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Clarence Dutton: Poet of the Grand Canyon

The 33 founders of the National Geographic Society were an adventurous and accomplished group. They included scientists, explorers, a journalist and a superintendent of the National Zoo. In recognition of the National Geographic Society’s upcoming 130th anniversary this series takes a look at their stories. By Mark Collins Jenkins An army captain with a soldierly...

The 33 founders of the National Geographic Society were an adventurous and accomplished group. They included scientists, explorers, a journalist and a superintendent of the National Zoo. In recognition of the National Geographic Society’s upcoming 130th anniversary this series takes a look at their stories.

By Mark Collins Jenkins

An army captain with a soldierly bearing, he was chairman of the meeting on January 13, 1888, when 33 men agreed to found a geographical society. He was also chairman the following week, when an even larger crowd voted to formalize it as the National Geographic Society. But from that exalted seat, Captain Clarence Dutton has slipped from memory. He deserves better; a complex mixture of the soldier, geologist, and poet, his mind and character reflects the judgment he himself passed on the Grand Canyon: that it “first bewilders, and at length overpowers.”

Clarence Edward Dutton was born on May 15, 1841, in Wallingford, Connecticut. Very early he showed great intellectual potential: as a boy, he built his own laboratory and studied rocks and minerals. Steeped in the Scriptures in boarding school, he entered Yale divinity school at the age of 15 but dropped out after two weeks, the beginning of lifelong agnosticism. He turned to chemistry and physics but was an uninspired student, preferring gymnastics, crew, and chess to his studies. Nevertheless, he effortlessly won the esteemed Yale Literary Prize his senior year with an essay on the novels of Charles Kingsley. Doubtless he composed it all in his head before committing it to paper–a lifelong habit and facility for which he would always be envied. Already recognized as a cultured polymath and raconteur, Dutton graduated from Yale in 1860.

Civil War and Early Career

The following year, the Civil War broke out, and Dutton joined the 21st Connecticut Regiment as a first lieutenant. He saw some “pretty rough service” in such battles as Fredericksburg, Nashville, and the Petersburg campaign. But though promoted to captain in 1863 at the age of 21, he transferred to the Ordnance Corps in 1864 to be on “the sending rather than receiving end of shells.”  His proficiency in mathematics made him one of only three to pass the stringent entrance tests. Commissioned in the regular army, Dutton was appointed a second lieutenant in January 1864. On April 18 of that year, presumably safe from shells, he married Emeline C. Babcock of New Haven, Connecticut.

Dutton stayed in the service following the war, and it looked as if his career might follow a standard if nondescript track, promotions following each other in due course until retirement. He did become a first lieutenant in March 1867; but his army career was to be anything but standard. While he was stationed at Waterlievet Arsenal in Troy, New York, Dutton’s restless intellect cast beyond the humdrum routine of duty and fastened on the nearby Bessemer Steel Works; so to pass the time, he wrote a paper on the chemistry of the Bessemer process. He cultivated interests in subjects as varied as gunpowder, fossils, and the structure of rocks. After several transfers, he arrived in Washington, D.C., an “attractive, charming, many-sided” man, an engaging conversationalist who could lecture on virtually any subject at a moment’s notice, a lover of the good life, of cigars, drink, and society. He was a voluminous reader whose tastes were so omnivorous that he simply referred to himself as “omnibiblical.” It was clear to the discerning eye that this supremely gifted man was merely drifting into his early 30s, his job uninspiring and his talents underutilized.

Dutton’s sharp mind enjoyed solving puzzles, and he had maintained his youthful passion for geology, a science invoking imaginative solutions to puzzling rock formations. It remained purely an intellectual passion, however, until in Washington’s scientific and social whirl Dutton was noticed by the one man who recognized his latent and unfocused genius: John Wesley Powell, who befriended the cigar-loving soldier in 1874. The newly-promoted Captain Dutton was 33 years old, Powell 40, but the resulting friendship was perhaps the strongest in each man’s life.

It was Powell who persuaded Dutton to become a geologist, Powell who asked him to lead a geological party out West, and Powell who secured from Congress and the War Department permission for Dutton’s detached duty with the “Geological and Geographical Survey of the Rocky Mountains, J.W. Powell, commanding”–called the Powell Survey for short.

