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Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West

4.07  ·  Rating details ·  3,120 ratings  ·  265 reviews
John Wesley Powell fought in the Civil War and it cost him an arm. But it didn't stop him from exploring the American West. Here Wallace Stegner, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, gives us a thrilling account of Powell's struggle against western geography and Washington politics. We witness the successes and frustrations of Powell's distinguished career, and appreciate his unparall ...more
Paperback, 438 pages
Published March 1st 1992 by Penguin Books (first published 1954)
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Start your review of Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West
On my top 10 of 10,000. No one can claim sufficient understanding of the expansion of the West in the late 19th & early 20th centuries without having read this. Stegner is a beautiful writer and you'll love this book. John Wesley Powell not only led the historic Explorations of the Grand, Green and Colorado Rivers and their Canyons, explored the blank areas of the western US, but founded the US Geological Survey & Bureau of Ethnicity. He also was a cofounder and inaugural attendee of ver ...more
Karen GoatKeeper
Feb 01, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: read2014
This book is not an easy read. It was written in the 1950s and is a scholarly work. That said it is not difficult to read, just slow if you want to think about what is packed into this book.
John Wesley Powell gained fame as the first man to run the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. He was so much more than that. His career spanned the late 1860s when he mapped the Colorado region to 1894 when some Senators finally pushed him out of his work with the U. S. Geological Survey (USGS) an
Feb 23, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: american-history, own

So far I've read two Wallace Stegner novels and this, and this book about geography, cartography, ethnology, and American politics is by far the best of the three. I discovered my surprising weakness for geology writing after reading Basin and Range during my student days, and still regret feverishly selling it in order to buy ramen noodles.

John Wesley Powell emerged one-armed from the Civil War (serving under Grant) and gathered up a motley crew in order to traverse the Colorado River. It had been done before,
Mar 19, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This should have been much more boring than it was. Other than Part I, which covers Powell's exploration of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, the majority of this book centers on Powell's career leading the US Geological Survey. In that role, Powell essentially held the ultimate power in determining how the West would be opened up to settlement. The second half of this book covers his futile struggle with politicians who fought against his general plan.

Why is this such an interesting
Apr 26, 2013 rated it it was ok
At times as dry as the land it discusses this book is more a biography of John Wesley Powell, or perhaps hagiography. Powell was the one armed amateur scientist who quickly morphed into a selfless, skilled bureaucrat whose vision for the American West was denied by Congress and the settlers of the West. The first part of the book concentrates on Powell's expeditions and the latter part on his work in DC managing numerous surveys and agencies. Surprisingly the second part is very instructive and ...more
Mar 05, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
Essential reading for people who, like me, who feel at home in the American West. Masterfully written--it's Stegner, after all--it includes important reminders about water in the West, especially as it becomes more scarce. It also argues convincingly that this "second opening" of the West required collective action--I could say "socialism" if I wanted to be provocative--on a scale that had never been seen before in the U.S. Those are the big federal water projects, without which we could not hav ...more
Patrick Dean
May 12, 2013 rated it really liked it
Beyond the Hundredth Meridian deserves its iconic status; it is a work of both scholarship and poetry. It relates the life of a unique, talented, and farsighted man; it also portrays that man's attempt to save the Western United States from its worst myths and preconceptions about itself. One can come away saddened that then, as now, facts and science can be ignored by selfish, greedy, narrow interests. However, one can also be heartened by the way in which finally, reality tends to vindicate th ...more
Feisty Harriet
Jun 20, 2016 rated it really liked it
The high desert, red rock canyon country of south-east Utah was the last part of the contiguous United States to be mapped, and with good reason. That country is harsh, blistering, and difficult to navigate by foot, horse, boat, or, frankly, jeep. Powell is the first (white) explorer to attempt this country and try to map the rivers and mountains and plateaus. This book is that history and follows Powell's political career for several decades as he tries to convince Congress and the public so ho ...more
Oct 07, 2009 rated it liked it
If I didn't appreciate Wallace Stegner so much I wouldn't have bought the book, and I probably wouldn't have finished it either. Stengner is an awesome writer. When describing Powell's intellect, Stegner writes, "He learned from every book, acquanintance, experience; facts stuck in his mind , and not like stray flies on fly-paper but like orderly iron filings around magnetic poles." That kind of writing made the description of Powell's expedition down the Colorado River a quick read. That kind o ...more
Jun 29, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, west
I listened to this on audiobook (Blackstone audio), which I highly recommend. Since I grew up on a street named for Powell, I can hardly afford NOT to read this book.

