Hubris, a Railroad Through the Grand Canyon, and the Death of Frank Mason Brown: A Parable for Our Time
“Really!? A railroad through the bottom of the Grand Canyon?” Crazy, right? But in fact, it came closer to happening than most realize. Here is the little-known story of how hubris killed the railroad’s president and saved the Grand Canyon. It offers a lesson on the fate of men who concoct such schemes and promise riches without regard to environmental consequences or costs to future generations. More
“Really!? A railroad through the bottom of the Grand Canyon?” Crazy idea, right? But in fact, it came closer to happening than most people realize.
This is the little-known story of how hubris killed the railroad’s president and saved the world’s most beloved canyon. Frank Mason Brown drowned in a whirlpool in the Grand Canyon because he was sure he could build a great railroad through its depths and become rich and famous. He believed he could define reality. Although he died 127 years ago, his kind of hubris remains alive and well in America.
Brown’s tragic expedition set out to survey the alignment of a railroad grade along the banks and cliffs of the Colorado River for 1,200 miles from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California. Its chief engineer, Robert Brewster Stanton, each day kept a revealing journal, which author Schmidt draws on heavily. In the midst of one river crisis after another, Stanton wrote frankly of his boss’s ignorance, incompetence, and mortally-bad judgment. Had the Grand Canyon not killed Brown, his railroad might have wrecked the Grand Canyon – desecrating its pristine cliffs, rapids, waterfalls, and raw wilderness, that adventurers experience today.
This story of the failed effort to build a railroad through the Grand Canyon offers lessons on our changing attitudes toward sacred places of nature, and the fate of hubristic men who concoct such schemes and promise riches without regard to environmental consequences or costs to future generations.