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Building the Kaibab Bridge, 1921

Men perform precarious work on the Kaibab suspension bridge over the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. (Photo courtesy of the Arizona Historical Society, Pioneer Museum)

The Kaibab suspension bridge over the Colorado River was to link Bright Angel Trail on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon with the Kaibab Trail on the North Rim. At the time, the only means of crossing the river between the two trails was by small canvas boat. (The closest ferry crossings were at Lee’s Ferry, upstream near the Utah border and downstream at Needles on the California border.) Construction began in January 1921.

The bridge was located 11 miles by trail from the South Rim of the canyon and about 4,500 feet below the rim’s edge. Pack trains carried all the lumber, cement and cables brought in by train from the railroad yard at Grand Canyon village to the construction site.

Transporting the cables was probably the greatest challenge for the packers. Each cable weighed 1,200 pounds. Rope was used in a trial trip so that engineers could estimate the proper spacing between the pack mules. The cable was stiff and relatively inflexible, and there had to be enough stretched between the mules to allow them to negotiate the switchbacks in the trail. When the cable was finally packed down the trail, each mule had a man walking at its head.

The bridge was built with two main steel cables strung about 10 feet apart and anchored in the rock 80 feet above the canyon floor. The crew used a pulley attached to one of the cables to get across the river, allowing gravity to carry them to the midpoint, then pulling themselves by hand to the other side.

Once the main cables were in place, the vertical cables visible at the left of the photo were attached. (Two workers are suspended from the main cables apparently working on the vertical cables.) Wooden crosspieces and a wooden floor were added as the construction progressed. (The man in the lower area of the photograph appears to be working on the bridge floor.) Later a seven-foot wire-mesh siding was added for safety.

The bridge was suspended 60 feet above the normal flow level of the river and 13 feet above the highest known flood level.

Working on the construction crew was not for the fainthearted or those who feared heights. The crew consisted of a lumberjack from Alaska, a miner, a cowboy, an amateur astronomer and several amateur photographers, one of whom undoubtedly took this photograph.

Surprisingly, there was only one serious accident during the bridge construction. On a supply trip to the construction site, a horse slipped and went over the edge of the trail dragging two other horses with it. A quick thinking young handler cut the lead rope and saved the rest of the pack train.

— Arizona Capitol Times archives, original research by Bonnie Greer. Photo courtesy of the Arizona Historical Society, Pioneer Museum.

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