As Bob and I cruised along the black tarmac, the air literally shivered with the heat. In the distance, at the base of the Vermilion Cliffs, a mirage appeared complete with stone houses rising up out of the desert sands….or so we thought. This was one of Blanche Russells Rock Houses that was constructed during the Great Depression.
Lees Ferry was but a speck in our rearview mirror when we were thrown into disbelief,
but the unusual collection of stone houses was not a figment of our imaginations. In fact, numerous massive boulders had been incorporated into modest shelters to provide protection from the sun, and the buildings blend seamlessly with the surrounding landscape. Taking advantage of the popular roadside location were a couple of Navajo individuals who had set up a small business at roadside in the shade of some of the over-sized rocks.
Our inquiries were met with a fantastic story that seemed downright unbelievable given the inhospitable surroundings and unforgiving sun. In the mid-1920’s, a traveler by the name of Blanche Russell was passing this way with her husband, Bill, when their car broke down. Sightseers were few and far between in those days, so Blanche, being a determined and resourceful lady, made use of some old planks and tarpaper to erect a simple lean-to against one of the Balancing Rocks. It was to be their shelter for the night.
The Vermilion Cliffs of the Paria Plateau, like all areas of the Chinle formation, have been shaped by earth’s indecisive nature. From shifts in the earth’s crust to erosion by churning sea water and manipulation by turbulent fresh water, over the centuries, the sandstone has been changed and eroded leaving behind a plethora of crevices, caves and overhangs. The fantastic barrenness of the desert floor is now littered with massive boulders that have been tipped from their previous lofty perches to stud the burned-out and washed-bare sand. It is no surprise, then, that travelers and residents have turned to these natural features as a source for temporary or even permanent shelter.
And so it was when Blanche Russell resorted to one of these massive boulders for protection from the freezing desert temperatures that night in 1927. Blanche was a former Ziegfeld Follies dancer who had left her successful career to care for her ailing husband. Bill suffered from tuberculosis, so they took a road trip through the southwest for the health benefits of the dry desert air. What she had not expected was to fall in love with the breathtaking landscape. In the following days, Blanche was so taken with the stunning scenery, the wide open blue sky, the splendid isolation and numbing solitude that she and Bill decided to buy land right there.
The bizarrely-shaped boulders now hold the remnants of the life carved out by Blanche and Bill. Weighing several tons, the rocks provide an excellent source of “building” materials, and for their first night, Blanche had selected the largest of those on site against which to construct their humble shelter. That was the beginning of their camp located beside Highway 89A.
It was Blanche’s idea that they could eke out an existence by serving food to passersby such as visitors to the Grand Canyon, and they proceeded to build the unique stone house seen above. Blanche served hearty food in return for voluntary labour to help enlarge the house. By the 1930’s, their full-scale restaurant evolved to include a trading post, both of which are just a stone’s throw further down the road. The little settlement, known as Soup Creek or Houserock Valley, included several attendant outbuildings, the foundations of which were the litter of perfectly-balanced boulders.
Although Bob and I were eager to carry on towards the North Rim, we could not pass up the opportunity of exploring the unique and quirky stone houses. They seemed to have slipped from the pages of fairytales.
We were free to wander at will but had to be careful of low ceilings and loose rocks. Using only the natural materials at hand, Blanche and Bill were able to construct solid, functional dwellings that were actually quite spacious inside.
We could see how the rustic stone structures could be cosy and comfortable and that they definitely would provide some measure of safety inside the thick stone walls. The roughly-hewn rocks within represented hours and hours of hard labour to shape their surfaces into usable proportions and configurations.
Some of the simple lodgings incorporated wooden door frames for entrances, and Blanche and Bill even went so far as to fashion crude windows into the buildings. Blanche was enamoured with the exquisite mountain views framed by these windows…
even though I didn’t think to capture such a scenic view through one of them rather than a picture of the parking lot and highway.
While Blanche and Bill played host to tourists in the area, it was a group of Mormons from Arizona who became regular clientele at their restaurant. Traveling the nearby Honeymoon Trail enroute to a temple in St. George, Utah, to have their marriages sanctified, they would stop by Blanche Russell’s Cliff Dwellers’ Lodge for sustenance and respite before carrying on.
Blanche and Bill toiled in Marble Canyon for ten years before tiring of the isolation. They sold the business to a local rancher, Jack Church, who turned the restaurant into a bar. That was during World War II. A third owner, Art and Evelyn Greene, relieved Jack of the business in 1943 retaining the old dwelling that by then consisted of eight outbuildings and a gas generator. It was from the Lodge that the Greenes offered the first guided boat tours of the Colorado River. During those years, the Greenes were unnerved when Atom bombs were being detonated in the Nevada Desert causing subsurface vibrations that threatened to topple even the largest boulders from their footings.
Business improved for a few years when Boy Scout troops and bus tours took in the intriguing Rock Houses and made Cliff Dwellers’ Lodge & Restaurant a pit stop on their travels. For the Greenes, the locale was still a pretty lonely place to live with no telephone service and only two radio stations to listen to on a good day. Eventually, their fears of the rocks tumbling over as the bottoms became worn had the Greenes moving away.
As Bob and I investigated the nooks and crannies within each Rock House, certainly we gave thought to the dependability of the now almost 100-year-old supporting walls and rocks, but a more tangible fear rose up in me, and that was the thought of coming upon a Rattlesnake. As during most of our excursions, we wore sturdy hiking boots, but socks would not protect me from a strike.
Blending almost perfectly with the pale desert sand makes Rattlesnakes almost impossible to spot. A waitress at today’s Cliff Dwellers’ Restaurant said that, during one 3-month stretch, she almost stepped on seven Rattlers walking the short distance between her lodgings and the restaurant. Sure glad that wasn’t me.
As Bob and I faced the grim desolation of the desert once again, we felt as though no human had ever set foot there before, except that we knew differently.
Frame To Frame – Bob and Jean