ASK ANYONE I KNEW PROEESSIONALLY DURING my 18 years as a public relations man for U.S. Steel, and I’m sure they’ll tell you they’d consider the exploits of movie Stuntmen to be spectacular and lucrative, but no more impressive than what high-steel workers do every day. A case in point: the construction of what has been called the world’s longest single-span freight tramway, which covered much of the majestic width of the Grand Canyon, in Arizona. When it was completed, in the summer of 1957, after nearly a year’s construction time, the cable way stretched from the top of the precipitous south rim, down almost to the surface of the Colorado River, and then up again to a point 700 feet above the canyon’s floor on the north (actually northeast) side, for a total span of about a mile and a half. Veteran steelmen called it the most arduous job of its kind they had ever tackled.
The tramway was built by Consolidated Western Steel, a Los Angeles-based division of U.S. Steel, for the U.S. Guano Corporation, a subsidiary of a Canadian holding company called New Pacific Coal and Oils, Ltd. U.S. Guano planned to haul copious deposits of prehistoric bat droppings, or guano—a powdery, concentrated, highly nitrogenous fertilizer—from a cave full of unexplored labyrinths said to be 60 million years old. A suction-operated device would bring the guano to the tramway, which would carry it across the river and up to the south rim for packing and shipping.
A New York Times headline summed up the operation as follows: BIG VACUUM CLEANER TO BE USED TO MINE DEPOSIT LEFT BY GIANT, MEATEATING BAT MILLIONS OE YEARS AGO . (In fact the bats in question probably were smallish and fed on insects.) The venture was iffy, but if U.S. Guano could pull it off, the rewards would be great. Geologists estimated that the company could extract 10,000 tons a year for 10 years. At $100 a ton, gross sales would total $10 million, a hefty sum in the 1950s. (A 25-pound bag of guano sold for $3.80 at retail.)
Bat Cave is about 60 miles north of Kingman, near the Nevada border. It was discovered in the 1930s by a local resident named Harold Carpenter when he was boating on Lake Mead, a reservoir created for the recently built Boulder (Hoover) Dam. At the time, this portion of the canyon was outside Grand Canyon National Park (it was added in 1975), so Carpenter staked a discovery claim, which he later sold for $50.
Guano’s value as a fertilizer was well known, but the cave’s location was a tremendous obstacle to exploiting it. There was no way to remove the guano via the canyon’s north rim; it was simply too inaccessible. An early attempt to carry the guano out by barge failed, done in by floods, shifting channels, and the decision to lower Lake Mead by 90 feet. Flying it out proved to be too costly and dangerous. The canyon walls were much too steep for roads or rails, so that left only one possible solution.
Building a tramway across the Grand Canyon presented many difficulties, not the least of which was the problem of simply getting to the construction site on the canyon floor, where machinery, structures, and equipment were assembled and staged for installation on the north face. Treacherous currents and sandbars made it impractical to bring materials in by barge, and since there was no access to that section of the canyon by trail, everything from steel to toothpaste, along with all the workers, had to be flown in.
I well remember my first trip to the site of the tramway in early 1957. I flew to Phoenix on Western Airlines and from there took a puddle jumper to Kingman, the staging area for the tramway job. There I reconnoitered with an outgoing bush pilot named Westcott. We took off for the construction site in a Curtiss Robin. In the air I asked: “How long a trip, Mr. Westcott?”
“Twenty minutes, about. Call me Buzz.”
Ow! This violated a long-standing rule of mine: Never fly with a pilot called Buzz. Despite this scruple, I flew the route many times with Buzz, and he proved to be a fine pilot, adept at reading the canyon’s swirling air currents. (In extreme conditions, winds could reach 100 mph, and rhe tramway had to be able to withstand this load.)
To reach the staging camp on rhe south rim, we landed on a specially built airsrrip. The strip ended abruptly at the canyon’s edge, which made taking off for the return flight an adventure. The minute we crossed over and became airborne, the plane dropped about 500 feet. Buzz told me to expect that, but it was a disquieting thrill each time we flew out.
