Sunday, July 12, 2015

52 Ancestors #28: Last of the Covered Wagons: The Black Canyon Rim

Ancestor: Clarence Mern Beard (1885-1960)

My AncestryDNA test results have led to many interesting discoveries but one of the earliest connections I figured out was with a fifth cousin once removed. Her tree included many wonderful old photographs of her mother's Beard family, the line we share, and letters they wrote. Perhaps, the most treasured outcome of this cousin connection was the gift of friendship. My "new" cousin has shared many things about her life, including a book her uncle, Clarence Mern Beard, wrote about his family's trip west in a covered wagon at the turn of the century. Railroads already linked east and west so the trip was unusual in that the family was still traveling by covered wagon in the late 1890s. She has graciously allowed me to share portions of the book on my blog.

Clarence Mern Beard, his parents and siblings had spent two winters in the San Louis Valley area of Colorado but their living expenses were exorbitant and to meet them they had to work long hours. This left no time to improve any land they might decide to homestead or purchase. So they set off in their covered wagon in 1898 to continue on to California. The following excerpt from Clarence Mern Beard's book, Last of the Covered Wagons, describes a small portion of the leg of their westward migration.

"The next morning we moved comfortably down a splendid road and entertained the hope that it would only be a matter of miles before we should reach our destination. But the hills began to encroach up on our little valley and the waters turned into a racing, foam-crested torrent. After crossing a bridge, we notice that the river began to drop below us and that the road was threading its way across the face of a cliff. To our right were steep mountains and to our left was a sheer drop of thousands of feet, for we were crawling along the rim of the Black Canyon!

Wagon train traveling along a canyon road; source Union Pacific 

Much of that road had been blasted out of solid rock; and it represented such a difficult undertaking that we had the feeling that we might round a sharp turn, only to find that the road makers had abandoned the task altogether!

Except of an occasional wide place made for passing, this was strictly a one-way road. We wondered what would happen if we should chance to meet another vehicle on one of these extremely narrow stretches. We found the answer when we came face to face with two women who were in a buggy, driving what was fortunately, a gentle team. And this was perhaps the most unpromising section of that whole high cornice drive! But those ladies were Colorado born and appeared to be undisturbed by the situation. They helped us to unhitch their horses, which we led single file by our wagon. We then actually balanced their light buggy over the edge of the cliff, while mother drove our rig past the spot. After this, we dragged their buggy back on the road and re-hitched their team, thus we made a safe and successful meet on an impassable highway!

From those dizzy heights, we looked down at the foot of the gorge, upon what seemed to be toy trains gliding along a track, which fought to find room to wind its way beside the foaming river. Father threw a heavy stone out as far as he could and timed its fall by his watch, in an effort to estimate the depth of this chasm, which we were told measured over 3,000 feet.

This sheer drop was accentuated by the heavy shadows from the opposite wall, which at times closed to within 400 years of our side of that mighty rift. A feature of this canyon is the cathedral-like spire of solid granite, which towers over 1,000 feet above the canyon floor. From our precarious positions, we looked down upon this Curecanti's Needle, but in comparison with the massive walls, this impressive monolith was dwarfed. This whole region had been widely advertised as a scenic wonderland, but to us it brought breath-taking hazard."

Curecanti Needle as it might have looked in Clarence Mern Beard's time;
image courtesy of Detroit Photographic Co.

So the place on the map that today is considered a scenic tourist destination made for very hazardous travel conditions nearly 120 years ago. I find that quite thought provoking.

This is my entry for Amy Johnson Crow's 52 ancestors in 52 weeks challenge optional theme Road Trip.

Clarence Mern Beard was a born on 7 November 1885 in Ansley, Nebraska, to William Adam and Emma Elizabeth (Ellison) Beard. He was the second of nine children and their eldest son. Between 1895 and 1898 the family migrated west to Colorado and two years later to California. In 1912 Clarence married Helen May Banker and together they had two sons. Clarence died in on 29 August 1960 in Oakland, California.

Last of the Covered Wagons: Duck and Cover
Last of the Covered Wagons: Meeting a Rattlesnake


  1. You write very well, as does your Clarence. I'm fascinated with westward migrations like this. The risk and peril these families coped with for better lives is so admirable. The only modern equivalent would be the terrible stories of illegal immigrants or war refugees trying to get into the countries of their choice, I think.

    1. Our ancestors truly did risk life and limb in search of a better life for their children. There are so many amazing stories out there.

  2. What a wonderful treasure these stories are! Thanks for sharing them - I've gone back and read a few more now.

    1. Aren't they wonderful! I am so glad my cousin shared her uncle's book with me and gave me permission to blog about it.