First commercial river trip a perilous success for Nevills

Norman Nevills, kneeling at the back of the boat, leads a party on a 1936 trek on the San Juan River. Photo special to the Sentinel / Museum of Moab

July of 1938 was an anxious time for those tracking Norman Nevills’ river trip down the Green and Colorado rivers.

The expedition launched in Green River, Utah, on June 20,
and was considered the first commercial boating trip through the Grand Canyon.

On July 3, The New York Times reported that people at Lee’s Ferry, Arizona, where the expedition was supposed to arrive on July 4, feared for the safety of Nevills and the five people with him.

The Daily Sentinel reported that the Colorado River was at its highest level in 10 years. “The water’s too high” for boating, one unidentified “river rat” said. “You couldn’t pay me to join them.”

There was another reason for consternation: Two women were on the trip, University of Michigan botanist Elzada Clover and her lab assistant Lois Jotter. And no woman had successfully boated these waters. The only one who had tried, Bessie Hyde, had disappeared with her husband a decade earlier.

Buzz Holmstrom, who successfully floated from Green River, Wyoming, to Lake Mead alone in 1937, refused to join Nevills’ 1938 trip because, he said, women were “too much of a handicap.”

But Nevills had ignored such concerns. He had eagerly worked with Clover to organize the trip.

On July 8, much to everyone’s relief, the expedition members were spotted from the air as they approached Lee’s Ferry. They planned to rest a few days before tackling the Grand Canyon.

Norman Nevills was an unlikely man to invent commercial river running. His first recreational trip — a 1933 honeymoon jaunt with wife, Doris — logged only 21 miles on the San Juan River.

Born in California in 1908, Nevills and his mother moved to Mexican Hat, Utah, in 1928 to join Norm’s father, Bill, who had an oil well nearby.

Norm helped his father and assisted groups working on the San Juan. He learned to run the river in small, fold-up rowboats.

But those weren’t adequate for his honeymoon trip, so he designed and built his own boat, the first of many.

He and Doris launched a new boat in March 1934. This time, they reached Copper Canyon, 70 miles downstream from Mexican Hat.

Nevills’ river reputation grew and he piloted more trips. In 1936, he ferried three California men down the San Juan and Colorado rivers to Lee’s Ferry. He also began contemplating a trip through the Grand Canyon.

Others had done it, beginning with John Wesley Powell’s expedition in 1869. Julius Stone and Nathan Galloway ran the Grand Canyon in 1909. Brothers Emery and Ellsworth Kolb ran it in 1911 and captured the first motion pictures of a river expedition.

Nevills consulted with Emery Kolb for his 1938 trip.

Government survey parties floated the Green and Colorado in the early 1920s and created maps that Nevills used on his trip. And Holmstrom’s 1937 trip stirred interest in Nevills’ expedition.

Clover visited Mexican Hat in 1937, and she and Norm began planning the 1938 trip. It would include her, Jotter and grad student Gene Atkinson as paying passengers.

Nevills designed new vessels, which he called cataract boats. He and a friend built three of them.

Unlike later river dories with upswept prow and stern, the Nevills boats were relatively flat, with hulls made of a new marine-grade plywood.

They were surprisingly resilient. After one challenging rapid, Nevills wrote in his journal: “Twenty-one miles an hour … The sensation is indescribable! And how the boat rode!”

Although the beginning of the trip was exhilarating, Cataract Canyon — downstream from Moab — proved difficult and threatened Nevills’ abundant confidence.

Having nearly lost two people when a boat flipped, Nevills wrote: “The worry of this trip is hard, and the responsibility is tremendous. I sometimes wish I had never taken this trip as expedition leader.”

There was dissention among the crew and passengers, and Nevills occasionally lost his temper. But they all made it to Lee’s Ferry.

There, Nevills hitched a ride to Mexican Hat to see his family and recruit additional boatmen.

They launched again from Lee’s Ferry on July 11 and had little trouble in the Grand Canyon, despite the high water. They reached Lake Mead on Aug. 1, greeted by Doris Nevills and Holstrom, a Nevada congressmen and many newsmen.

Later that month, the Nevills and Clover traveled to Grand Junction, where they stayed at the La Court Hotel as the guests of Preston Walker, son of The Daily Sentinel’s publisher, Walter Walker.

Preston would become a friend and frequent customer of Nevills.

During the visit, Clover was interviewed by the Sentinel. Despite the danger, she would make the trip again, she said, adding, “I wouldn’t advise it as a common practice for women.”

After the success of the 1938 expedition, Nevills had more commercial trips. In 1940, he and Doris led a trip from Green River, Wyoming, to Lake Mead. A young Arizonan named Barry Goldwater joined them.

Others began to realize the business potential in river running, and by the mid-1940s, Nevills had several competitors. About that time, he learned to fly and bought a Piper Cub.

On Sept. 19, 1949, he and Doris took off from Mexican Hat, headed for Grand Junction. The engine sputtered and quit, and the plane slammed into a rock wall. Doris and Norm were killed in the fiery crash, leaving two daughters behind.

But Nevills’ legacy lives on. The company he founded still operates as Canyoneers, out of Flagstaff, Arizona.

Numerous early river runners traced their training back to Nevills, or to people who learned from him.

And, in the 21st century, thousands of people — many of them women — pay commercial outfitters to take them on trips down the Colorado, Green and San Juan rivers.

Information for this column came from Gaylord Stavely’s book, “The Rapids and the Roar: A Boating History of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon;” Roy Webb’s, “High, Wide, and Handsome: The River Journals of Norman D. Nevills;” The Canyoneers website,; and Daily Sentinel archives.

Bob Silbernagel’s email is .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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