BLACK BRIDGE

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Photo diagram by Yolonda Youngs. Click to enlarge.

The Inner Canyon of the Grand Canyon along the Colorado River corridor is a place that few people visited in the nineteenth century. Early park visitors took mule rides from the south rim of the canyon into the Inner Canyon to see the Colorado River, but could not cross the river because of its strong current. Visitors to the north rim were few in these early years and trips into the canyon from the north rim by mule were uncommon.

The Black and Silver Bridges
along the Colorado River in the
Grand Canyon. From this view
along the River Trail heading
east, Bright Angel Canyon
is on the left. Bright Angel Creek
and Phantom Ranch are both
situated in Bright Angel Canyon.

The 1928 completion of the Kaibab or Black Bridge (same year the Yavapai Observation Station was completed) changed the tourism scene of the inner canyon by connecting trails between the north rim and south rim of the canyon and making safe passage across the Colorado River possible for both mules and foot traffic. Previous to the Black Bridge the only way for mules and people to cross the river was on a precarious cableway operated by canyon pioneer David Rust. Rust’s cableway consisted of a harrowing ride in a large metal “cage” (large enough for one mule) strung across the river on a cable. One mule at a time or several people would climb into an open bar cage and move across the river along the swinging cables of the crossing.

 

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Photo: NAU Cline Library, Emery Kolb Collection, NAU.PH.568.9399

Early visitors to the canyon
crossed the Colorado River
near Bright Angel Creek
by dangling precariously
in a cage suspended
along David Rust’s cableway.
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Photo: Arizona Historical Society, Harry G. Metzger Collection, AHS.0002.00004.

Building the bridge in the remote and difficult-to-access Inner Canyon posed hazards and challenges to construction. Motorized vehicles such as cars and trucks could not access the deep recesses of the canyon along the river, so all materials were transported by mules or human power. National Park Service mules carried most of the 122 tons of materials for the construction of the bridge into the canyon. The one-ton, 550-foot- long suspension cables were carried down the canyon on the shoulders of 42 Havasupai tribesmen who walked single file down the trail while carrying the cables. They carried the cables over nine miles of trail and down 4,000 feet from the rim.

 

Constructing the first Kaibab
suspension bridge across the
Colorado River, 1921. Building
the bridge across the Colorado
River was not an easy task. The
men who worked on the bridge
were suspended above the river
for much of their work.

It was a dangerous building project – men carrying the heavy cables along the winding and steep canyon trails were challenged by the task; in addition, the men who worked the dangerous jobs of drilling and installing the bridge above the swift currents of the Colorado River also faced dangers. Some tasks required the men to hang from slings above the river along the canyon’s walls while they installed the bridge supports. Once completed, the bridge offered safe passage across the Colorado River and connected the North Rim to the South Rim via the North and South Kaibab Trails.

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Photo: GRCA Museum and Archives #10111

Many of the one ton, 550-foot-long
suspension cables for the Black Bridge
or Kaibab Bridge were carried
down the Kaibab Trail
by Havasupai workers
to the bridge site
at 4,000 feet below the rim
.
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Photo: NAU Cline Library, Bill Belknap Collection, NAU.PH.96.4.46.1

Today the Black Bridge is one of the few bridges across the Colorado River except for its nearby neighbor, the Silver Bridge (limited to foot traffic only). These bridges offer the only permanent crossings across the Colorado River for hundreds of river miles and are vital transportation links for rim to rim travel across the Grand Canyon. Mule riders into the canyon today have a striking view of the Black Bridge as they emerge from the tunnel on the South Kaibab Trail to the open expanse of the river and the bridge. As they cross the five-foot wide bridge, suspended about 65 feet above the river (depending on the river level), they are exposed to dramatic views of the canyon and the river below.

The first view many mule riders
into the canyon see of the Black Bridge
as they emerge from the South Kaibab
Trail tunnel then begin their walk
across the bridge. The contrast from
the close quarters and dark interiors
of the tunnel to the sudden exposure
and vast space of the Colorado River
and Inner Gorge is breathtaking and dramatic.


written by yolonda youngs


References:

  • Anderson, M. 2001. Along the rim: A guide to Grand Canyon's south rim from Hermit's Rest to Desert View. Grand Canyon: Grand Canyon Association. (see Anderson 2001, 17