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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Written By Yolonda Youngs
- 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