Having lived in Arizona for over 30 years, Chuck and his wife enjoy the great outdoors of the American Southwest.
Cliff Dwellers Lodge: Traveling Into the Past
A couple of years ago my wife and I decided to take a 10-day trip through northwestern Arizona and neighboring Utah. Like many of our trips, we had a tentative mental list of places to visit—Zion and Arches National Parks in Utah, Navajo Bridge in Arizona and any other interesting places we might stumble upon in our travels. Because we usually don't know where we will end up, we rarely make hotel reservations more than a day or two in advance.
Our first stop was a return visit to the Navajo Bridge across the Colorado River along highway 89A near the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in northwestern Arizona.
There are actually two Navajo Bridges—the Historic Navajo Bridge and the New Navajo Bridge. The Historic Navajo Bridge was opened in January 1929 and is now limited to foot traffic only, while the New Navajo Bridge, which replaced the old one in 1995, is for vehicles.
Looking for Rock Formations Nicknamed “Bacon”
After a short stop to take pictures of the two bridges, we spent the rest of the morning exploring—on foot and in the car—the Marble Canyon area on the west side of the Colorado River and north of the Navajo Bridge.
My wife had seen pictures on Facebook and other sites of an area known as the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. The pictures of that area are spectacular, however, the really spectacular cliffs in the photos are located in a very rugged and remote wilderness area. Also, before visiting them one has to obtain a permit from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). At the time, permits were limited and issued by means of a lottery. However, we thought that we might find some similar, albeit less spectacular, formations in the area we were visiting since we were in the same general geographic area.
The Vermilion Cliffs are sandstone composed of alternating layers of light red and white stone, giving them a look similar to bacon, which has resulted in many of those posting pictures of the Vermilion Cliffs and similar formations to refer to them as bacon.
While we found and took pictures of many interesting rock formations and other views, we didn’t encounter any of the so-called bacon my wife was seeking so we decided to follow route 89A as it continued south of the Navajo Bridge.
While my wife remained laser-focused on finding bacon, I was quietly looking for an area marked Cliff Dwellers on the map from the Visitor Center at the bridge. I assumed that Cliff Dwellers referred to pre-Columbian native cliff dwellings, however as I scanned the mountain range on our right I didn’t notice any cliff dwellings. It wasn’t until later when I began researching for this article that I learned that the motel/lodge was named Cliff Dwellers because of the motel’s nearness to the Vermilion Cliffs.
A Surprising Discovery Around a Bend in the Highway
Just before I was ready to give up and head toward Page, Arizona, where we planned to spend the night, we rounded a bend in the road, crossed a little creek with a highway sign stating that it was Soap Creek and saw a field of huge boulders on our right.
We had seen a similar, but smaller, field north of the bridge earlier but this one looked more interesting. Like the earlier field, the boulders consisted of rock much harder than the sandstone that made up the mountains in the area.
These harder rocks had been embedded in the sandstone when it was being formed under the ancient ocean that had originally covered the area. After the ocean receded, wind and rain began eroding the land leaving behind mountains made of the harder sandstone.
While harder than the earth they had been buried in, sandstone is a softer rock that the elements continued to wear away as wind and water carved out mountain peaks and canyons, like the Grand Canyon. Other, much harder, rocks buried within the sandstone were exposed but eroded at a much slower rate.
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Some were on flat land and exposed to view as the land around them was eroded away. Others were embedded in the mountain slopes and as the softer sandstone was eroded away, they ended up tumbling down into the flat fields below.
I pulled into a flat area next to the road, which appeared to be a dirt parking lot. An RV was parked a hundred feet or so away with a man and woman appearing to sell Indian jewelry while their small child played next to the RV.
There was also a badly faded sign nearby but all that was visible were some words that appeared to be describing some ancient peoples who had once lived under these rocks and, at first glance, some of the boulders did appear to be crude natural shelters.
I scanned the mountain above for signs of ancient native cliff dwellings that often blend in with the mountain but saw nothing resembling housing or even paths leading up the mountain.
Exploring the rock formations on the large piece of flat land between the mountain and the road I noticed that, while there were some that looked like crude dwellings, it soon became clear that, while old, the apparent dwellings were not ancient, let alone pre-Columbian.