Dutton would be on seasonal release from the Ordnance Corps for the next 15 years. In that time, his contributions would join those of Powell and Grove Karl Gilbert in establishing the foundations of a new American geology.

The Geologist as Poet

The difficult and broken country of the Colorado Plateau made it the last area of the continental U.S. to be systematically explored and surveyed. With its buttes, canyons, gulches, cliffs, and scarps, it was a geological wonderland where the power of erosion over time was never more dramatically demonstrated. The task that fell to the Powell Survey in the 1870s was to adequately map its topography, explain its geological structure, and gather ethnological material on its native inhabitants. The time, the place, and the people combined happily: John Wesley Powell was the leader, Grove Karl Gilbert the best scientist, Almon Thompson, the mapmaker, and Clarence Dutton the visionary interpreter.

In 1875, field parties, led by Thompson, Gilbert, and Dutton respectively, split up on the Wasatch plateau of central Utah. Thompson went south to Kanab, on the Arizona border, to finish his mapping, Gilbert turned east to find immortality in the Henry Mountains, and Dutton remained to make the first systematic study of the high plateaus region.

It was vast, sweeping, panoramic country, its escarpments stepping down one after another in a giant staircase over scores of miles, its colorful cliffs embodying particular geological strata stacked one on top of another, its edges eroded into such spectacular features as Zion and Bryce Canyons. Dutton carefully disentangled all of this and reconstructed a geological history for the region reaching back millions of years. But there was something else in this country, something not easily grasped by the scientific mind, something that, as he sat next to evening campfires, likely made this “omnibiblical” man put aside his Macaulay or Mark Twain and ponder. In coming to grips with the many strange, fantastic landscape features around him, he eventually concluded: “There is an eloquence in [these] forms which stirs the imagination with a singular power and kindles in the mind a glowing response.” Given the many tremendous views the plateau region afforded, one such response was that it should only “be described in blank verse and painted on canvas,” for in this country “the geologist finds himself a poet.”

The result of these observations was the first volume of a trilogy: Report on the Geology of the High Plateaus of Utah, published in 1880. In it, Dutton laid out the geological history of the region, but following his poetic impulse, waxed lyrically over the particular virtues of its landscape. That nascent appreciation, that poetic response, was soon given its chance to really flower, for after the U.S. Geological Survey was formed in 1879, Dutton was given the opportunity to systematically explore the one inescapable feature of the plateau province, the Grand Canyon itself. Dutton’s literary genius had often been dry and witty–he once wrote of catching geological faults in flagrante delicto–but what he saw in the Grand Canyon in 1880 and 1881 made “the heart ache and the throat tighten.”

The result was the second book in his geological trilogy–and the keystone of its arch– The Tertiary History of the Grand Canyon District. Published in 1882, it was first in the Geological Survey’s new series of monographs, “the inaugural big book of arguably the most significant scientific bureau of nineteenth century America,” in one historian’s view. Interspersed amongst the geology were reflections on the play of light and shade on cliffs, or comparisons to the landscape art of Europe or Japan, or suggestions for coming to imaginative terms with the many strange forms erosion had left. In his musings, Dutton festooned the myriad spires and buttes with outrageous and fanciful names–Hindoo temple, Vishnu’s Throne, and the like, concluding that the whole ensemble amounted to “the sublimest thing on earth.”

The Tertiary History featured 40 plates and was accompanied by a beautiful atlas featuring the work of the photographer Jack Hillers and the artists Thomas Moran and William Henry Holmes. In its combination of science and art, it was received enthusiastically both in the United States and abroad, and “quickly established itself as a model of modern natural history,” as a later commentator declared. The maps provided the foundation for all subsequent cartography of the Grand Canyon, and the aesthetic analysis established the grammar for all subsequent imaginative appreciation of its wonders.

The last book of the trilogy, Mt. Taylor and the Zuni Plateau, published in 1884, described another journey around a geologic landscape, but it focused on the eroded remnants of volcanoes, and anticipated scientific interests he was just beginning to cultivate.

Geographic Tremors

In 1878, returning from a visit to the Century Club in New York, Dutton suggested to Powell that Washington form its own such club, an organization in which scientists could mix socially. He may have helped suggest a name for it–the Cosmos Club–and that association was soon founded in Powell’s parlor. A decade later, the Cosmos Club in turn served to nurture another of Washington’s scientific institutions when the National Geographic Society was founded there. Dutton had the honor of chairing the initial meetings for the new organization; furthermore, he was one of the 15 “Incorporators” (along with Powell and Thompson) who subscribed the original Articles of Incorporation legally binding themselves together as a national society.