The narrative of the trip down the Colorado was dramatic, especially compared to the descriptions of failed attempts by contemporaries. I was amazed that they traveled all the way down the river with only flour, dried apples, bacon and a few other supplies for food. They were obviously better foragers than people are today. Well an
Michael Perkins
Jul 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
“An acquaintance with books and learning was not a thing that a frontier boy like John Wesley Powell could take for granted; he had to seize it as he could. Abe Lincoln said it for every such boy with brains and dreams in his head: “The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is a man who’ll git me a book I ain’t read.”
Jun 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing
At few weeks ago, I was feeling blah. But then I saw a Facebook friend's pictures of his hiking in Colorado. I remembered that I had this Wallace Stegner book Beyond the Hundredth Meridian on my to read list and plunged in to the Colorado River with John Wesley Powell and crew.

However, this book is about so much more than his trips into undiscovered country. It discusses all the political wrangling in DC to get funding for these expeditions. Powell is also like Muir one of the first to realize
This is a riveting book about John Wesley Powell's exploration of the Colorado River and his subsequent quest to focus lawmakers in Congress on the terrain and water available in the arid west. I knew that Powell had explored the Grand Canyon, and I knew that Lake Powell is named after him, but I didn't know much more about him before I started reading this book to prepare for our trip to the Southwest. I did not know that Powell was the founder of the US Geological Survey, urging his country to ...more
Nov 01, 2019 rated it really liked it
"Beyond the Hundredth Meridian" is an excellent biography of Major John Wesley Powell. I, like probably almost everyone with a bit of history in their veins, knows of Powell as the first documented leader of a party to successfully run the rapids of the Green and Colorado Rivers. But there is so much more to his life. And Wallace Stegner, with his customary excellent prose, tells it with gusto. Powell is a key figure in the opening of the west. He was a visionary, ahead of his time.
If you
Bob Peru
Jun 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
a lot of inside baseball. you have to be very interested in water law in the west to be fully engaged here. this is not the novelist stegner.
Nancy Lewis
Aug 07, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: yellowstone, arizona
This book was published five years before Alaska and Hawaii became states, and at a time when the last soldiers of the Civil War were dying. Stegner makes references to events that must have been common knowledge in 1954, but that have since been lost to the present consciousness. For example, Stegner refers to Jay Cooke's collapse three times, but doesn't explain who Jay Cooke was or what kind of collapse he experienced.

Stegner says in his Author's Note that he has "dwelt somewhat long on an earl
Rob Bauer
Jan 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is an extended review of this fine, and classic, book on the American West.

