Build it and they will come
People have been traveling to the Bright Angel Creek Delta since prehistoric times. The Hisatsinom (or ancestral Puebloans) built their homes next to the Colorado River and farmed in the flood plain of Bright Angel Creek.
John Wesley Powell described these ruins when he came through in August of 1869. Exhausted and almost out of food, Powell and his men spent a well-earned layover day at the foot of these ruins. They dried out their scanty and moldy food (subsequently dropping the baking soda in the River, so they were then reduced to unleavened bread) and carved a new oar from a handy Douglas Fir log which had washed downstream. The creek was bright and clear in the summer sun, sparkling with pieces of mica. Powell named it ...Silver Creek. It was not until later, when he was on speaking tours, that it occurred to him that since he had named a creek upstream the Dirty Devil, it would be a nice balance to have a Bright Angel somewhere along the way. He immediately changed the name to Bright Angel Creek.
Prospectors wandered through on their way to look for gold (which they never found) and the surveyor, Francois Matthes, followed their route from the North Rim down along Bright Angel creek when he returned from mapping the North Rim.
David Rust developed the Old Bright Angel Trail in 1903, and operated a tent camp called Rust's Camp. Originally guests crossed from the South Rim, where they had arrived by train, in boats. In a few years, Rust had installed a cable car. When Theodore Roosevelt came through hunting lions in 1907, he thought the cable car was "bully good fun". The area became known as Roosevelt's Camp. In 1921, the cable was replaced with a swinging suspension bridge. It swung a little too freely, however, so in 1928, the Black Bridge was installed and this has served the traveler ever since.
By the 1920's, the Park Service had requested that the Fred Harvey Company build a tourist facility within the Canyon. Nothing loath, they contracted their architect, Mary Jane Elizabeth Colter, to draw up the plans. She produced sketches for a series of cabins. They were pleased, and announced they would name it Roosevelt Chalet. The commonly told story that "everybody knows" says that Colter snatched up her work and declared, "Not if you are going to use my drawings!". Newspaper stories from the period, however, state that the facility then under construction would be named Roosevelt Chalet. It was probably decided by the powers that be that naming a hotel after a politician might not last the ravages of time and public opinion, and "chalet" implied one building, when in fact there were several. Mary Colter did indeed suggest the name Phantom Ranch, but the charming, and characteristic, story of her refusal to hand over the designs otherwise is probably apocryphal.
Phantom Ranch is named after nearby Phantom Creek, but no one can agree as to where the name originates. Some say when Matthes was mapping, he missed it on the way through, so it was hidden, like a Phantom. Some say the prospectors named it because it fills with mist on a cold morning. Perhaps because it can't be seen from the rim: it is hidden within the folds of Phantom Fault. Dr. Harvey Butchart, one of the grand old men of the Grand Canyon, believed it was so named for Phantom Rock. About two miles north of the Ranch along the North Kabiab Trail, one can see, very briefly, a projection upon the horizon that looks like a cloaked figure. This is Phantom Rock.
All of Colter's buildings had a "back story". Phantom Ranch was supposed to be a working ranch which took in guests. It never was a working ranch: it was always a tourist facility, but the book, 1001 Places to See Before You Die, lists it as such. Colter would probably be pleased that her myth was accepted as truth.
Phantom Ranch was an exclusive resort for the rich and famous. Movie stars, authors, and celebrities came down to relax in the wild west. In the 1930's a swimming pool was dug by the CCC so the guests could take a refreshing swim while listening to the mule wranglers play the guitar and, possibly, the piano.
In the 1960's and 70's, the back to the Earth movement brought an influx of hikers. Until that time, no one hiked in the Grand Canyon: one rode a mule. Only a few weirdos like Harvey Butchart, Gail Burak, and George Steck walked. When the baby boomers showed up, we started walking.
Phantom Ranch was not for the likes of us. The first time I hiked there, on a day hike to the River, the watchman chased me out, yelling, "These are the mule riders' bathrooms! The backpackers' bathrooms are down by the river!"
However by 1972, it was becoming apparent that hikers were the future. Dorms were put in for hikers, and the swimming pool, which could not cope with the increased visitation, had to be filled in. Today mule riders still make the strenuous trip down to the Ranch, but more hikers show up to stay in the dorms or camp and walk up a half mile from the campground for a cold drink and a stew dinner.
Fabulous old black and white pictures of Phantom at NPS Flickr picture page.
Learn more at the ASU Nature, Culture and History of the Grand Canyon site.