Grand Canyon Or Bust, Part 1

(This is Part 1 of a two-part post.)

It feels good to be back, focusing on and sharing Ursula’s life story once again. As noted in my previous post, before continuing with Ursula’s 1928 Hawaiian adventure, I’m going to backtrack to a trip she took with her mother, Clara, to the American Southwest.

While preparing to dig back into Mystery Dancer, I looked through the antique maroon velvet album again to reacquaint myself with the Cheshire family photos, and came across this gem:

Ursula and Clara Cheshire in the Grand Canyon 1926

Ursula (left) and Clara Cheshire tour the Grand Canyon in 1926.

On the back is scrawled, “Grand Canyon…1926.” Though mother Clara’s expression is difficult to read, Ursula’s spirited smile gives her a cheerful, playful air. She looks happy.

Ursula Cheshire, 1926

Ursula was about 24 years old when she and Clara visited the Grand Canyon in 1926.

1926 was an eventful year for Ursula: several newspapers across the nation reported that her divorce from Sydney Bartlett (along with those of several other American couples) was decreed official by the Paris courts. She also sang and acted to acclaim in the play “The Sin of David” in Los Angeles, and made her singing debut on the Warner Brothers’ KFWB radio station in Hollywood. And, at some point, she and her mother ventured to Arizona to see the Grand Canyon, at the time a relatively new national park.

The National Park Service itself was created only 10 years earlier, and in 1919, the Grand Canyon became the 17th designated National Park. Before 1925-26, most visitors arrived by train, disembarking at the Grand Canyon Railway Depot, virtually at the doorstep of the canyon’s south rim. With the growth in automobile production and ownership, as well as improved roads and new highways, recreational travel was becoming more popular in the United States. By the time Ursula and her mother visited, a majority of tourists came by car, with most of those hailing from California.

It’s impossible to say for sure how they got to the scenic natural wonder, what they did when they got there, or where they stayed. But some online sleuthing, as well as a closer examination of the photo, gave me some clues.

Santa Fe Train illustration

The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway developed the Grand Canyon area as a “destination resort” in the early 20th century.

The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway had recently developed the area as a “destination resort,” extending tracks directly to the Grand Canyon in 1901, as well as financing hotels there, and hiring the Fred Harvey Co. to manage them. By process of elimination, I had a pretty good idea of where mother and daughter might have stayed. Phantom Ranch was out, as it was situated below the rim, accessible only by foot, mule or boat. Ursula might have been game, but I doubt Clara would have gone for that, nor for Hermit Camp, also down in the Canyon, where guests stayed in tent cabins. Bright Angel, a hotel for middle-class tourists, was also doubtful.

The most likely place was El Tovar, a splendid hotel that the Santa Fe Railway opened in 1905 just 20 feet from the edge of the Canyon’s south rim.

Described as a cross between a Swiss chalet and Norway villa, it was geared toward a wealthy clientele, offering relative luxury in a rustic setting. The limestone and pine log building boasted hot and cold running water, steam heat and electric light. Ursula and Clara would have slept in sleigh beds and enjoyed meals featuring fresh fruits and vegetables grown in the hotel’s greenhouse, as well as fresh eggs and milk provided by the hotel’s own livestock.

El Tovar Hotel 1920s

Providing luxury accommodations, the historic El Tovar hotel opened in 1905 on the south rim of the Grand Canyon. (Photo: Nature and Science / Alamy Stock Photo)

They might have played piano and sung in the music room, strolled around the roof-top garden, viewed Native American crafts in the lobby under the light of copper chandeliers, and, near the hotel, watched Hopis in native dress demonstrate traditional dances.

Still welcoming tourists today, El Tovar is, according to its website, “widely considered the crown jewel of Historic National Park Lodges.” Someday I’d like to follow in Ursula’s footsteps, visiting the Grand Canyon, staying in the same hotel and seeing the same sights. 

(To be continued…)