The Diary of Ada Bass

Nov 18, 2011

 A music teacher from New York state headed west in 1894 and fell in love with a canyon guide.  Ada Bass, I learned, became the first pioneer woman to raise a family at Grand Canyon.  Beyond that I knew little about her, so arranged to meet her great grandson to find out more.  “The Canyon holds a lure,” Robert Lauzon tells me.  “The beauty of the place caught the women.  They were struck by the magnificence, and by the roughness. ”

 As he fills me in on her life, I think about Ada riding the train west by herself.  She was leaving the comforts of home for a new, exciting life in Arizona Territory.  On a trip to the South Rim, the 28-year old woman caught the eye of her guide, William Bass.  “She was considered a spinster in those days,” Robert says, “beyond the marriageable age.  She was star-struck by Bass – he had a magnetic personality. ”  A few months later they married, and she found herself facing the reality of life on the frontier.

 Before we part, Robert gives me a copy of Ada’s diary, and I begin to read.  Page after page of terse entries record her struggles and disappointments.  Not a single line mentions the beauty of her surroundings.  On her honeymoon trip to her new home at Bass Camp, they were stranded by floodwaters and impassable roads.  The newlyweds were forced to bivouac for nearly a month, and then the real struggle began.  Her first year of marriage turned into a nightmare of privations, hard work, and harder weather.  In the diary she mentions how her life had become a “wretched existence. ”  And on December 31, having been married less than a year, she notes the end of “this horrible year” and wonders if the next can be worse.  It could. 

The new year continued with an unbroken string of difficulties and mishaps, only now she had the added burden of being pregnant.  After months of unrelenting hardship Ada writes, “I began packing my trunk to beat it back to home and Mother. ”  She bought a one-way ticket to New York, and once there gave birth to their first child. 

Over the following months Bass wrote frequently, but it took him three years to convince her to return.  Back at the remote camp, she again faced having to do all the washing and cooking for family and guests, on top of caring for her children.  Ada often felt abandoned.  “Men all went into the Canyon,” she writes in the spring of 1900, “and my roof leaked so I had to hold an umbrella over my head to cook meals.  Lots of rain.”  

When the rains ended, the drought began.  During dry spells she was known to ride horseback into the canyon, do the laundry at the river, and return to the rim three days later.  “I’m tired enough to die,” she confides in her diary, “and can’t stand this much longer and no one to help me.”  To bring in some money, the graduate of the Boston Conservatory of Music would ride two days into town to play piano in the railroad honky-tonks.  

Their tourist business began to flourish in 1901 as trains brought increasing numbers of visitors to the South Rim.  Eventually they sold their holdings for $25,000 with Ada arranging to receive half the proceeds.  They moved far from the canyon country, and over time her memories softened.  When she returned to the North Rim in her early 80s, her outlook had changed.  The canyon pioneer sat on the terrace of the lodge taking in the dramatic panorama below.  “You know,” she said, “I love the Canyon too.”