A few years ago, after a visit to the Grand Canyon, we drove east on Hgw 64, then north on Hgws 89 and 89A. We crossed the Colorado River on the Navajo Bridge, and were on final approach to the Vermillion Cliffs when we were surprised to see some mushroom shaped rocks that looked like a group of Smurfs had built houses under them.
We stopped to investigate and quickly realized they really were ‘Tiny Houses’. A worn and badly damaged sign nearby told the story of Blanche Russell and her husband William (Bill), whose car broke down in the area in about 1927 (or maybe 1920)…
The pair took shelter under the mushroom rocks over night. Blanche liked the area so much that she bought the property and built permanent structures. She lived there for about 10 years and operated a business.
When I looked online for more information about the Blanche Russel Rock Houses, I found a number of ‘folklore’ stories on several sites:
“Around 1927, Blanch Russell’s car broke down as she traveled through this area. Forced to camp overnight, she decided she liked the scenery so well that she bought the property and stayed. The stone buildings under these balanced rocks were built shortly after that in the 1930’s.”
– http://arizona.untraveledroad.com/Coconino/HouseRock/56SSign.htm –
“The Old Cliff Dwellers’ Lodge (Blanche Russell Rock House) is located on 89-A in Marble Canyon, AZ… Blanche built a meager lean-to against the largest rock of many… and gradually built a life by serving food to passer-bys visiting the Grand Canyon. Guests of particular interest included Mormons traveling the nearby Honeymoon Trail to the temple in St. George, Utah.”
– https://www.zdziarski.com/blog/?p=5326 –
“Blanche Russell was a successful dancer in a series of sophisticated theatrical productions called The Ziegfeld Follies. Blanche left the limelight when her husband Bill was diagnosed with Pulmonary Tuberculosis… They immediately purchased the land and constructed a unique rock house which they later converted into a roadside trading post. The structure was built with stacked rock against a large fallen boulder… The original home remains on the property today… They started serving food to travelers and later found themselves running a full-scale restaurant, trading post and even selling gasoline. The area became so popular, travelers began to refer to the area as Soup Creek or House Rock Valley… After a decade, the Russell’s grew tired of the desolate desert and sold the land to a rancher named Jack Church, who later turned the restaurant into a bar. It wasn’t but three years later when he sold the establishment to Art & Evelyn Greene.”
– http://theproperfunction.com/the-cliff-dwellers/ –
“According to author Kay Campbell, who wrote a booklet about the Cliff Dwellers lodges, (Cliff dweller’s old and new: A history of the rock “village” on Highway 89A near Lee’s Ferry – 1998) the Russells sold water they took out of nearby Soap Springs and also sold pigeons out of a coop they kept at the site.” (This booklet is listed on Amazon, but is not available for purchase.)
– This site is no longer available: archive.azcentral.com/travel/arizona/features/articles/archive/0928cliffdwellers –
“By the 1930’s, their full-scale restaurant evolved to include a trading post, both of which are just a stone’s throw further down the road. The little settlement, known as Soup Creek or Houserock Valley, included several attendant outbuildings.”
– https://frametoframe.ca/2014/10/blanche-russells-rock-houses-marble-canyon-arizona/ –
“Jack Church, who added his own personal touch by turning the restaurant into a bar during World War II. In 1943, third owners, Art and Evelyn Greene, purchased the land. They kept the old dwelling, which then consisted of eight buildings and a gas generator.”
– http://www.kitchensaremonkeybusiness.com/2012/05/may-20-2012-rock-houses.html –
In 2001, Sandy Nevills Reiff interviewed Evelyn Greene for the Northern Arizona University. The Greene family established trading posts, restaurants, and motels in the region. Evelyn’s recollection was that Blanche Russell and her husband had come from New York in about 1920 or 1921. (She says the exact dates are in their archives, which are at ASU.) Evelyn says that Blanche and her husband set up a small business by the road side. Since the husband couldn’t do much in the way of helping, they would ask their customers to help them lay blocks and rocks to make the buildings.
The only verifiable source facts I could find about the Blanche Russell story were William Russel’s Death Certificate and the Patent for the land:
According to an Arizona State Board of Health’s Certificate of Death, William Pat Russel of Soap Creek, Coconino County, died July 27, 1936 of chronic myocarditis and mitral regurgitation. He was born on May 10, 1864 in Boston Mass, and was 72 years old when he died. He worked at a Service Station. He was married to Blanche Russell (nee Dodge) of Cameron Arizona. His father was Wm. Russell Sr. and his mother was Mary Sheets. He was buried in Flagstaff.
– http://genealogy.az.gov/ –
The Bureau of Land Management holds the document that shows Blanche A. Russell, the widow of William Russell, was issued the Patent for 400 Acres of land on 1/11/1939.
The Bureau of Land Management also shows that Art Greene acquired 40 acres of Blanche’s property (039N – 006E SE¼SE¼ 28) on 4/21/1955.
– https://glorecords.blm.gov/search/default.aspx –
The Arizona State University Libraries Archivist was kind enough to look through the Greene Family Collection for me. The only relevant item he found was a negative photostat copy of a 1930’s application for homestead by William Russell for the land Cliff Dweller’s Lodge occupies. (That application was denied by the federal government.)
Google Maps for the area:
So many questions, so few answers about a woman, who by all accounts, was a remarkably resourceful and adventurous person!
Wouldn’t you love to know ‘the rest of the story’!