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MYSTERY

An Empty Boat in the Grand Canyon: The Mysterious Disappearance of Glen and Bessie Hyde

Michele Debczak
The Hydes’ homemade scow as found by searchers.
The Hydes’ homemade scow as found by searchers. / Grand Canyon National Park, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
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Two weeks into the fruitless rescue effort, a search plane flying over the Grand Canyon made a promising discovery. Floating down the Colorado River below was a small boat, some 140 miles from where Glen and Bessie Hyde had last been seen 32 days prior on November 18, 1928. Spurred by hope, rescuers on the ground scrambled down the rocky river bank to the scene.

They found the newlyweds’ scow in perfect condition: It was upright and securely packed with supplies, including Bessie’s diary. The only thing amiss was that the couple was nowhere in sight, as if they had been enjoying their honeymoon adventure one moment and vanished the next.

The state of the boat made an already strange story even stranger. People have been disappearing in national parks since the system’s inception, but the Hydes weren’t your typical tourists. Twenty-nine-year-old Glen was an experienced river runner who had traversed the Salmon and Snake Rivers in Idaho. His 22-year-old wife shared his adventurous spirit, and they planned to make their first trip as a married couple a historic feat. Glen aimed to be the fastest person to travel the length of the Grand Canyon by boat; Bessie, meanwhile, would become the first woman to complete the journey.

But as the discovery of their scow confirmed, the pair never made it to their destination. Accidental drowning would be the obvious culprit, but without bodies, there was no way to prove their cause of death—or whether they had died at all. In the subsequent decades, a skeleton, a pistol, and a birth certicate have added more fuel to rumors that the couple’s disappearance wasn’t an accident. 

’Til Death Do Us Part

When Glen and Bessie met on a boat to Los Angeles in 1927, they were traveling as passengers rather than navigators. Glen was an Idaho native who had recently boated from the Salmon River to the Pacific Ocean in a scow he had built by hand. Bessie was a bohemian artist, having dabbled in theater and poetry as a student. Though she was technically married when she met Glen, the two felt an instant connection. They got married in 1928—a day after Bessie’s divorce was finalized. 

Their Grand Canyon honeymoon was supposed to be more than a romantic adventure. If it went as they planned, it would have set them up for life. Only 45 people had made the full journey by that point, and being the first woman to complete it would have made Bessie an overnight celebrity. The Hydes hoped to come home from their river tour to lucrative book deals and lecture invitations.

The pair embarked in Glen’s homemade scow from Green River, Utah, on October 20, with the goal of reaching Needles, California, by early December. The first leg of the trip went smoothly. They had packed more than enough provisions, and Glen’s river-riding and boat-building skills stood up to the Colorado River’s frothy waters. 

The Colorado River running through the Grand Canyon.
The Colorado River running through the Grand Canyon. / Matteo Colombo/Royalty-free/iStock via Getty Images

The Hydes connected with several people during their travels, including Emery Kolb, a renowned photographer who owned a studio on the southern rim of the canyon. Kolb was also an experienced boat rider familiar with the river’s temperamental nature, and he noted the couple’s lack of lifejackets. Glen brushed him off with a laugh. They were already halfway through their journey, and it hadn’t been a problem for them them so far.

According to later reports, Kolb also noticed concerning behavior from Bessie. She seemed hesitant to return to the water, either due to exhaustion from the trip up to that point or fear of the rapids waiting for them. Her new husband may have pushed her to continue. They had come so far, after all, and no one wanted to hear about a couple who ended their Grand Canyon boat ride before reaching the finish line. 

Bessie agreed to press on, but she made an eerily prescient remark before boarding the boat. In response to the outfit Kolb’s young daughter was wearing, she commented: “I wonder if I shall ever wear pretty shoes again.”

Kolb’s photographer friend Adolph G. Sutro joined the newlyweds for several miles before they parted ways at Hermit Rapid. The turbulent spot was the last place the Hydes were seen alive.

Will the Real Bessie Hyde Please Stand Up?

The journal recovered from the boat had entries dated up to November 30, revealing that the Hydes had spent another 12 days on the water at least. According to Bessie’s account, they had actually been ahead of schedule and made it as far as Diamond Creek a dozen miles from where the abandoned boat was ultimately found. Nothing in her diary hinted at the trip being cut short.

A thorough search of their last known whereabouts turned up nothing, and the cold case wouldn’t see any new developments for decades. Then, in 1971, a woman named Elizabeth Cutler made the story relevant again during a river tour of the Grand Canyon. While sitting around the campfire, she announced to her tour group that she was Bessie Hyde. She alleged to have stabbed and killed her husband during a quarrel and had been living in secret ever since.

Some speculate that Cutler had lied and spun the tale as a prank or a bid for attention. She later denied ever claiming to be Bessie—when tracked down by a reporter, she said she had never even heard of the Hydes. But the theory that Bessie had made it out of the canyon alive wouldn’t die. When legendary Grand Canyon river guide Georgie Clarke passed away in 1992, some of the effects she left behind led some people to question her true identity. Among her possessions were a pistol, the Hydes’ marriage certificate, and a birth certificate listing her real name as Bessie DeRoss. The coincidences were strange, but because Clarke’s early life was well-documented, they weren’t strong enough to reopen the case.

Emery Kolb's studio on the Grand Canyon's southern rim.
Emery Kolb’s studio on the Grand Canyon's southern rim. / Grand Canyon National Park, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The idea that Glen was murdered also persisted—though theorists didn’t always agree on who the killer was. In 1977, six years after the first false Bessie appeared, a skeleton was discovered in Emery Kolb’s garage in his studio on the Grand Canyon’s southern rim. It had belonged to a man in his twenties who matched Glen’s height and build. But unlike Glen, the unnamed victim’s cause of death wasn’t a mystery—he was found with a bullet hole in his skull.

Kolb had died the previous December, so he was unable to defend himself against accusations that he’d murdered Glen Hyde and held onto his body for 50 years. His name was officially cleared in 2008, thanks to a black-and-white photography collection that the son of a former park ranger had donated to the Grand Canyon Museum. Several photos showed a skeleton resembling the bones found on Emery Kolb’s property, and a museum technician connected the remains to reports of an unidentified man who’d died from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head in 1933. Retired Grand Canyon National Park criminal investigator Joe Sumner heard about the photographs, and after comparing them to the Kolb skeleton, he confirmed they were a match.

How the bones ended up in the photographer’s garage was a greater mystery. Sumner determined that Kolb had served as a county coroner jury representative for Grand Canyon, and he likely acquired the remains following the death inquest. It’s still unclear why he stored them in his garage up to his death, but whatever the reason, the Hydes weren’t involved.

Without a Trace 

Now, nearly a century since the Hydes were last seen, the reason they vanished remains a mystery. But the most likely explanation for their disappearance doesn’t involve murder or secret identities.

The couple was braving notorious waters without life preservers—a big enough rapid could have easily swept them overboard while leaving their tied-down supplies intact. The bottom of the Grand Canyon was also much less trafficked and developed in the 1920s than it is today. That, combined with the powerful waters of the Colorado River, would have made it easy for two bodies to disappear without a trace.

Though not as dramatic as the legends, this scenario is still unsettling. The National Park Service has recorded dozens of unsolved missing person cases dating back to the 1950s, and some suspect there are hundreds more that aren’t on record. This shows how easy it is to get lost within the 84 million acres of preserved wilderness that make up the parks system. Beyond the maintained trails and camps of a national park, a vacation with loved ones can quickly become a struggle to survive. 

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