The Tunnels In Mooney Falls, Havasu Canyon

There is some disagreement about the origin of the tunnels in Mooney Falls. The few guidebooks which mention them repeat the same basic story. Examples:

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, miners searched for minerals throughout the Havasupai area. Most of the major activity took place in Carbonate Canyon near Havasu Falls, but tunnels and other evidence of mining activity can be found all along Havasu Creek from Havasu Falls to the Colorado River. Miners were also responsible for cutting the route through the travertine formation at Mooney Falls.
from Hiking the Grand Canyon And Havasupai, Larry A. Morris, AZTek corporation, Tucson, AZ, 1981, p. 130.
The falls take their name from a prospector who died here in 1882. Assistants were lowering him down the cliffs next to the falls when the rope jammed. After hanging helpless for 3 days, Mooney fell to his death on the rocks below when the rope broke. A rough trail descends beside the falls along the same route hacked through the travertine by miners a year after Mooney's death. You'll pass through 2 tunnels and then ease down with the aid of chains and iron stakes.
from Arizona Handbook, Bill Weir, Moon Publications, Chico, California, 1986, p. 66. wrote me with this well-researched note debunking this story:

The stories of Mooney's death as told in Morris and other guide books all seem to stem from the account in G.W. James book In and About the Grand Canyon (1). Since then the story has been repeated by many authors including J. Donald Hughes (2) and Stephen Hirst (3). The story runs basically as you quoted from Morris with the additions that the miners built a ladder to reach the body, which was found to be heavily encrusted with lime, then buried Mooney on the island below the falls.

There appear to be several errors in the story as told in the literature of the Grand Canyon. In the August 1959 issue of Arizona Highways there appears an article titled Mooney Falls by Helen Humphreys Seargeant that rips James story to shreds. Her father and uncle were early miners in Supai and her uncle, Alphonso Humphreys, was part of Mooney's party.

Even the name James Mooney appears to be incorrect, a copy of the Cataract Canyon Mining Claims from the Department of Mineral Resources in Phoenix dated 1879 lists the following miners: Alphonso Humphreys, D. W. (not James) Mooney, H.J. Young, W.C. Beckman, Mat Humphreys and W.W. Jones. The claim runs thru 1883, the year following Mooney's death.

A. Humphreys, Young, Beckman and Mooney had made several trips to the canyon prior to Mooney's last trip but had been unable to find a route to get below the falls. On the trip in 1882, the original party added three men, Fowler, Potts and E.L. Doheny (later of California oil fame).

In a letter in H.H. Seargeant's possession, Alphonso Humpreys wrote (4):

I well remember the trip that Mooney fell. We had been down in the canyon about three days when Mooney fell and was killed, and we had no way to get down to bury his remains till eleven months and a day.

The day Mooney fell we were all down in the canyon except Beckman, and when we returned to camp there was no levity amoung us. Beckman noticed that, and not seeing Mooney he asked about him, and Doheny told him he fell and was killed. The next morning before any of us was up he went down to the cliff to see if Mooney had moved. He untied the rope and tossed it down with his boots and said, this is all the funeral I can give you this time. Mooney, before starting down on his rope had pulled off his boots and asked me to lend him my belt which was a wide one. I have never seen the belt to this day, but Mooney's boots showed us the way to go down and bury him. We noticed the boots on an Indian. We asked him how he got the boots. To make a long story short, Young went with the Indian, who showed him the way he went down - a dangerous trip along a crevice in the wall of the canyon part of the way. Young wouldn't try that trail, but the Indian showed us some little caves, and we made the tunnel thru the cliff.

The next year the miners returned along with Mat Humphreys and found the Indian again who showed them a small cave leading into the overhang along the south bank. They made the cave larger and blasted out a slanting tunnel, made the steps, and suspending one of the party on a rope, set the iron spikes in the cliff below the tunnel. Mat Humphreys did the drilling and said that he almost stood on his head while doing so.(5)

It is interesting to note that there is no mention of Mooney hanging from the rope for three days, a twist to the story apparently invented by James. The miners buried Mooney's preserved, lime-encrusted body on the little island below the falls, but one of the elder members of the tribe told me that a flood had exposed the remains and Mooney was reburied up on a ledge on the west side of the canyon. The exact location is currently unknown.

The ladder below the falls was built later leading to a mine entrance. Originally the lower part was of wood and it became something of a feat for the young men of Supai to climb the ladder and jump into the creek. In 1954 a rung broke on the wooden portion of the ladder causing severe injuries to a youngster. To prevent a similar accident in the future the Indian Agent at the time had the lower section of the ladder removed, but the metal upper reaches of the ladder can still be seen today.(6)

(1) James, George Wharton In and Around the Grand Canyon, Little, Brown and Co. 1907, pages 246-247.

