The Bradleys + Dinosaur National Monument

Contributed by Will Rice

They tell us our national parks are hereditary— that we tend to return to the same parks our grandparents took our parents. Thus is the nature of vacation destinations in general, no matter if its Yellowstone or the Panama City boardwalk. Each has an ancestor who pioneered the pilgrimage, though at times these lineages of place are almost too long to trace.

These parks pioneers share common qualities that transcend the places they have etched into their family tradition. They are often romantics: free spirits taken by the poetics of geysers or saltwater taffy. They are deeply dedicated to their brood: patriarchs and matriarchs determined to give their children the recreational opportunities that have eluded them throughout their lives. Perhaps most of all, they are fighters: unapologetically determined to protect the places they have chosen as their cross-generational homes.

Let me paint you a picture. At the center sits the unlikely couple of Cornelius and Mary Bradley. Cornelius, raised by missionaries in Bangkok, and Mary, raised by farmers in Vermont, are beaming college sweethearts and that eventually found themselves in Berkeley, where Cornelius got a job as an English professor. Not long after settling down, the two took up climbing in the nearby mountains and stumbled into this guy by the name of John Muir who was also rather fond of climbing and the English language. Cornelius and John started this rag-tag climbing club and traveled from the Bay Area to Yosemite for excursions with their little “Sierra Club”. It was all rather quaint.

Mary and Cornelius had a bunch of kids. One ended up as a bald-headed old man named Harold, who (for the purposes of this illustration) sits below his parent, spectacled and smoking a pipe, even though he knows that he probably shouldn’t. He doesn’t look too impressive, but he once hiked with John Muir. He sat in Muir’s house and heard him tell the famed Stickeen story in the flesh. He also grew up in a community that included the likes of Stephen Mather, Gifford Pinchot, and Joseph LeConte. If outdoor-privilege exists, Harold could serve as its posterchild.

Harold fell in love with this deaf girl named Josephine, moved to Madison, Wisconsin to teach chemistry, and had eight sons. Mary and Harold tried their best to keep their boys entertained, passing the brutal North Country winters by cross-country skiing in preparation for pilgrimages to their beloved Yosemite.  Harold recounts these excursions with a special level of dryness and nonchalance usually reserved for describing a trip to the grocery store:

We brought [our sons] into the Sierra on trips when they were six or seven years old. There’s one trip I remember with my eldest son, Charlie, when we decided to ski from the east side of the Sierra to the west side in 1935. We would end up in Yosemite Valley. We drove to Reno and took the stage coach south till we got to Lee Vining . We skied across Tioga Pass and down into Yosemite. It took five or six days to do this. When we got into the Valley it was dark, and a car stopped, and it turned out to be Ansel Adams. That was the start of a warm friendship with him. It was a good trip.

The most interesting trip of all was when two of my boys and I spent a winter in Tuolumne Meadows. We went in early February, 1947, and came out when the big warm clouds were coming, and we knew that winter was over. There was about eight feet of snow. The river was hidden, and we were the only ones there. It was a lot of fun to ski around Tuolumne Meadows.

“Oh yeah, my son and I like skied like a week through like the heart of the American wilderness and then happened to run into like the greatest landscape photographer in history and it was good trip I guess. Oh, and then once we spent all winter in the Yosemite highcountry. Kinda rad.” Bald-headed Bradley was a badass, okay.

It’s no doubt the Bradley boys ended up being pretty woodsy in their own right and many of them also became scientists like their father. David became a medical doctor. Richard became a physicist at Cornell. But how do you get out of your father’s shadow, the man who was coined by one contemporary as the “epitome of the outdoorsman”? Simple, you quit skiing and climbing and take up kayaking.

Stephen, David, and Richard Bradley became river rats.

