Grand Canyon’s First Official Tour Guide, Captain John Hance
Some of my favorite times at the canyon, whether guiding a rim tour or on a river trip, are when learning and sharing what we call “people stories” about the adventurous men and women who have come before us to this Grand Canyon and have long since passed. We often call them “ancestors”… someone who has come and gone and left their mark.
Probably my all-time favorite “ancestor” is Captain John Hance (or self-proclaimed “Captain” as we should call him). Although he did serve in the Civil War, John Hance never achieved the titled rank. But as many early pioneering mountain men who led expeditions over far-distant mountains in the shadows of folks like Lewis and Clark, the term “Captain” became a hallmark of leadership and bravery. The same could be said of John Hance, who had his fair share of grand adventure and exalted deeds.
Captain Hance was the first white settler to permanently live at the Grand Canyon around 1883, and you might say the first official tour guide. His grand storytelling, accumulated after decades of living along the rim, is legendary. Even 99 years after his death in 1919, we still share the same stories he did about his larger-than-life (and often larger-than-truth) exploits throughout the area.
Being a Grand Canyon guide, one almost feels an instant connection with other guides both present and past. Our goal? To showcase this amazing grandeur that lies in front of our eyes—too vast and magnificent to comprehend. The added bonus (and what sets apart our Canyon Ministries’ A Different View tours) is we not only get a chance to see this amazing wonder, but we also get to worship the incredible God who created it. Standing at the rim of the canyon you can’t help but feel a sense of awe and wonder, but also a realization of how small you truly are in comparison to the canyon and its Creator.
That must have been how Captain Hance felt when he arrived at the Grand Canyon for the first time in the early 1880’s. This impression must have been what led him to move to the canyon in search of ore and to mine for asbestos. But he soon learned there was more profit in mining the tourists’ pockets and created a base camp for those wishing to explore the beauty of the canyon. By 1885 he had a nice little tent camp for visitors and would charge a fee to go down into the Grand Canyon on his prospecting trail (really just an improved trail used for hundreds of years by the Havasupai). Tourists could hike down the trail, rent his mules to ride, or for $10 Captain Hance himself would personally guide them into the depths of Grand Canyon.
Little remains of John Hance’s camp and rim operation site today. The actual location, close to the old Hance trail, is known only to a handful of guides or long-time residents of the canyon. I’ve had the opportunity a few times to visit and explore this area myself. Most of his camp area is now overgrown by forest and small Gambel oak stands, but there is treasure for those who know where to look. No, not the valuable kind that will add to your pocketbook, but the kind that will add to your repertoire and knowledge of history in places like the Grand Canyon.
What you find, still lying there on the ground, are large piles of junk and trash. Trash … a treasure? Indeed! Scattered around in a few different locations are the remains of the camp’s trash piles. Hundreds of old tin cans with lead-sealed plugs, numerous broken bottles of various colored glass, broken china sets, and even old large water cans which would have been hung on either side of a mule as they descended into the canyon. All of this can be seen just as it was tossed there over 100 years ago. Without the modern convenience of the sanitation department to take your trash away on a regular basis, the best they had was finding a ditch or unused area over the next hill to toss all their garbage and junk. For me, that’s treasure. It’s exciting to discover! For years, I had driven past that exact spot numerous times not knowing what was right there in the woods, just a couple hundred feet from the road.
It makes me wonder how many times we often pass by something that would be absolutely amazing if we just took the time to stop and look. I wonder how many incredible things God is waiting to reveal to us in our everyday lives, if only we will take the time to listen to His leading and direction. In a similar way to gleaning information and insight from what was left behind by Captain Hance and his camp, we often gain much knowledge and wisdom from the pages of Scripture and stories of those spiritual “ancestors” who have gone before and left their mark. Much of what we read and study is the “junk” they themselves had to deal with in life. It is kept and preserved in the pages of Scripture for us to study and learn now, thousands of years later.
Just as some trash can be a treasure, and something deemed useless can have great purpose, so something regarded as junk can truly be a jewel to one who recognizes its value. Let the same One who crafted breathtaking places like the Grand Canyon from the remnants of a global flood catastrophe, craft something truly spectacular in your life…even from the ugly parts that you might think are worthless. To Him you are treasure.