The Case of the Steamboat Sting, Dinosaur National Park, 1957

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By Tom Martin (Modified from “Otis Marston: The Colorado River Historian,” Volume 1, Book 4, available on Amazon Kindle)

Editor’s note: To adequately tell this river tale, readers need to understand that in the 1940s the National Park Service decided to promote commercial river running and keep the do-it-yourself river runners off park rivers. This directive had its foundations in the drowning of two ill-equipped National Park Service employees in 1929 at the Grand Canyon’s Horn Creek Rapid and was sent to every national park and monument. Otis “Dock” Marston made an effort to correct the agency’s action, pointing out the river wasn’t dangerous and that good lifejackets saved lives, not “experienced rivermen.” Marston showed the service that lots of do-it-yourselfer river people ran rivers in park service jurisdiction and did just fine. The park’s position was unmoved as they, in their river running ignorance at that time, believed the river was inherently dangerous.

Opening photo: Bus Hatch (left) and Horace Albright, Echo Park, 1955. (Photo courtesy Dinosaur National Monument Photo Archives)

The Steamboat Sting

Dinosaur National Monument Superintendent Jess Lombard used the river to showcase the beauty of his monument by giving Bus Hatch a commercial river running concession. By 1957, Grand Canyon and Dinosaur park staff were doing everything they could to force do-it-yourself river runners to apply for a permit where nine out of ten permits were then denied. If a self-guided river runner hadn’t already run the river before, their permit wouldn’t be approved. In this perfect Catch-22, signage at the put-ins stated a permit was required, allowing the park service to take private river runners to court if they lacked one.

In the summer of 1957, Hatch had a run-in with two park service rangers at Phantom Ranch in the Grand Canyon. Hatch boasted he could do no wrong based on his connections to the park’s top brass. Later that summer, Jess Lombard wrote his friend, Grand Canyon Superintendent John McLaughlin, that he faced “a heck of a problem with regard to this river running and may have to take some unpleasant steps to gain some measure of control.” Lombard mentioned a case in the hands of the regional solicitor for violation of Section 1.59 Boating. Lombard failed to mention that he and Bus Hatch were working together on these “unpleasant steps” which might have been one reason why Hatch acted as if he owned the river.

Dinosaur Superintendent Jess Lombard’s signs appeared in 1954 and 1955 at all the Dinosaur National Monument put-ins. (Photo courtesy Dinosaur National Monument Photo Archives)

Superintendent Lombard referred to an event that happened earlier in 1957 on the Yampa River involving Hatch and a bunch of locals out of Steamboat Springs, Colorado. River running had already become a “thing” in Steamboat, only 80 miles east of Yampa Canyon. A gentleman named Forrest Worm was one of Steamboat’s river people. A rancher living with his wife, Ruth, and children outside town, Worm’s river running friends were the usual mix of resort owners, stonemasons, shopkeepers and such. Forrest and his friends ran the Yampa in 1955, and wanted to run the river again in 1957, but with kids and work obligations, they could only get away for two days. So Worm planned to rent a couple of rafts from Bus Hatch and run a weekend day trip on the Yampa from Deerlodge to the Mantle Ranch. They’d make the run after the high-water peak but still have enough water in the river to make the 34-mile run in one day.

After much planning and arranging babysitters for the kids, Worm, Ruth, and seven other couples drove to Deerlodge. He worked out a deal with Hatch to rent two 10-man rafts for the day. Knowing he needed a permit from the monument, when Worm asked Hatch about it, Hatch said they didn’t need one. He claimed to be the “assistant ranger” and he’d take care of everything. The group drove out to Deerlodge late in the day on the last Friday of June and camped. They were up early and shoved away from shore at 6 a.m. the next morning. No one thought much about the fact that there were no bailing buckets, no spare oars, no lifejackets, and the boats were on their last legs. Two of the couples stayed behind and shuttled the group’s vehicles to the Mantle Ranch.

The day started off perfectly with no rapids of consequence. As the cold water started getting rough, spray began to soak the passengers and boatmen. The group stopped and scouted Teepee Rapid, after which the second boat was slow to launch while the first boat raced more than 300 yards ahead. About a mile below, the lead boat ran a hole and filled with water. Without any bailing buckets, the oarsman fought the boat to shore. All six people got out and tipped the boat up to empty it. Just then, they noticed the second boat coming along upside-down. When the six scrambled back in their raft to give chase, one of them drove their foot right through the bottom of the decrepit boat. As the first boat struggled to pull away from shore, the second raft sped by upside-down, with six people hanging on to small metal rings along its side. But there was no lifeline around its perimeter.

With a fresh hole in its floor, the first boat gave chase, its passengers throwing heavy items overboard, including a large cooler of food. The rescue boat filled with water, hampering its ability to catch the overturned raft. For a horrifyingly slow mile and a half the upright boat continued to gain on the flipped raft and its swimmers. After finally catching it, all the swimmers, including Forrest, were pulled up onto the upright raft still full of water. In a struggle to get the two boats and twelve people to the bank, one of the men attempted to jump to shore with a rope. He plunged into the river instead. After another half mile, the two boats made it to a tiny spot of shoreline at the base of a cliff.