The giveaway were some door and window frames, no doors or windows, just the frames. Unlike other pre-Columbian adobe dwellings found in the Southwest, these frames were not tree trunks or limbs but wood from a sawmill. They were old and weathered but clearly products of a sawmill. Finally, as if that was not enough, there were still some small spots of turquoise blue paint on them—additional evidence that they were not prehistoric.
I returned to the car where my wife was waiting and told her that I was going to be taking pictures and exploring the area for a while and that she should come and see what I had found. She quickly joined me.
I found two or three boulders that looked like they could provide reasonable shelter for a few days at least. The largest one consisted of two small rooms with two doors and a couple of windows. The doors and windows were gone but the frames remained and there appeared to have been some modifications to the original natural formation using smaller rocks.
There were some others that appeared to have been used by people staying there for a while. There was also a restroom located in a cave-like rock formation on the slope just before it leveled off into flat land. It included a large rock a few feet in front that made it very private. The human improvement was a wide board with two holes cut in it.
It was a two-seat latrine as good or better than any of the old outhouses used in rural areas before indoor plumbing was available. What made it better was the fact that the boulders that made it up were sitting on the bottom slope of the hill with some small open spaces between the boulders due to unevenness of their bottom surface and the sloping surface of the mountain. Every time it rained, rainwater flowing down the mountain slope would flush this natural toilet.
Car Breakdown on a Remote Northern Arizona Road
Later that evening while having dinner at McDonald's in nearby Page, Arizona, I did a few searches on my smartphone trying to learn more about the place we had discovered that afternoon.
I found one short newspaper article about a woman named Blanche Russell who was traveling west with her ailing husband when their car broke down in Marble Canyon next to the field of boulders we had found. According to the article the woman, Blanche Russell, a successful dancer with the Ziegfeld Follies in New York liked the place and decided to settle there.
While the origins of the Cliff Dwellers Lodge has the makings of a good story, information about Blanche Russell and her husband Bill turned out to be very sketchy and it has taken me a while digging around the web and searching through old newspapers and other documents to piece the story together.
All of the articles I found were based upon interviews with people who had known them before Bill died in 1936 and Blanche sold the lodge and moved away. Other than a transcript of William Russell’s Death Certificate in the Arizona State Archives and a homestead application, dated August 1922, applying to the U.S. government for 400 acres to William Russell for homesteading the property they had settled on.
One website I found stated that William Russell contracted tuberculosis one year before a vaccine against tuberculosis became available. It referred to the Bacilli Calumette-Guerin (BCG) vaccine, which became available in 1921. There are probably other records but finding them would likely require a considerable amount of time and travel to locate and read through paper records in government records offices, libraries and archives.
I also found some information on the death of a woman named Blanche B. Russell, who was born about 1897 in what appeared to be rural western New York and who died in Florida in 1987. A newspaper obituary, which I haven’t found, would probably give more information that might prove or disprove whether she is the Blanch Russell in question.
Enough Information to Tell Blanche Russell’s Story
All accounts describe Blanche Russell as being a former dancer or singer with the Ziegfeld Follies in New York. The Follies were elaborate musical productions put on annually by Florenz Ziegfeld in New York City in the years 1907 to 1931. Each show included a large number of young (late teens to early twenties), beautiful women dressed in costumes designed to show off their well-proportioned figures.
According to a 1996 New York Times article ("Former Ziegfeld Follies Girl Recalls the Glory Days" by Douglas Martin OCT. 18, 1996), Ziegfeld interviewed as many as 15,000 young women for the follies each year and of these, a total of 3,000 were hired between 1907 and 1931.
All accounts about Blanche Russell agree that she quit the Ziegfeld Follies in order to take her husband out West for his health. The year 1920 appears to be the date the couple moved to Arizona as it is one year before the availability of the tuberculous vaccine that could have protected Bill from the disease. In addition, Bill’s filing for homestead rights to the land is dated 1922, which would have given them time to get established after their car broke down and then have to make the long drive to Phoenix, which was probably the location of the nearest federal government office where the filing was made.
Given Florenz Ziegfeld’s obsession with hiring only the most beautiful and talented young women, Blanche probably would have been 22 or 23 when they decided to move west for Bill’s health. While not old, Blanche had to face the fact that with Ziegfeld interviewing a new group of up to 15,000 young teenage girls for the Follies, her age was rapidly becoming a career liability.
