Arizona Pioneer & Cemetery Research Project

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Lees Ferry Cemetery


By: Kathy Block


Fort at Lees Ferry Crossing


Lees Ferry site on the Colorado River on the Arizona Strip has an interesting history and a pioneer cemetery at nearby Lonely Dell Ranch.  We visited this site most recently in August 2001 when we took the photos accompanying this article.


Located just north of Marble Canyon, Lees Ferry was the site of the last crossing option on the Colorado River before it plunged into its 227 mile ravine. Sitting below red rock cliffs, it is now a thumb of Glen Canyon National Recreation area and the favored put-in spot for river runners.


The site of Lees Ferry has a long history dating back to March 1864 when Mormon frontiersmen and Indian missionary Jacob Hamblin and his 15 men built a raft at the mouth of the Paria River and crossed the Colorado downstream at point that would become Lees Ferry.


They posted guards at the Ute Ford/Crossing of the Fathers and at "Pahreah Crossing" (Lee's Ferry) in winter of 1869-1870. From 1876 to 1890 the ferry was very busy. 



Mormon couples traveled from Arizona settlements to have their marriages solemnized in new temple in St. George, Utah and road earned title "The Honeymoon Trail."


Ferry fees for Mormon travelers were $2.00 per wagon, $1.00 per horse and rider, and .25 per head of stock.  Non-Mormons paid about 50 percent more.


In 1871 John Doyle Lee, for whom Lees Ferry is named, became the first permanent resident of the area.  Lee established a ranch on the valley floor within a large meander of the Paria River. When 4th wife Emma Lee first saw the isolated valley that was to be her home, she supposedly cried, "Oh, what a lonely dell". 


She was the 4th of John Lee's 19 wives and 60 children. (Photos of John D. Lee and many of his wives, plus photo of him in his coffin after he was executed are on family web site: www.johndlee.net. ) Ever after the place was known as Lonely Dell. Crops and livestock raised here provided economic support for the ferry operators, their families, and others through the 1940s. John D. Lee built a cabin for Emma in January 1872 and it was known as Emma's cabin.


The Ranch Cemetery is located about 200 yards northwest of the ranch buildings and contains graves dating from 1874 to 1928. Buried here are four of Warren Johnson's children, who contracted diphtheria from a passing traveler and died within a period of four weeks. The graves in the cemetery are spread out in rows surrounded by red dirt and the National Park Service has a cable fence around it and maintains the grounds. (Photo of cemetery on National Park Service web site)



Records show that there were 41 babies born at Lees Ferry from the 1870s to the 1930s and that 22 people died at Lees Ferry during that period.  Was unable to locate information on how many people are currently buried there.


The Lonely Dell Ranch in the 1870s was apparently run with a firm hand by Emma Batchelor Lee, the fourth wife, who did backbreaking work of managing her husband's ferry, homesteading, and rearing six children. A short item in Arizona Highways magazine, May 2002, page 5, gives anecdote that she was alone as her sixth child was being born in 1873.


She summoned her oldest child, Billy, age 12 to help with the birth and not tell their others about their new sister until supper! She needed an hour to rest. Husband John D. Lee was often gone, tending his other families and evading lawmen for his role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.


He had been sent by the church to build the ferry, but eventually was captured and executed by firing squad at Mountain Meadows in 1877. Emma stayed on the ranch and married Franklin French and became known as a frontier midwife and healer. She died in 1897 and a monument marks her grave at Desert view Cemetery in Winslow.


The ranch continued to be an ideal outpost for the fundamental Mormons who feared increasing persecution from state officials and even from the now anti-polygamy LDS Church.


The families of Warren Johnson's sons continued to live at the ranch even after the ferry operation ceased.  By 1936 increased visitation to the area by travelers and tourists prompted the Mormons to leave the ranch and move to Short Creek, now Colorado City, a town on the Arizona-Utah border. 


After 1936 the Lonely Dell Ranch had a number of owners, including the Babbitt brothers of Flagstaff fame, until it was finally procured by the National Park Service, in 1974.  The last owners stripped the ranch of valuable furniture and other historic materials. 



Fire destroyed the large Johnson home in 1926 (Warren Johnson was father of the 4 daughters buried in the cemetery). 


The National Park Service ordered the razing of Charles Spencer's rock buildings in 1967, a move regretted today. Spencer had established mining operations and the ill-fated, short lived "Charles Spencer" steamboat that made only a few runs in 1911 and then sunk!



This is an interesting scenic area to visit, especially if en route to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon via Alt. 89 from Flagstaff, The highway crosses the Colorado via an impressive bridge over Marble Canyon, and the road to Lees Ferry and the cemetery at Lonely Dell Ranch goes north immediately after crossing the bridge, going west.


Map by: Neal Du Shane


Visitors can pick, in season, pears, apricots, peaches, and plums in the fruit orchard still maintained by the NPS and watered with Colorado River water. The fruit orchards had begun to decline after so many years of watering with the alkaline Paria River water, so in 1989 when the change was made they began to produce again.


There are also hiking trails going up the Paria River and other trails from Lees Ferry area.


Arizona Pioneer & Cemetery Research Project

Internet Presentation

Version 121408-02


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