(2) Hughes, J. Donald The Story of Man at Grand Canyon, Grand Canyon Natural History Association 1967, page 91.

(3) Hirst, Stephen Life in a Narrow Place, David McKay Company, New York 1976, page 56, footnote 1.

(4) Seargeant, Helen Humphreys Mooney Falls, Arizona Highways, Volume 35 number 8, August 1959, pages 23-24

(5) Ibid., page 24

(6) Wampler, Joseph "Havasu Canyon - Gem of the Grand Canyon" Berkeley California, 1959, page 99

Copyright © 1999 by
from email of 23 September 1999.

On the other hand, Bob McNichols writes me that:

The tunnels you went through to get from the top of Mooney to the bottom are natural, not blasted. They are created from the water dripping off the top and the travertine dissipating from it, leaving the open space behind it.
from email of 10 October 1998.

I questioned Bob about his interpretation, since this formation process is contrary to the explanation given in the book Grand Canyon Geology (eds. Stanley S. Beus and Michael Morales, Oxford University Press, 1990), which states on pp. 479-480:

The travertine is formed by the precipitation of calcium carbonate as the creek waters warm and evaporate. The travertine tends to encrust the surface and to take the form of any objects over which the water passes.

Hence the usual process is for the travertine to "increase its width and size" (p. 480), which would fill in holes rather than enlarge holes or create new ones. The process that Bob espouses is what happens in cave formation, where water that is not already saturated with calcium carbonate dissolves limestone.

However, Bob McNichol's credentials are impressive and he has a lot of experience observing the travertine in Havasu Canyon. He writes:

I've worked with the Havasupai for over 20 years and have spent a lot of time watching the travertine form, break away, and reform. I have spent a lot of time with my staff blasting out natural travertine dams which cause the water to back up too deep for the horses to cross the trail, and rebuilding the Havasupai Falls dam after the travertine pools washed out and drained the pool below Havasupai Falls where everyone swims. I have worked with Wright Water Engineers who worked on rechanneling the creek, building bridges, etc. after the floods. I've worked with USGS from Flagstaff and Denver on water assessments, quality and quantity. I've worked with Indian Health Service on water supply and distribution; with BOR on irrigation operation and maintenance; with EPA and Corps of Engineers on Section 104 and 106 Clean Water Permits, with NRCS on feasibility of aquaculture; with ASCS and SCS on farmland planning; UofA and Mohave County and Coconino County Extension on lots of water issues; and numerous others.

When they have a flood or other emergency, I am the first one they call. I work with the tribal attorneys on water rights protection. I assist them with the Forest Canyon Village development responses which was first proposed to pump water from the aquifer which feeds Cateract Creek. I've assisted in funding and contracting a number of wells, the most recent on Bar 4, 3200 feet deep. I know Havasupai.

If you look at your photos of Mooney Falls (or Havasu Falls), you will see the veils of travertine that form leaving large empty spaces behind them. Many of these veils have broken off during the floods over the years but still very apparent how they form. If you watch as you are climbing through the tunnel, you can easily observe the natural formation with the rough natural surface, the pieces of wood which have travertined over and the way wood and other materials are laid thru the travertine in a natural setting. The veils occassionally break off from their own weight, or through flooding which leaves an obvious change in the way the precipitate builds up. If you have ever swam over behind Havasu Falls and climbed up on the ledge directly behind the falls, approximately 12 feet above the water level, where we go to dive into the Falls, that also is very obviously created from the travertine veil. The tribe has done a little work on the trail at Mooney by chiseling in some steps and footholds, installing the chains to hold on to, and making the trail more passable, but the tunnels are natural.

The mines never amounted to much. There was some lead hauled out but it never became economic. The shafts you mention were primarily from the prospecting.

Steve from Prescott, AZ contributed some key observations on this issue:

I am an experienced Supai hiker with 15 years of annual trips and observations. Those tunnels ARE man made, even though there were probably natural openings where they were built. They have square corners inside and steps on the floor. No natural process here.

Perhaps the truth here is a bit of both stories, as is often the case in contested matters. The Arizona Highways article states that the tunnels began with a natural cave, which was enlarged by blasting, with man-made tunnels created in addition to the natural cave. Hence the current-day tunnels would show both evidence of being made by man in places and of being natural in others.

I thank the three contributors quoted above for enlightening me and readers on this fascinating story. If any readers have additional historical or geological information that would shed further light, please email me.

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Last update: 14 October 1999.