In 1869, explorer John Wesley Powell led the first expedition down the Colorado River into the Grand Canyon. Coming upon a region he described as having “wonderful features — carved walls, royal arches, glens, alcove gulches, mounds and monuments,” he named this impressive site Glen Canyon.
In 1963, Glen Canyon was flooded when Glen Canyon Dam was constructed. Protesters fought in vain to stop the drowning of towering ancient edifices and hundreds of tributaries just waiting to be explored. Of all those who vehemently argued against the drowning of Glen Canyon, the voice of Katie Lee, a petite blond actress, singer, songwriter and author can still be heard cursing the Bureau of Reclamation for ignoring the pleas of weathered river men and women who traversed the blue/green streams in one of nature’s most pristine waterways.
Born Kathryn Louise Lee in Aledo, Illinois, on Oct. 23, 1919, Katie was a youngster when her family moved to the desert east of Tucson. She always considered herself “a westerner, born and bred, whether my birth certificate shows it or not.”
She spent most of her time outdoors exploring the crevices of Sabino Canyon. “I learned to stick to near-vertical surfaces,” she said, “to recognize the temperament of various rock forms; and for sure, what grows beside, on, and especially in between those rocks.”
On her 13th birthday, her father gave her a .22 Remington rifle and taught her how to shoot. Squirrels, rabbits, and quail fell under Katie’s deadly aim and all were greatly appreciated on the Lee dinner table during the Great Depression.
She graduated from the University of Arizona in 1942 with a degree in drama and set her sights on Hollywood.
The onset of World War II, however, changed many lives, including Katie’s. She married a soldier, had a son and was divorced by the time the war ended. She also learned to play the guitar, although she claimed she never learned to read music.
In 1948, Katie finally headed for Hollywood and played a variety of walk-on and character roles in movies and on some of the first television shows including “The Armchair Detective” and “Fireside Theater.” She also appeared on national radio shows such as “The Great Gildersleeve,” “The Halls of Ivy” with Ronald Colman, and the “Railroad Hour” with Gordon MacRae.
In 1953, Katie returned to Tucson to perform at the Temple of Music and Art, receiving rave reviews from the hometown crowd.
While at home, she saw a documentary on a river run through the Grand Canyon. Determined to experience this wild adventure, she agreed to sing for her passage. Katie was awestruck by the strength and power of the Colorado River.
“I was in shock,” she said after the ride, “like being in a car wreck and coming out unscathed. Nothing of that magnitude had happened to me before. To be on the razor’s edge — to know you can die, to see how insignificant you are in relation to time, space, nature, beauty, history, our planet — is to be firmly put in your place. A grain of sand. That’s all you are.”
Katie was the 175th person to ride down the Colorado River and only the third woman to run all the rapids since Powell’s first venture in 1869.
In 1954 she made her first river trip through Glen Canyon and was captivated with the beauty of the sculptures and the allure of ever-changing waterways. She discovered the majesty of formations such as the Music Temple edifice, where her own voice surrounded her and echoed off sandstone arches. She preferred bathing in the buff in the cool pools to “feel that water running over my body, and feel the sand pickin’ away at my skin, and feel a rock, and getting in step with the stone.”
Since her first trip down the Colorado, Katie knew the Bureau of Reclamation planned to dam Glen Canyon to provide irrigation and hydroelectric power for Western states. In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the Colorado River Storage Project Act authorizing, among other irrigation projects, the damming of Glen Canyon.
Katie vehemently opposed Glen Canyon Dam, inundating Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, who approved the project, with letters of protest. She wrote songs of protest and demanded the pristine waters of Glen Canyon be spared. But on Oct. 15, 1956, the first dynamite charges blasted an ugly hole into the walls of the canyon, and the water began to drown the intimate inlets and massive sandstone structures of Glen Canyon.
Katie defied warning signs to keep out of the area. She sang her last song in the Music Tempe edifice in 1962, the year before the diversion tunnels were closed and the Colorado River started filling what would become Lake Powell.
Devastated with the loss of Glen Canyon, Katie left Arizona. In 1964, she recorded her album, “The Folk Songs and Poems of the Colorado River,” another protest against the damming of Glen Canyon.
She returned to Arizona in 1969 and settled in Jerome in a bright blue house teetering on the edge of a hillside with a sign above the door requesting all to “Sing.”
In 1998 Katie penned “All My Rivers are Gone,” republished in 2006 as “Glen Canyon Betrayed — A Sensuous Elegy,” describing the death of her beloved Glen Canyon. “Sandstone Seduction” was published in 2004.
She produced a television documentary, “The Last Wagon,” commemorating the lives of Arizona cowboy legends Gail Gardner and Billy Simon. In 1997, she was featured on the PBS series “Cadillac Desert.” She recorded over a dozen albums and CDs including a DVD, “Love Song to the Glen Canyon” depicting the loss of the canyon in photographs and song.
Katie often talked about the loss to the Grand Canyon by the damming of Glen Canyon.
“The biodiversity is what saves the life of a river and Glen Canyon saved the life of the Grand. The Grand Canyon is dying on its feet. It’s a mess. It’s a slimy, cold unnatural, completely rearranged ecology down there. The biodiversity is shot. And it’s a bloody sin.”
Katie Lee died in Jerome on Nov. 1, 2017, at the age of 98. She had protested the damming of Glen Canyon for decades and never regretted foregoing a Hollywood career to ride the torrential Colorado River into the spectacular Glen Canyon.