Buzz said he had flown about 3,000 flights to the floor of the canyon as a contract pilot for various Bat Cave owners. For U.S. Steel he flew in about 200 tons of equipment, including 30 tons of steel, 171,000 pounds of sand, cement, and gravel, two air compressors, hoists, welding machines, cement mixers, personnel, and a twoton Caterpillar. All equipment was disassembled at Kingman, flown to the canyon floor piece by piece, and reassembled.
Temperatures there ranged from below freezing to 130 degrees. In a camp for canyon-floor workers, the legs of sleeping cots stood in cans of kerosene to keep scorpions from crawling up. Mountain lions made periodic nocturnal visits, and rattlers were commonplace. Much less dangerous were members of a local tribe of Indians who visited the campsite at night when the workers were sleeping. They disturbed nothing, but footprints in the snow showed that they had come.
The tramway was to be a turnkey operation; U.S. Steel would handle the whole job from drawing board to completion before handing it over to U.S. Guano. The construction chief was Stanley (“Lefty”) Farwell, a colorful former Loyola and pro footballer who later became president of a leading Bay Area steel company. Farwell’s first big challenge was stringing the 11,500-foot, 1/8-inch construction cable, the first of four cables to be drawn across the 2,911-foot-deep gorge. It was strung between three giant steel towers, which would ultimately support the tramway cable over its 9,400-foot route from loading to discharge terminals. Once the construction cable was in place, it would be used to pull the heavier permanent cables into position. The main cable, from which the buckets would be suspended, was 1½ inches in diameter and weighed 20 tons. Traction would be provided with a separate endless loop of 1½-inch cable, driven by a 100horsepower motor at the tower on the south rim.
“We considered using weather balloons, airplanes, rockets, and blimps before deciding on the helicopter to string the construction cable,” Farwell told me later. Kern Copters, Inc., of Bakersfield, California, designed special equipment and made dry runs laying cable at Bakersfield Airport in preparation for this pioneering use of a chopper.
Charles E. Green, Jr., an ex-Marine helicopter pilot, designed a reel that worked something like the spinner on a fishing rod. The five-foot-long reel had an inner cone upon which 11,500 feet of aviation cable was wound. The cone was secured inside a conical steel housing with a two-inch opening at the trailing end through which the cable could unwind. The cable reel assembly was fixed to one of the copter’s landing runners. A trigger mechanism would let Green jettison the reel if the cable got snagged or tangled. Now, Green said, “all we had to do was pick a quiet morning when the tricky canyon air currents were at a minimum and take off.”
When such a morning arrived, he lifted the Lycoming-powered Bell 4762 copter from a specially built platform on the south rim and sped down the tramway route, which led over precipitous cliffs and across the half-mile-wide Colorado to the canyon floor below Bat Cave. There he dropped the end of the cable, which was secured to an air-hoist-powered drum.
The 1/8-inch cable was not mounted in the towers; it merely provided a way to pull bigger cables, too thick and heavy to be installed by helicopter, into place. The other end of the 1/8-inch cable was spliced to a 3/8-inch cable and then pulled across the canyon, bringing the 3/8-inch cable with it. The 3/8-inch cable in turn pulled a ¾-inch cable, which was used to pull the iVi-inch stationary cable from which the guano cars would hang. This iVa-inch cable was lifted to the top of the three towers and fastened in place. The traction loop was then installed in the same way. The ends were braided to construct the loop.
It took more than a month to string all the cables. The only hitch in the process came when Farwell, attempting to “play” one of the cables to make sure it wasn’t fouled on the rocks, discovered that it had got snagged on a crag. By walkie-talkie he contacted a rigger on the canyon floor, who paddled across the stream in a collapsible boat. There he was picked up by the copter and carried about 500 feet up the rocky side of the north rim, where he attached a line to the cable so the helicopter could pull it free.
In all, 470,000 pounds of machinery, steel, and cable were trucked from Consolidated Western’s Los Angeles plant to the staging camp on the south rim. (This included an old Army hospital in Kingman, which was disassembled, moved to the staging camp, and reassembled to serve as barracks for the workers.) From there, much of the material was flown to the canyon floor by Buzz Westcott in the Curtiss Robin or, for larger items, a Steerman whose side doors had been removed. Buzz also flew material directly from Kingman to the canyon floor. Another 224,000 pounds of large-scale erection equipment was hauled to the job site and then returned to Los Angeles after the job was completed.