A 33-Year Age Difference Between William and Blanche
Without a record of their wedding date it is difficult to determine exactly when or why Blanche and William married. Blanche must have been in her teens when they married. Since William was born in 1864 and Blanch in 1897 there was a 33-year age difference between the two.
Blanche was obviously talented and smart as well as beautiful and ambitious. William was probably a widower who either didn’t have children or, if he did, they were grown and on their own. He probably wasn’t wealthy but more likely comfortably middle class.
While I have found very little concrete information, other than his birth date, about William prior to coming to Arizona nor have I found much about Blanche’s life prior to moving to Arizona, other than her growing up in a rural area before her career in the Ziegfeld Follies, some assumptions can be made about them from what is known about their activities in Arizona.
According to the obituary site I found, Blanche appears to have been born and raised in rural western New York. She had to have been attractive as well as talented or she never would have made the cut with Florenz Ziegfeld. Men were obviously attracted to the Ziegfeld Follies due to all the beautiful young women in the performances and many were not shy about trying to connect with the Ziegfeld girls after the shows.
Given Ziegfeld’s emphasis on young and beautiful women, most of them knew, or should have concluded, that the Follies were not a career path since as soon as their beauty began to fade a bit, their career in the Follies would be over. Some female performers, such as Barbara Stanwyck, as well as some male performers, did manage to go from the Follies to movie and later TV stardom but they tended to be the exceptions.
Blanche and William Get Married
We don’t know when Blanche and William met and married or what it was each saw in the other let alone each of their motivations for marrying each other. However, it is a good guess that Blanche’s youth and beauty were among the reasons Bill was attracted to her while the security and stability of his middle class position was probably a consideration for her. However, even if their initial attraction was based upon sex and security it is difficult not to conclude that there was real love in the marriage given the way they ended up creating building a great future together following the tragedy that could have easily ended the marriage.
Most of the accounts I found focus on and give credit to Blanche for the couple’s success in Arizona. Given the circumstances and her background she probably was the major force behind their success. William Russell would have been both in ill health and 56 years old in 1920. Not old by today’s standards but the average U.S. life expectancy in 1920 was 53.
William was born in Boston and lived in New York City while Blanche appears to have been born and raised in a rural area and Marble Canyon where they ended up was, and still is, a very rural and remote area. Blanche was a risk-taker with an entrepreneurial streak. As a teenager, she left her rural community and moved to New York City, which was the nation’s largest city at the time with a population in excess of five and a half million people. Once there she successfully competed against 15,000 other young women for one of the limited spots in the Ziegfeld Follies. Her youth and beauty were a big factor but she also needed talent and ambition to both make the initial cut and then to continue in the Follies in the following years.
Blanche was also the one out front selling soup and talking with the neighbors and passers-by who stopped to eat. Finally, most of the accounts I found were based on interviews by newspaper and magazine writers conducted years after William had died and Blanche had moved on. Most of those interviewed were neighboring widows who had known and interacted with Blanche more than William, whose main interactions were probably with the men who, like William were now dead.
William, despite his limitations, was no slacker as he worked as well in developing and building their business. According to his death certificate, he was still managing and pumping gas at their gas station that was, and still is, part of the business on the property. In all probability, the couple appears to have been a good team that recognized and relied on the strengths and talents of each.
Where Did Blanche and Bill Plan to Settle in the West?
Blanche and Bill’s decision to head west was prompted by Bill’s tuberculosis. The air in much of the American West, not just Arizona, tends to be dry, which is healthier for people with respiratory problems including tuberculosis. While Bill’s tuberculosis appears to have been the catalyst that made the couple decide to head west in 1920 or 1921, I suspect that they had been considering a move west before Bill was diagnosed with tuberculosis and that reason was probably Blanche’s career.
As mentioned above Blanche, at age 23, would have been among the older performers in the Follies. Ziegfeld's audience was men who wanted to see beautiful young women singing and dancing on stage. To keep the audience buying tickets and attending the shows he had to continually provide the audience with beautiful young women.
Blanche appears to have been very smart and, more than likely, realized that the clock was ticking and her career in the Follies was approaching its end. Given William’s age, she couldn’t count on him supporting her for the rest of her life and had to start planning her next move. The next move probably involved trying her luck in Hollywood and she and William had more than likely had already started planning for the move. However, William’s tuberculosis probably forced them to make the move sooner than planned.
