“I have always said that I would make more money out of the Grand Canyon than any other man.” Ralph H. Cameron, an entrepreneur in both business and politics, desired nothing less than a fortune from the canyon, and did not mind misusing laws—or his influence—to obtain it. From the time he arrived in Arizona in 1883, until he left under a cloud of disapproval after his single term in the Senate ended in 1927, Cameron used mining laws for many purposes other than mining.
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Although Cameron began his work in the Grand Canyon legitimately, he drifted away from lawful practices, seeking more power and more money. Cameron wandered from early mines at the Grand Canyon to early tourist trails and eventually to Congress. But his routes repeatedly crossed opponents, from railroad companies to the federal government. He masked personal interests as public-mindedness, a charade hard to conceal forever. Seeing how Cameron bilked the public and opposed federal conservation efforts offers a window to the ways such questionable ethics undermined the public good to feed simple greed.
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A sense of adventure—and the prospect of economic success—inspired Cameron to move from Maine to Arizona when he was 20 years old. John Wesley Powell’s account of exploring the Grand Canyon in 1869 stirred Cameron’s imagination. In the nineteenth-century West, mining offered the quickest, if not the surest, route to riches and land via the generous terms of the General Mining Law of 1872. The law made it easy for individuals to acquire western lands, for legitimate and illegitimate purposes. The easy terms and weak supervision led some to label the law an anachronism, yet it withstood most attempts at reform. For his part, Cameron used the law to pursue riches for three decades, using strategies across the spectrum of legitimacy.
In 1890, Cameron, his brother Niles, and the explorer Peter Berry claimed an area below Grandview Point for copper, calling it the Last Chance Mine. The best ore samples tested at an astounding 30 percent copper. But the work was full of ups and downs, sometimes over the course of a couple hours, as Berry reported in 1892:
Ralph struck the Bonanzi. We worked on it till 6pm and Dug it all out at 4pm were ragged assed millionaires at 6pm no millionaire but ragged ass all the same.
They had dug out 500 tons of ore by 1896. But the quality declined, and copper prices dropped. They soon sold their claims.
Cameron pursued other, less legitimate enterprises ten miles to the west by air, though it was much farther by trails. During the winter of 1890, Cameron, with others, improved a trail the native American Havasupai tribe had long used. He controlled what has become known as the Bright Angel Trail, a popular route from rim to river and charged a toll for tourists using it. He also acquired mining claims at Indian Gardens, a plateau halfway down the canyon that featured a permanent spring, a rare oasis in the desert and a place easy to exploit for water and as a resting spot.
The sites Cameron claimed were at vital points—the head of the Bright Angel Trail, at Indian Gardens, and the like. In the first part of a two-part article about Cameron, the historian Douglas H. Strong explained the strategy: “Cameron sought to control the four most strategic points along the trail and thereby command access to the canyon.” Cameron multiplied this strategy, with one source identifying 13,000 acres occupied by his 100 mining claims. Such an accumulation did not square with the General Mining Law’s intent, but by this point Cameron was focused mainly on securing as large a share as possible of the growing tourist trade.
The Bright Angel trailhead sat at a strategic point at what is now the center of canyon tourism, Grand Canyon Village. Ever entrepreneurial, Cameron built a hotel, but competition proved brutal when the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad completed a spur line from Williams, Arizona in 1901. The railroad located its terminus near another hotel, so that passengers would bypass Cameron’s lodge. A tourist could step out of a hotel in Williams, step onto the train, then disembark and walk straight into another hotel—all under the same management.
In Cameron’s view, this was an unethical business combination. He pitched himself as a scrappy competitor, battling the monopoly of the Santa Fe Railroad and the Fred Harvey Company, the railroad’s hospitality arm. Counterclaims followed. The Sante Fe argued that its claims predated Cameron’s and pointed out that his land contained minimal mineral content, thereby violating the mining law. Cameron blocked the company’s access to his land. A road the company built turned to dirt at his property boundaries, only to pick back up on the other side.
A strange stalemate set in. In 1909, the General Land Office (GLO), the federal agency within the Department of the Interior that administered western land claims, ruled that Cameron’s claims along the Bright Angel Trail were not legitimate, a ruling he both appealed and ignored. In 1912, the GLO again denied Cameron’s claims and ordered him off them, declaring this the final decision. But nothing ever seemed final with Cameron, and he seldom followed orders.
During this exact period, 1909-12, he served as a delegate to Congress for the Arizona Territory. During his term, Arizona achieved statehood, a victory for which Cameron took credit. His political ambitions, in fact, seemed to track roughly with his expansive efforts at finding fortune. Cameron, in other words, decided to diversify his approach, establishing a series of platinum mine claims along the Colorado River, scattered across 25 river miles. In reality, these platinum mines were hydropower sites and included areas outside the Grand Canyon where the federal government planned to build Boulder Dam (later renamed Hoover Dam).
In the midst of these schemes, Cameron unsuccessfully ran for governor in 1914 as a Republican, telling a business partner, C. Frank Doebler: “I think I have a good chance of success and you know it will mean something for us to have the Governor of the State with us—or in a position to boost our game.” Cameron saw public office as a way to smooth business ambitions. But his ambition did not match his success.