It all began with Stephen. He started making his own collapsible kayaks, testing them on the Poudre and Arkansas rivers near his home in Boulder.  In 1951, a buddy asked Stephen to join him on a trip down the Green and Yampa rivers. In true Bradley fashion, they happened into legendary guide Bus Hatch and floated through Dinosaur National Monument for what most of us would consider the trip of a lifetime. Stephen was both impressed and alarmed. In 1951, the canyons of Dinosaur, and its Echo Park, were scheduled for demolition. The Bureau of Reclamation was seeking permission from Congress to build a dam in the national park so that the surrounding desert might bloom with monsoon crops and parched cities could grow to unnatural sizes large enough to make Powell cringe. It was almost too late to stop, but Stephan was to have none of it. He wrote in the Sierra Club bulletin shortly afterward:

[Dinosaur should be preserved] essentially as it is, natural undisturbed, and spectacular…The American people should have the opportunity to see and evaluate this park property before forced into a staggering, irrevocable decision they may regret forever.

In 1952 Stephen took his brother Charlie and father, Harold, down the Yampa and into Dinosaur. They became disciples. Harold got the Garden Club of America on board against the dams, writing:

The experience of threading our way through this superb gallery of matchless pictures displayed in everchanging vistas, left us aghast at the thought that Bureau of Reclamation engineers are calmly planning the destruction of the Monument.

Harold also filmed the trip and circulated his home movie around the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club. In following trips Richard and David would join the family. David contributed a chapter to Wallace Stegner’s book promoting the preservation of Dinosaur. In a personal essay “A Short Look At Eden”, he writes:

And what of the canyon rivers of Dinosaur? Are they worth more as kilowatts? At least you know that no other national park or monument reserves for you and your children, unspoiled, anything like them. Outside there are other canyons—Glen, the San Juan, Cataract and Labyrinth, even the big Grand itself. But, for all their majesty, not one can give you what these Dinosaur canyons give: elbow room, space, sport, the sense of being an intimate part of the living world.

The Bradleys and the Sierra Club took their battle to Congress. David, Richard, and Harold testified on behalf of wilderness, each in their own way. Harold and Richard, both scientists, were called as witnesses to explain the faulty science behind the proposed dam plan. The reservoir’s evaporation estimates, those projecting how much stored water was to evaporate from the manmade lake that inundated Dinosaur, provided by the Bureau of Reclamation were far too conservative. Richard, a physicist, found that the Bureau’s estimates contained twenty-five percent error. This meant, perhaps, that a lot of water could be lost to the desert heat.He wrote in his family’s annual newsletter:

Evaporation-shevaporation. The more I study the problem and the more people I contact the more I’m convinced no one, repeat NO ONE knows anything about what goes on on a real lake. Reclamation was pretty smart in selecting a field in which there are no experts and setting up camp and then giving out the word.

Congress took note. They became troubled by the water storage calculations provided by the Bureau. In a congressional hearing in 1955, David drove the point home:

I certainly recognize the need for a water project in western Colorado. I was there last summer and it is perfectly clear. But from the [evaporation] figures presented here I have reason to suspect the soundness of every dam proposed here, and I would suggest to my Congressman that he look on the whole project with a good deal of suspicion…

May I point out this is a natural temple. Echo Park is a temple which has been many millions of years in the building. It belongs to the people of this country and has been reserved to them from all forms of appropriation.

Some 1,900 years ago a man, who was imbued with more brotherly love than most men have, found money changers desecrating His temple, and He got angry and He threw them out. We had money changers in our temples before. We have thrown them out in the past, and with the help of this good committee we shall do it again.

The dam in Dinosaur was never built. The Colorado River Basin was tamed in Glen Canyon, Lake Mead, and elsewhere, but not in Echo Park.


The theory goes that Harold and Josephine Bradley showed their sons the American wild, the same wild shown to Harold by his father, and some thirty years later those boys sacrificed half of a decade to the cause of saving a slice of it. It almost appears too romantic, that a few brothers could affect that kind of preservation against such odds. Maybe it is. Maybe it’s not. Our national parks are filled with stories just like this one, of ordinary people saving the spectacular for us all.

I don’t know whether Dave, Steve, and Ric solely saved Dinosaur, for me and you and the lizards to enjoy in perpetuity. But I know that it remains, that I can’t drive my car over the Echo Park dam, that Echo Park is still out there. And today it feels like spring and I want to go paddling. And I guess, in this moment, all I really care about is that the Yampa is running free. I could use some “elbow room”.

This piece relies heavily on Mark W. T. Harvey’s A Symbol of Wilderness : Echo Park and the American Conservation Movement

Photo courtesy of This is Dinosaur (Harold Bradley)

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