The group righted the flipped boat but it was now without oars. The upright boat had oars but a hole in its floor. Neither boat had a repair kit. Four of the group were missing their shoes, most of them were hypothermic, and the river was rising due to storms to the east. The men tied the two boats together, loaded everyone in the dry boat, and headed downriver to a larger beach at the top of the next rapid. It looked easy enough to line the rafts one at a time down the shore past the worst of the rapid. But while lining the first boat, the one with the hole in its floor and the only remaining oars, a wave caught it and filled it with water. The boat took off downriver, ripping the rope right out of the men’s hands. One of the men chased it along the rocky shore for several miles but the boat outpaced him.

Then, their luck began to turn. Someone had brought some waterproof matches and started a fire. Everyone huddled around the blaze to warm up. Another person dug into the sandy beach and within a foot or so reached water. With a rusty can for a cup, the group had clear drinking water. Worm and another man tried to scale the cliffs above the river but were unable to reach the rim. At this point, Worm lit a tree on fire as a rescue signal. The fire spread to a dozen or more trees and those with shoes turned into firefighters, scrambling up the hillside to help contain the blaze. By now it was close to dark. The group huddled around their fire on the beach through the rest of the cold night.

Not far downstream at Mantle Ranch, the shuttle crew grew concerned when the day turned to evening. As the light faded, an upside-down boat trailing its bow line came into view. Fearing the worst, one couple stayed by the river all night while the second couple drove 40 miles to Artesia, Utah, and the nearest phone. At 11 p.m. they called the National Park Service requesting a search be started for the river crew.

There was nothing for the river party to do the next morning but wait for rescue and maintain their morale. One team member tried to make wooden shoes for those who lost theirs. Meanwhile, the park service mobilized a rescue and launched a motorized pontoon boat at Deerlodge at daybreak. When the rescue boat showed up around 8 a.m., the river runners let out a shout for joy and clustered around as the pontoon motored to shore, piloted by two rangers and a Hatch employee. The rangers spotted the signal fire and went to check the area before leaving. Nothing remained of it but ash and smoldering coals. The rangers, angry the group had started a forest fire, insisted the river runners put the signal fire dead out. Using a piece of innertube they found as a canteen, they made numerous trips from the burned area to the river and back, extinguishing the blaze.

By midafternoon, satisfied the group had stifled the fire,, the rangers took down everyone’s names and addresses and allowed the group to get on the pontoon and proceed to Mantle Ranch. After a heartfelt reunion with their friends, Worm and the others then headed for Steamboat dirty, tired, and thrilled to be alive. The river runners considered litigation against Bus Hatch for endangering them with false information and shoddy equipment, but decided not to press charges. They had, after all, made the decision to push away from shore regardless of the inadequate boats and lack of lifejackets. Meanwhile, the wheels of justice began to turn in the National Park Service because Worm had no permit.

That November, the Western River Guides Association held a meeting in Salt Lake City. Grand Canyon National Park Chief Ranger Lynn Coffin and Dinosaur Superintendent Lombard attended. The meeting contained the usual facts and figures: the Grand Canyon saw about 100 river runners in 1957 while Dinosaur saw about 1,100, with most of the Dinosaur use from Bus Hatch’s operation. More importantly, Lombard told the group about the ongoing “prosecution of a river party that had rafted Dinosaur last summer without a permit.” Lombard noted that “if the United States wins it may well have a bearing on cases in Grand Canyon National Park. On the other hand, if the U.S. loses, the least said the better.” In his report to his Superintendent at Grand Canyon, Coffin noted Dinosaur and its river operators planned “on giving the case wide publicity” as “the fact the United States would prosecute such cases had considerable value, win or lose.” Meanwhile, Lombard continued to write people who inquired about a boating permit in the monument that “unless we can be convinced that boats and other equipment are safe and adequate and that the operators or a guide is competent to safely negotiate the rapids in the rivers the permit cannot be issued.”

Six months later, Worm, his wife, and the other 10 river runners were summoned to appear in federal court in Denver. They were charged with boating in the monument without a permit, and Worm received two more charges of starting a fire without a permit and doing so in an unauthorized area. Each river runner faced a maximum penalty of six months in prison and a $500 fine. Worm faced an additional penalty of six months in prison, another $500 fine for the fire, and $251.28 to cover the cost of the rescue.

The river runners appeared in court in late June. They were fingerprinted after much discussion about the nature of their crime and then joined the other defendants including serious criminals, some in handcuffs and leg-irons. After hearing such cases as murder, assault, and all manner of burglaries, the judge read out their crime: “Floating through the Yampa Canyon without a permit.” That was followed by a moment of complete silence then the entire courtroom burst out in loud laughter. The judge released the river runners and the case was later thrown out of court.

As Lombard and the Western River Guides members wanted, the court case made it into a few newspapers. Then, Worm and his river running friends began to turn their own wheels of justice. One of the couples owned a dude ranch frequented by a few senators and congressmen. The lodge owners reviewed the entire affair with the legislators, noting they didn’t object to the park service’s resource protection efforts but to a superintendent in support of a permit system biased toward commercial operators. In November 1959 Superintendent Lombard received orders to transfer laterally without promotion to Wind Cave National Monument and the superintendent at Wind Cave assumed duties at Dinosaur. And that’s the story of the Steamboat Sting.

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