It is obvious that Arizona was not their intended destination as Marble Canyon is a very rural area close to the Utah border. The next city on their route was Kanab, Utah. Even today everything, other than the North Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park (which is closed in winter), between where their car broke down and the border is grazing land for cattle.
The only real city along their route was St. George, Utah, which had a little over 440,000 inhabitants, the vast majority of whom were Mormon. In addition to Blanche and William probably not being Mormon, there is also the fact that it would not have been that difficult to get to St. George after the car broke down, as the road on which their car broke down was nicknamed the Honeymoon Trail. It was the route that young Mormon couples traveled, usually in the fall after the harvest, from northern Arizona to the temple in St. George where they registered their marriages. Hundreds of these newlyweds traveled this route regularly. Blanche and Bill could have found a couple that would have let the two ride along to St. George with them.
Beyond St. George there doesn’t appear to have been any other place to settle outside of California. My guess is that the couple was probably heading for Hollywood where the movie industry was growing and where she may have had some contacts. While not as big as New York City, Los Angeles was a growing city in which Bill probably could have found work as well.
All accounts have the two either stopping at the site where they ended up or having their car breakdown at this spot where they built the Cliff Dwellers motel and restaurant. Once stopped they set up camp there, which indicates that they were traveling during the summer.
Looking at the map and from my own experience of once having driven from western New York State to Arizona, I suspect that the couple headed southwest from New York City and turned west about where Interstate 40 is today and then followed roads that preceded the construction of Interstate 40 (which was completed in 1957), to Flagstaff, AZ where they turned north on Highway 89. They were probably heading toward Las Vegas (then a small town incorporated a decade earlier and with a 1920 population of 2,300) where they would have followed roads that were descendants of the early 19th-century trade route known as the Old Spanish Trail and which has now been replaced by Interstate 15, which was built in 1957.
The Old Spanish Trail originally connected Santa Fe with Los Angeles and ran north of the Mojave Desert and through a number of mountainous areas. This would have been a cooler route than continuing straight along what is now Interstate 40 from Flagstaff to Los Angeles, which is desert.
Blanche and Bill Decide to Stay Where They Stopped
Some accounts state that Blanche and Bill camped at the spot where they ended up living and when Blanche woke up the next morning was so taken by the beauty of the spot she decided to stay there.
The other, more likely, version is that their car broke down at that spot and they camped there while waiting to get the car fixed.
Even today the location where they broke down is remote. Lee’s Ferry, which until the original Navajo Bridge opened in 1929 was a small ferry service that transported wagons and cars across the Colorado River, was 14 miles away and may or may not have had what was needed to fix the problem with their car. Beyond that, the closest help, other than scattered ranches, would have been Kanab, Utah (78 miles to the west) or Cameron, AZ (70 miles to the southeast).
Getting the car fixed, or even obtaining the parts needed to fix it, would have been difficult given the distance they were from stores. The fact that Blanche started making and selling or bartering soup for cash or supplies in exchange indicates that they were probably short of cash (they may have had money in a bank in New York or Los Angeles but no way to access it from where their car broke down) which could have made it more difficult to find someone to either come and fix the car or get the parts to Blanche and William.
By late autumn they would have been forced to stay where they were as heavy winter snowstorms would have resulted in the closure of the roads and mountain passes they would have had to traverse (even today, winter storms result in the closure of roads leading over many mountain passes).
Blanche and Bill Begin Selling Food to Passing Travelers
One thing Blanche and Bill had going for them was the fact that the section of Route 89 where their car broke down was nicknamed the Honeymoon Trail due to the fact that it was the main route traveled by young Mormon couples traveling from northern Arizona to St. George, Utah, to register their marriages.
Beginning in the 1870s, Mormons in southern Utah began settling in northern Arizona. In 1870 John Lee, a prominent Mormon leader with 19 wives and 56 children settled on a spot along the Colorado River just north of where the Navajo Bridge is located today.
Lee managed to get his ferry service established and operational sometime in the mid-1870s but was arrested and executed by an army firing squad in 1877 for his part in an earlier wagon train massacre. Despite Lee’s execution, the Ferry Service continued operation until 1928 shortly before the 1929 completion of the first Navajo Bridge.
