Major Powell & Captain Underpants

O. Henry: Major Underpants

The tales of the Powell expeditions down the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon are some of the most dangerous and challenging river trips in US history. As told by Wallace Stegner, they take on epic proportions and amazing historical relevance, especially when read just after my wife, oldest daughter and I took a trip down the river.

Several amazing feats arise in the telling and retelling of what is known as “The Rescue Story:” First, Stegner wrote his version of the rescue story in 1954, the year I was born [1]. Second the hero of the story, George Y. Bradley, lost nearly all of his clothes in the wreck of the No-Name early on as the Powell expedition entered the Great Unknown. He had little else to wear save the clothes he was wearing [2] and third John Wesley Powell had one arm. He lost his right arm in the battle of Shiloh during the Civil War and soldiered on with several operations and physical therapy. [3]

Powell Expedition near Green River City, May 1869

The date of the Rescue was July 7, 1869. At this point the ten boatmen on the Powell Expedition were already 45 days into their journey. They had launched their boat trip from Green River City, Wyoming and had successfully navigated and portaged through Flaming Gorge, Lodore Canyon, Desolation Canyon, Gray Canyon, Labyrinth Canyon, and Stillwater Canyon and they were about to head into Cataract Canyon. At the confluence of the Green and Grand Rivers, the waterway officially changes names to the Colorado.

Powell wanted to get an up-close view of the unexplored land above the confluence and he visually mapped-out a viewpoint up the bluffs and looking down on the Colorado River as it headed southwest. He took Bradley with him on the hike and they climbed up a steep part of the sandstone cliffs on a blistering hot day.

Somewhere on the cliffs, Powell made the awkward mistake of jumping from one foothold to another, grabbing a projection of rock with his one hand. Then he found himself “rimmed,” and unable to go forward or backward from the precarious perch. Standing on his tiptoes and clinging to a sandstone knob, he desperately shouted to Bradley, who was climbing above him. Bradley got down on his belly, but could not reach Powell with his hand, and there was no halfway foothold which Bradley could descend. The cliff had neither brush nor pole; Powell and Bradley had carried no rope with them.

Below Powell’s feet was a hundred-foot drop, a terrace, and then a longer drop. If he let go of the knob, he most certainly would fall clear down to the river’s edge. By this point Powell’s legs were trembling and his strength was beginning to waver. As a desperate measure Bradley sat down on the ledge above, unlaced his boots, removed his trousers and yanked off his long johns. That is right, he stripped and took off his gritty, sandy under garments and lowered them down to Powell. It sounded to me like an episode of The Adventures of Captain Underpants!

Captain Underpants to the Rescue

Underpants to the Rescue

Using what turned out to be perfect timing, Powell let go of the sandstone knob and half-falling away from the cliff, grabbed the underwear dangling just above his head. Bradley held tight to the garment and carefully, hand-over-hand, pulled Powell up to the ledge where he was sitting. Powell’s one-handed grip held firm and the two men were able to return to the boats safely with a rescue story to tell.

That underpants episode proved to be the first but not the only time that Powell had cause to thank his luck stars for Bradley’s presence on the Grand Canyon Expedition.


[1] Stegner, Wallace, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1954, page 72. Reflecting that he wrote this remarkable book 67 years ago, Stegner’s fiction and non-fiction stories have staying power.

[2] According to Powell, Bradley was “tough as a badger,” however, after the wreck of the boat, No-Name, which carried all of his personal gear, Bradley was left with ratty clothes and little underwear. The clothes Bradley was wearing were full of sand and grit, always chaffing at his privates as he rowed boats and scaled the local terrain.

[3] Powell invited Bradley to accompany him on his exploration of the barren landscape along the Uinta Valley at the junction with the Grand River. Powell, despite his single wing, was an excellent climber and quite agile. He did, however, need help this day and Bradley was prepared to assist in an unusual and MacGyver-like way.

Powell Expedition, 1869