Voices From a Drowned Treasure: The Music Temple Register

Lake Powell, here exhibiting a prominent "bathtub ring" in 2007 due to low water, permanently submerged Music Temple nearly half a century ago. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Music Temple, one of Glen Canyon's most attractive side canyons, was submerged beneath Lake Powell more than 50 years ago. Fortunately, the Colorado River traveler's register kept there was moved to safety and preserved in a university library.

Soon after the Glen Canyon Dam began blocking the flow of the Colorado River in 1963, the rising waters of Lake Powell began drowning many places of scenic, geologic, biologic, and cultural interest. The loss of these special places was part of the price paid for gaining the hydropower, storage capacity, flatwater recreation, and other benefits of this enormous dam and its correspondingly huge reservoir, the focal attraction of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Included among the places sacrificed to create Lake Powell were some amazingly intact Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) cliff dwellings and other sites of exceptional archeological or cultural significance.

Also lost were many places of exceptional beauty. Dozens of small canyons that branched from Glen Canyon were a delight to the eye (or spooky), and bore names like Balanced Rock Canyon and Dungeon Canyon. Some of the larger canyons were downright awe-inspiring. Among the latter was Music Temple, an amphitheater-like canyon on Navajo tribal land about three miles below the mouth of the San Juan River, the Colorado's main tributary in that area.

In 1869, John Wesley Powell -- the first white man to navigate, survey, and document the Colorado River system -- described his initial encounter with this remarkable place, which he entered through a grove of magnificent box elders and cottonwoods:

... we find ourselves in a vast chamber carved out of rock. At the upper end there is a clear, deep pool of water, bordered with verdure. Standing by the side of this, we can see the grove at the entrance. The chamber is more than 200 feet high, 500 feet long, and 200 feet wide. Through the ceiling and on through the rock for a thousand feet above, there is a narrow, winding skylight...

Enthralled with the acoustical qualities of the canyon (a one-second note was said to resonate for 11 seconds) Powell was inspired to give it the musical name by which we know the place today. In his own words:

When 'Old Shady' sings us a song at night, we are pleased to find that this hollow in the rock is filled with sweet sounds. It was doubtless made for an academy of music by its storm-born architect; so we name it ‘Music Temple.’

During both of his visits to Music Temple (the second occurring in 1871), Powell and several crew members chiseled their names into the soft sandstone at the end of the canyon. These acts established Music Temple as a historically significant "register" site on the Colorado River.

Almost a century passed between Powell's discovery of Music Temple and its submergence beneath Lake Powell. The visual magic of the place was captured on film for posterity, but only the few thousand adventuresome people who passed that way on the Colorado River had the chance to personally experience Music Temple.

When commercial outfitters began offering river tours through Glen Canyon, Music Temple immediately became a popular stop. These early tourists found Music Temple enchanting. They also added to Music Temple's visitor register, which grew through the decades as Colorado River trips became safer, more enjoyable, and more affordable.

The increased access made possible by the advent of the inflatable raft era after World War II would have astonished John Wesley Powell. By the late 1940s, even church and Boy Scout groups were taking float trips through Glen Canyon and stopping to visit Music Temple.

The format of the Music Temple visitor register had already shifted by the time this postwar influx got underway. By the late 1930s, a metal box had been placed at Music Temple so visitors could use notebooks or notepads ( or whatever paper happened to be available) to record dates, names, thoughts, feeling, and other information instead of chiseling their names into the sandstone in the manner of earlier visitors.

Like the registers at other western river sites, Music Temple's visitor register, which was maintained from 1938 to 1961, evolved into a diverse collection of signatures, observations, terse remarks, verses, sketches (commonly boats, scenery, or faces), and other written documentation. It thus became a veritable treasure trove of historically significant information -- not just about Music Temple and Glen Canyon in their pristine, pre-inundation condition, but also about Colorado River float trip tourism during a pivotal period of growth and change.

The Music Temple visitor register was moved to safety in 1961, not long before Music Temple itself was swallowed by impounded Colorado River water. Through two separate donations, it now resides in the Special Collections department of the University of Utah's J. Willard Marriott Library in Salt Lake City.

The library's Music Temple Register collection is in two boxes. The first box contains the following six folders:

folder 1: Loose Pages (1938-1956)
folder 2: Notebook (1946-1952)
folder 3: Notebooks (1953-1956)
folder 4: Notebook (1958-1960)
folder 5: Notebook (1961)
folder 6: Notebook (1946-1952)

The second box contains an additional folder of loose pages covering the period 1938-1956.

Photocopies of all these materials are available for use. Access to the originals requires special permission.

Associated collections at this library include photographs of Music Temple, audio recordings of singing in Music Temple, and miscellaneous other relevant materials.

For additional information about the Music Temple Register, contact the Special Collections department of the J. Willard Marriott Library at 801-581-8863 or 801-581-3886.

Comments

An excellent book, The Place No One Knew, by Eliot Porter is available at Amazon and other places. Published by the Sierra Club. Great photos of Glen Canyon before the water came.

What a crime to flood such a place--- all for the advancement of "progress" and to light up Las Vegas-- pretty sad

What's really sad is the fact that after selling Glen Canyon as a way to eliminate the need for any coal fired plants in the area, it was only a few years before two ginormous fume-spewers were built not far from there.

But at least attempts a few years later to plunk a dam in the inner gorge of Grand Canyon was successfully beaten back.

I hope I live to see the day when the travesty that is Glen Canyon Dam is destroyed and the Colorado River can begin its recovery of this spectacular landscape.

My understanding is that the more direct trade was allowing the dam at Glenn Canyon in order to prevent a dam in Dinosaur National Monument, I believe at Echo Park. The story is that David Brower (Sierra Club) regretted making that political trade before seeing Glenn Canyon. If I recall correctly, John McPhee's Encounters with the Archdruid includes a story of Brower floating through Glenn Canyon with Floyd Dominy. I second your recommendation of Porter's book.

Yet another great book on this topic is Russell Martin's A Story That Stands Like a Dam: Glen Canyon and the Struggle for the Soul of the West.

Brower and Dominy went on their rafting trip together, the subject of McPhee's chapter in Archdruid, through the Grand Canyon, not Glen, after the dam was built.

But you're correct, Brower regretted that tradeoff until the day he died, and he never made another one like it. Brower said that it wasn't conservationists' role to propose compromises. That's what politicians are for. Conservationists should advocate for protection, period. The politicians then take that viewpoint into account along with competing viewpoints and craft a solution. It's then up to the conservationists to decide whether to support or oppose the compromise.

Another great book that touches on the dam era is Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey.
By the time I discovered this book as a teenager, Glen Canyon was already lost. It opened my eyes to the fact that our natural wonders mean nothing to the powers that be.