   The run, they figured, would make them famous and they imagined touring the country giving lectures about their adventures, the money and fame rolling in.  To make it even more interesting, they planned on making the run in a scow that Glen built, setting speed records for traversing the canyons AND doing it all without life jackets. 
I think you can probably see where this is going.  Glen’s boat was a sorry mess.  A Green River local pronounced the scow “a floating coffin.”  But they set off anyway.  Struggling through Cataract Canyon, Bessie was ejected from the boat but was somehow rescued by Glen.  At Lee’s Ferry, an experienced boatman advised them to wear life vests.  Glen declined.   

Farther down the river, Glen was the one ejected from the boat, but with Bessie’s help, he was able to pull himself back in.  In late November 1928, the pair made it to Phantom Ranch and resupplied, once again being urged (this time by veteran Grand Canyon boatman Emery Kolb) to use life jackets.  Glen replied that they didn’t need artificial aids.  Bessie by this time had had enough, but was unable to pull herself away from Glen.

Turns out it wasn't the scow's fault.  On December 6, Glen’s father, Rollin, waited at Needles to pick up Glen and Bessie.  Ten days later he was still waiting.  On Christmas Eve, searchers (including the Kolb brothers) found the Hyde’s boat, intact, caught in an eddy at Mile 237 – still loaded with all of the Hyde’s possessions – even Bessie’s purse.  A campsite was found miles upstream from the boat, but further searches around the area revealed no other indication that the Hydes had been there.  It was speculated that a particularly difficult set of rapids catapulted the Hydes into the river where they drowned near Mile 232.  The boat continued on without them and then became caught in some rocks.  

Like the best legends, this story remains an unsolved mystery.  Glen and Bessie’s bodies were never found.  Some suggested that the Hydes had been murdered.  Over the years rumors and questions persisted.  In 1971 a gray-haired lady on a Grand Canyon rafting tour confessed to her fellow passengers that she was Bessie Hyde and that she’d murdered Glen to escape his abuse.  She later recanted.  It was also rumored that rafter Georgie White Clark was really Bessie Hyde - documents found among her possessions hinted at a connection.  The two women, however, bore no resemblance and the rumor remained just that.

One thing is for sure, however.  Bessie did become the first woman to run the river – at least until Mile 232.    


  1. That's a fascinating tale - just as the one about the Skyjacker parachutists, whose mystery appears to be about to be solved. America is a big, big place and bound to attract some strange stories and characters. But have to say, I was spellbound by the story of Bessie and Glen! Thanks

  2. wow, what an interesting story! this is something my daughter would love, she's into this kind of thing. CSI and Bones are her favorite shows, and she's only 10.


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