If it was not the Cosmos Club, the National Geographic Society, the Philosophical Society, or the Geological Society, then it was the fellowship and cigars of the “Great Basin mess,” an informal social group within the Geological Survey itself, a kind of round table encircling John Wesley Powell, who had become the Survey’s chief in 1881. In any case, Dutton mixed with the same close colleagues and associates, men such as G.K. Gilbert, Henry Gannett, W J McGee, Charles D. Walcott, and William Henry Holmes. At the age of 46, he was now bulking large in the scientific and cultural elite of the nation.

He was perhaps the nation’s premier seismologist and volcanologist. His interests, befitting an ordnance officer, easily embraced such fiery, explosive, and shattering subjects. Powell gave Dutton the Department of Volcanic Geology at the Geological Survey, and sent him to Hawaii in 1882. There he traveled through the islands, camping high in the lush mountains, walking around in the craters of Kilauea and Mauna Loa. He then went to the Pacific Northwest, examining volcanoes and such volcanic remnants as Crater Lake in Oregon. He is credited with introducing the term “caldera” for a volcano’s crater. Dutton also was sent to Nicaragua, and his subsequent report to the U.S. Senate on Nicaragua’s potential earthquake and volcanic dangers contributed to the choice of Panama as the location for a trans-isthmian canal. He made a detailed analysis of the great Charleston earthquake of 1886, determining both the depth of its focal point and the velocity of its shock waves. His resulting paper, published in 1889, drew international geological acclaim.

When the Geological Survey undertook the vast Irrigation Survey project, so important to Powell, he made Dutton his chief hydrographic engineer, assigning him the extremely difficult task of accurately measuring water flow across a billion acres of the West. But summoned before a hostile Congress in March 1890, Dutton was maneuvered into admitting that most of the Survey’s resources were going into an ambitious topographical mapping that was not necessary for the practical hydrographic engineering. Congressional enemies of both Powell and the project seized on this, and eventually both were undone. Powell never fully forgave his favorite protégé for this supposed apostasy.

Autumn of a Career

As if a fault in his own life now shifted, Captain Dutton’s 15 years of seasonal absence with the Geological Survey now ended. On May 1, 1890, a new commander of the Ordnance Corps promoted Dutton to major, made him the chief ordnance officer for the department of Texas, and placed him in charge of the arsenal at San Antonio–a “virtual banishment” in which he spent the best part of a decade. Eventually he was returned to Washington as the personal assistant to yet another chief of the Ordnance Corps, but he retired–at his own request–in 1901, having served nearly 40 years.

The rest of his life was apparently uneventful. He moved to Englewood, New Jersey, on the Palisades across the Hudson from New York City. There, amid gracious surroundings, he continued his studies of volcanism and seismology, publishing Earthquakes in the Light of the New Seismology, in 1904, and for many years thereafter it was considered the best volume on the subject. His great years, though, were clearly behind him, but the memories must have increasingly played through his mind as arteriosclerosis closed in, for it is said that on his deathbed he recalled “old friends on the Geological Survey” before dying on January 4, 1912, aged 70. However, his legacy endures on the high plateaus of Utah–one of the highest is now christened Mt. Dutton–and especially his monumental musings on the Grand Canyon. To the writer Wallace Stegner, one of Dutton’s earliest champions, this is because the soldier-geologist was “the first literary tourist in a country where tourist travel has become the number one business.” Stegner went even further: To him Dutton is “as much the genius loci of the Grand Canyon as John Muir is of Yosemite,” the visionary who pioneered the aesthetic by which the Colorado plateau, that geological wonderland of challenging forms and glorious color, could be so appreciated as natural scenery that more national parks and monuments would be established there than in any comparable region of the country. Today millions of visitors from around the world flock to such parks as Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Cedar Breaks, and above all, the Grand Canyon itself, primarily to see a landscape associated with the sublime. Cameras cannot capture it, despite the heroic efforts of tourists and National Geographic photographers alike. It must be seen to be fully comprehended, and it was Clarence Dutton–soldier, geologist, and poet–who taught us the seeing.

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