During the eight and a half months of construction, Consolidated Western averaged two truck convoys a week from Los Angeles. The journey was pretty much routine until the truckers left Route 66 about 20 miles east of Kingman. A path from there to the staging camp had been surveyed by plane and auto and on foot, seeking the best way through the myriad canyons, dry washes, and gulches, but the final route was still little better than a cattle trail. The most arduous trip over it came in January 1957, when CWS truckers and ironworkers moved 26 tons of steel cable from Kingman (it had been railroaded there from U.S. Steel’s Trenton, New Jersey, cable- manufacturing plant) 85 miles to the job site. The journey took 36 hours, compared with 6 hours for an average haul.
The first 35 miles after leaving Route 66 went over a dry lakebed. Ten inches of snow had turned the thick, powdery alkali dust to muck. This leg took 8 hours. Then, after entering the hill country, the tractor and low-bed trailer hauling the cable seemed to slip back one foot for every three it moved forward. At the end of 12 hours of hill-country driving, it had covered 25 miles.
The last, long climb to the staging-camp site was an 18 percent grade over shale so slick from the snow that the crew had to lay a roadbed of rock, dirt, and 2-by-12 timbers. To reach the upper steel tower, where the main cable was to be mounted, the tractor-trailer was backed down a iVi-mile trail that had been blasted out of the sheer cliffs some 3,500 feet above the floor of the Grand Canyon.
Over most of a year under primitive conditions, Farwell’s ironworkers retained their sense of humor. They named their construction camp Batchit, Arizona, and received mail addressed to that location. The name was a reference not only to the product to be mined but also to the need for workers to “batch it,” or live as bachelors. The privy at the upper camp was cantilevered out from the rim, 3,500 feet above the canyon floor. It was quite an experience standing inside the outhouse looking down one of the holes on a sheer drop of 2,000 feet.
The tramway was completed on schedule at a cost of $680,000, nearly $250,000 over budget, and turned over to U.S. Guano management in the summer of 1957. Then the miners went to work. Inside the cave they shoveled the guano, a brownish dust, into 10-inch suction tubes, which carried it to a loading platform hewn from the cliff 200 feet below. There the guano was loaded into buckets holding 3,500 pounds. The buckets traveled along the tramway to a plant on the canyon’s south rim, where the guano was packed into bags (it would be sold as is, without further processing) and trucked to Kingman, the nearest rail terminal. A round trip on the tramway took about 20 minutes.
Alas, after all that work, the venture turned out to be a bust. The mine was abandoned after a year with a mere 1,000 tons of guano extracted. Expenses were greater than originally projected, as was competition from other sources of fertilizer. The main problem, however, was that there was much less guano in the cave than had been forecast. A huge room inside the cave, thought to be nearly 10 feet deep in guano, turned out to consist of less than a foot of guano over a big pile of rubble.
The tramway’s subsequent career was brief as well. In 1959 Columbia Pictures shot scenes on it for the Grand Canyon thriller Edge of Eternity , in which an uncredited Buzz Westcott appears briefly as a pilot. There was some talk of converting it to tourist use, but as Robert Wallace explains in his book The Grand Canyon , “The tramway remained until 1960, when a military airplane flew into its steel cable at a terrific speed. Astonishingly, the plane was only dented and was brought to a safe landing. Thereafter, the tramway cables were cut down.” The Air Force kept the accident quiet because the squadron had been sightseeing in an out-of-bounds area. I had informed all military, commercial, and private air agencies of the tramway’s height, length, and location before, during, and after construction.
Today Hwal’bay Ba:j Enterprises, Inc., a corporation owned by the Hualapai tribe, manages the Grand Canyon West resort and related businesses. A brochure for bus tours reads, in part: “A surprise climax to the tour comes at Guano Point, with overlooks of sheer cliffs rising more than 3,000 feet from the Colorado River. Here also rests a testimony to a man’s eternal quest for riches through an amazing feat of aerial engineering of an old mining tramway. You will hear the astounding story of Guano Point, named after the U.S. Guano Company’s bat fertilizer operations. You will see the tower which held the gondola cable that spanned the gorge to a gaping bat cave on the east face of the canyon and remnants of huge machinery in the winch house.” The cave itself is off-limits to visitors, and with human interference now at a minimum, bats are finally returning to Bat Cave.