In addition to newlyweds, others traveled this route to St. George on church business or to Kanab and other nearby cities in Utah to shop for supplies. There were also tourists heading to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon as well as to Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, all of which had had their spectacular scenery displayed in exhibits and magazine articles by artists and photographers since the late 19th century. The 1920s were an era of rising prosperity with increasing numbers of people starting to be able to afford cars. Adventurous people were setting out in cars to see the country, as well as others electing to travel by train.
Blanche appears to have had an optimistic and entrepreneurial spirit of the sort which believes that when life gives you lemons make lemonade. As it became clear that they were going to have to camp where their car broke down until at least until the next spring, she and Bill went to work preparing a place to stay and a way to make a living.
Blanche and William Prepare for a Long Stay
Some of the rocks did provide a crude form of shelter that could be made somewhat more comfortable with a little work. Many of the local travelers probably lived in ranch houses that lacked central heat, air conditioning or indoor plumbing, so what Blanche and Bill were offering would have been better than sleeping on the ground or in the back of a wagon or pickup truck and not much worse than conditions at the travelers' homes.
Some articles state that Blanche and Bill offered free lodging in exchange for help with building what became the present motel and restaurant. Soap Creek runs right next to where they stopped and Blanche became known for selling both the water and soup made from it at the roadside food stand they set up. The soup became so famous locally that many people in the area began referring to the creek as Soup Creek. Blanche and Bill later acquired chickens and pigeons, which they sold or traded along with eggs and more menu varieties.
While converting some of the large rock formations into motel rooms and a latrine was ingenious, as it met their immediate need for shelter and then became an additional way to generate the income needed to support them and to help finance the growth of the small business they were forced to create in order to survive.
Following William’s Death, Blanche Sold Both the Business and Property
After Bill died in 1936, Blanche sold their business and surrounding property then left Marble Canyon where she and Bill had lived for the past 16 years. Assuming she was the same Blanche B. Russell in the obituary reference I found on the web, she would have been 39 years old at the time of Bill’s death and would have had another 50 years until her death in 1987.
The fact that she sold the property and left the area shortly after Bill’s death indicates that she and Bill ended up living in that particular spot because that was where their car broke down and left them stranded.
The location was what Bill needed for his health and being stranded there by their car breaking down limited their options. Following the car breaking down they probably depleted their cash while paying for necessary food and supplies. Once they got settled and started selling goods and services to neighbors and travelers they probably relied heavily on bartering—initially trading soup, water and a night or two sheltering in one of their rooms in the rocks. The travelers probably did not have much cash either so bartering worked for them as well.
I suspect that it was both loyalty and her love for Bill, not the spectacular scenery, that kept Blanche from pushing to move on. With Bill gone, Blanche had no longer had a reason to stay.
Life After Marble Canyon
As mentioned above, given where they ended up California and Los Angeles in particular was their logical original destination. The route they were traveling was, and for the most part still is, empty desert and mountains. Add to this the fact that she was in show business and a number of people who were in the same business as she was were moving to Hollywood, which was the center of the new and growing movie business.
If she had contacts in Hollywood she could have maintained them via letters. Bill’s death certificate lists Blanche as the source of the information and lists her address as Cameron, Arizona some 70 miles south of Marble Canyon, which is where the nearest post office was located. In addition to letters, she and Bill could have been receiving newspapers and theater industry trade publications from New York and Hollywood as well. Also, despite the remoteness of the area, both then and now, travel was improving and increasing.
Growing numbers of travelers were traveling by train and car to places like the Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks and other spectacular vistas in Arizona and Utah. Monument Valley in northeastern Arizona and southern Utah has been the scene of many major Hollywood movies from the 1930s to the present as are other sites in the northern Arizona and southern Utah area.
Route 66, which ran from Los Angeles to Chicago, opened in 1926 and passed through northern Arizona. So Blanche could have kept in contact as well as making new contacts with actors, producers and other studio personnel regularly passing through the area on the way to or from movie locations in the area, as well as possibly staying at their Cliff Dwellers Lodge.
She would have missed her chance to continue performing but, as she showed with the way she and Bill were able to turn a car breakdown into a business that succeeding owners have continued to today, she was a person capable of successfully working her way through whatever life threw at her.
Remainder of Assumed Route to Los Angeles From Marble Canyon, AZ
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Chuck Nugent