On the Fourth of July, 1868, Colorado Territorial Governor and veteran westerner William Gilpin addressed a gathering in Denver. In his address he painted a picture of the American West as bright as the hot sun that shone down on his listeners that day. For Gilpin, the West was a place of unlimited possibility and inexhaustible natural resources. The lands beyond the 100th meridian were not “The Great Ame
Jun 30, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: those interested in the early years of conservation in America, and of government-sponsored science
Shelves: essential
This is a masterful work of biography, "the history not of a personality but of a career," as Stegner writes in his introductory note. As such, not only does Stegner follow John Wesley Powell down the frightful canyons of the Colorado River and into the even more fearsome halls of the national capital, but the author dwells on Powell's companions and antagonists, his allies and his would-be emulators. He devotes long admiring passages to Powell's associates Capt. Clarence Dutton and Grove Karl G ...more
Sep 14, 2015 rated it liked it
Recommended to Alyson by: Brad Farmer
Shelves: non-fiction, bookclub
I didn't end up listening to the entire book. It is actually super long. For book club we were asked to read up through Powell's first expedition down the Green River into what is now The Grand Canyon. I actually went a little bit further but with the exception of the first expedition, the book was a bit too dry for me. The book certainly was exciting as the expedition was on the river. The group had so many different types of experiences on the trip, some seemed unbelievable. It was really inte ...more
Oct 22, 2008 rated it it was amazing
An awesome book! This book in nominally a biography of Major John Wesley Powell, one of the more influential men in the exploring and settling of the western US in the mid-1800's. However, it doesn't focus too much on dates or other trivial material, but rather gives a broad picture of the western and national issues of the day. Powell gains notoriety by being the first man to explore many of the canyons of Utah and Arizona, including the Grand Canyon. He then works his way up through the federa ...more
I really only loved the first third of the book, the part dealing with his first expedition down the Colorado river in its entirety. But I especially appreciated the last 2 thirds of the book that taught me a ton about Powell and the magnitude of the endeavors he had before him. It makes my head hurt just trying to comprehend how he aspired to map the entire U.S. topographically and how he wanted to to establish irrigation agriculture in the West. He was up against something far too big for him- ...more
Aug 30, 2011 rated it liked it
The story line is excellent as far as the part of the beginning trip on the Colorado River and beyond. An adventure for all time---to be the first to be challenged by this part of the west. However--it gets bogged down in the politics of the time and I skipped a lot of that part of the book. But loved the adventure of these 9 men on a river for 2 months in the late 1800's, with challenging rapids, and their unwieldy boats and equipment!! If you read this book you might also get a copy of "It Mus ...more
Nov 07, 2011 rated it really liked it
Very interesting account of John Wesley Powell's discoveries through the great Mountain West. Justin and I became interested in learning more about him when we visited the Grand Canyon last month, and this book is quenching my thirst. The day to day account of Powell and his team rafting through the Grand Canyon is amazing. Cool to hear mention of Powell interacting with Brigham Young and Jacob Hamblin (as in THEE Jacob Lake). It's a bit factual in the beginning, but starts flowing better.
Greg Hinze
Oct 31, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Arguably the definitive biography of John Wesley Powell by one of America's greatest writers. Donald Worster's book on Powell has nothing on this.
Janis Taylor
May 17, 2013 rated it really liked it
RICH book and a slow read for me. (Perhaps that had something to do with reading it in the summertime with rivers and mountains and kids in swimming suites constantly beckoning to me.) I found this tricky to rate because if it wasn't so slow, maybe exposing a little more of the personal character--the more controversial sides of Powell instead of giving him the pedestal and hero worship that Stegner does, then I would have rated it higher (and I could've used just a tiny bit of romance somewhere ...more
Jul 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
Interesting story of an incredible man - John Wesley Powell - with great history of how the western U.S. was developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Despite losing an arm in the Civil War, Powell became the first man to raft the length of the Colorado River, a physically grueling journey involving violent rapids, lengthy portages and a lot of scrambling up cliff walls to scout the course.

Building on his success in charting the Colorado River, Powell dedicated his life to
Aug 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A biography of Powell, but also a history of the political shenanigans surrounding the control of the Nation's resources that still continue. The recounting of the Grand Canyon exploration is good, but only a small part of the book, as the canyon exploration was only a small part of Powell's involvement in the opening of the West. Stegner presents him as a master of political lobbying and maneuvering through the bureaucracies that Powell himself help to organize. He was also both a scientist and ...more
Bruce Snyder
Feb 21, 2017 rated it did not like it
A Colossal Waste of Time: "Boring" Would Be A Compliment

Mr. Stegnor should have stuck to his wonderful fiction. Despite all the desperate situations the Colorado River crew lead by Powell faced, Stegnor's prose is flat and has a "ho hum, ODTAA (one darn thing after another), here-we-go-again-our-lives-are threatened" quality about it. As terrifying as drowning, or falling from a cliff to one's death is, the reader is barely moved the first time it happens. The simple fact of its repe
Francis Kilkenny
Sep 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is the story of a man, John Wesley Powell, but also of a place, the western US beyond the hundredth meridian. It covers much of Powell’s life, from his exploration of the Colorado River and the first run of the Grand Canyon, to his later years as a Washington bureaucrat. While Powell died in 1902, his life and work have great resonance today. He championed science and rational land management policy, but was met with forces of idealism, wishful thinking and greed. It is astounding how many ...more
Feb 15, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

Among librarians I have yet to find a surly or unhelpful individual: I think librarians will inherit the earth.

He [Powell] was an ex-officer, and the habit of command stuck with him, but he was also a learner, and one of the growing few ready to grant the right of the Indian to his own habits and attitudes. In All his work in the West from that winter on, he never went armed, and he never had trouble, and this in years and in regions where other scientific expeditions would
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Wallace Earle Stegner was an American historian, novelist, short story writer, and environmentalist. Some call him "The Dean of Western Writers." He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972 and the U.S. National Book Award in 1977.
“His vision of contented farmers controlling their own timber, grass, and water clear to the drainage divides, and settling their problems by an extension of the town meeting, is touched with a prophetic, and perhaps a pathetic, piety. Science and Reason have always been on the side of Utopia; only the cussedness of the human race has not.” 0 likes
“An acquaintance with books and learning was not a thing that a frontier boy like John Wesley Powell could take for granted; he had to seize it as he could. Abe Lincoln said it for every such boy with brains and dreams in his head: “The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is a man who’ll git me a book I ain’t read.” 0 likes
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