In a typical pattern, he used his considerable charm and persuasiveness to court eastern investors, but as the courting continued, his shaky title to the land became apparent, and the deals collapsed. In one partnership with G. Henry Stetson, a millionaire from the famed hat family, Cameron directed Stetson to claim sites along the Bright Angel Trail. But as Strong showed in the second article of his two-part article, the GLO had already invalidated these claims, and further evidence emerged showing the claims to be fraudulent. As Strong dryly observed:
All of Cameron’s transactions… might have held promise except for two continuing problems: the mining properties lacked sufficient mineral value, and Cameron still had no legal title to them.
So Cameron had spent decades using the mining law, only to be repeatedly thwarted because he routinely violated its spirit and letter.
Westerners like Cameron bristled against the power of corporations based outside the region—and the federal government. Cameron personified such attitudes and, as such, gathered local sympathy and channeled their frustrations. When the federal government’s power at the Grand Canyon grew, he struck back from a new position of power: as a U.S. Senator, beginning in 1921.
But he struck bottom again—and for good. Mainly because of self-interest, Cameron objected to the intrusion of federal conservation at the Grand Canyon. Parts of the region became a forest reserve in 1893, then a game preserve in 1906, after that a national monument in 1908, and finally a national park in 1919. Cameron challenged the president’s authority to create national monuments under the Antiquities Act (1906). The United States, in turn, challenged the validity of Cameron’s claims at the South Rim and demanded he remove “certain buildings, filth, and refuse” from them.
As the historian Hal K. Rothman argued, the Antiquities Act often functioned as an emergency conservation measure to protect a landscape or historic site endangered by desecration like that evident at Cameron’s claims. When the case came before the Supreme Court in 1920, Cameron maintained that the president had no authority to create the national monument, suggesting there were no “objects of historic or scientific interest”—the requisite statutory language—at the Grand Canyon. The Supreme Court scoffed at such a claim and affirmed the Department of the Interior’s judgment that Cameron’s claims were nonmineral.
As with the earlier GLO judgments, Cameron did not act to vacate his claims. Cameron’s obstinacy continued and the NPS tired of accommodating it. The Park Service focused its ire on Indian Gardens. The caretakers there did not care well for this green spot on the descent. Tents were ratty. Trash accumulated. They allowed the water source and privies to intermingle and created a typhoid problem. The public presumed the NPS was in charge, sullying its reputation. When the eviction finally happened, agents discovered that Cameron’s workers kept an illegal still, supplying the rim with bootleg whiskey, a fact that undermined Cameron’s reputation during Prohibition.
As a senator, Cameron took his revenge on the Park Service, becoming the agency’s “arch-villain,” according to Robert Shankland, a biographer of NPS Director Stephen Mather. In 1922, Cameron withdrew the appropriations for Grand Canyon National Park. Back and forth this went between the Senate and House for three months, until a compromise ensured reduced, but not eliminated, funding. So egregious was Cameron’s interference at the Grand Canyon that administrative mail concerning Cameron’s mining claims had to be sent to park rangers’ wives: Cameron’s brother-in-law, L. L. Ferrall, served as postmaster at the South Rim and intercepted the mail.
Ferrall did not limit his assistance to redirecting mail. Although Cameron had lost or been evicted from many claims, his earlier claiming frenzy meant he still nominally held some. In 1922, the GLO found more than two dozen of his claims to be nonmineral. By ignoring orders and finagling postponements of hearings, Cameron managed to delay proceedings until December 1925, when the local GLO official found for Cameron, saying his claims were legitimate. The official was Ferrall, whose position had been secured because of his brother-in-law’s influence in the capital.
But the GLO Commissioner chastised Ferrall for ignoring the appropriate laws and overturned the decision. Cameron’s days in the canyon were done. So were his days in the Senate. While he had helped secure funding for some local projects, his overall record and character tired Arizonans. The historian Blaine P. Lamb aptly summarized Cameron’s senatorial career:
…he garnered an unsavory reputation in the state and in the Senate through charges of personal impropriety and political corruption, his attacks on the Forest Service, and his steadfast opposition to the construction of Boulder (later Hoover) Dam on the Colorado River.
During his reelection campaign, the Los Angeles Times published a series of articles that revealed irregularities with his campaign funds. Voters sent his opponent Carl Hayden to the Senate in 1926, where he remained until he chose not to run for reelection in 1968. Cameron left Arizona without his political career, mining claims, or reputation intact.
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“I never had a motive in my life that was not honorable and I defy any man to say otherwise.” So said Cameron in 1924, as he tried to convince the Los Angeles Times of his civic-mindedness. If that had been true once, it stretched credulity by the mid-1920s. Cameron profited from the public, both public lands and public office, and although he was far from alone in that practice, his self-aggrandizement was especially egregious.
He saw himself as an anti-monopolist, striking back against the power of the railroad and various federal agencies. Yet his efforts to control tourist access points and critical hydropower sites showed his own penchant for monopolies. Although personally charming, Cameron overstayed his welcome. Whatever he achieved in developing northern Arizona’s economy eventually collapsed beneath the weight of his character flaws. One critic said he was the man who thought he owned the Grand Canyon, but today, a full century after the park’s creation, his grave in the Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery is forgotten, and Cameron is remembered, if ever, only in ignominy.