When people told Mary McGann that federal land managers replaced the controversial trailhead sign at the entrance to Negro Bill Canyon, her first thought was that they must be playing another practical joke on her.
But the Grand County Council member soon had a chance to see for herself that after decades of contentiousness surrounding the name, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) did just that.
The agency installed a new “Grandstaff Trailhead” sign at the scenic recreational area off state Route 128 on Saturday, Sept. 24, as part of a broader project to update its signs along the corridor.
The sign, which replaces the recently vandalized “Negro Bill Canyon Trailhead” sign at the mouth of the canyon, memorializes early African American settler William Grandstaff, who lived in the Moab area from 1877 to 1881.
“The BLM is now on record choosing to honor him by his name,” BLM Moab Field Office Assistant Manager Lisa Bryant told the Moab Sun News.
Outgoing Grand County Council member and retired BLM employee Lynn Jackson said he’s dismayed that the agency would move forward with an action that’s contrary to the council’s most recent position on the name change issue.
In August 2015, Jackson and three other council members voted against McGann’s proposed recommendation that would have asked the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to rename the popular hiking spot “Grandstaff Canyon.”
“I’m just a little disgusted that the federal government is so cavalier toward local government positions,” Jackson said. “I think it’s symptomatic of our entire country. It’s in this same mode of political correctness.”
Jackson and others have said that National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Tri State Conference President Jeanetta Williams swayed their votes by defending the “Negro Bill” name as an important part of the area’s history.
“History is what it is, and I don’t think any society is ever improved by changing it,” Jackson said.
McGann, however, said she gives little credence to Williams’ views on the issue.
“The majority of African Americans in this community are offended by it, and I represent the African Americans here – not Jeanetta Williams,” she said.
McGann said she hears the points that Jackson and others have made. But she doesn’t believe the Negro Bill name reveals anything about Grandstaff, noting that some visitors might assume it’s a reference to a rock formation.
“You’re not learning any history,” she said.
Bryant said there aren’t many documents out there that reveal much about Grandstaff.
“There are a lot of mysteries surrounding William Grandstaff,” Bryant said. “It’s one of the things that makes him such a unique character in Moab’s history.”
However, the inclusion of the letter “d” in his last name is no typographical error: Building on the historical research that former Moab resident Louis Williams conducted, the BLM found official U.S. Census records that identify the historic figure as “Grandstaff” — not “Granstaff.”
The latter name currently appears on a sign at an adjacent campground, but Bryant said the agency plans to revise that spelling on a new sign.
McGann, who has pushed for the name change since she joined the council in 2015, said she couldn’t be happier with the BLM’s decision to replace the sign.
It comes months after the Moab Sun News ran a fake April Fools Day story that the county council voted to officially rename the canyon as “Sir William Grandstaff, Esq. Canyon.” The same “article” also reported that Dead Horse Point State Park could be renamed “Equine in Repose State Park.”
“I was a little hesitant that (this) was for real,” McGann laughed.
While the trailhead has a new name, the canyon itself will remain Negro Bill Canyon on official maps for the time being.
Bryant said the BLM doesn’t have the regulatory authority to change that place name, noting that the final say-so for that decision rests with the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.
The federal board is well-known for its reluctance to make changes to existing place names, barring a groundswell of local support for particular proposals. It discourages name changes unless it determines that they’re “necessary,” and it says there must be a compelling reason to adopt any revisions.
The board says its decisions lean heavily on the side of local use and acceptance of a word in question, and because there was no formal support for a 1999 county proposal to change the canyon’s name, it rejected that request in 2001. The issue resurfaced again in 2012 and 2013, when current Grand County Council chair Elizabeth Tubbs joined a majority of previous council members in rejecting official county support for the change.
Both McGann and Jackson agreed that the next county council’s members will likely revisit the name change issue when they take office in January 2017.
News of the BLM’s decision to replace the sign drew mixed reactions from visitors who hiked down the canyon this week.
Chris Small, a resident of Shreveport, Louisiana, who is in the process of moving to Oregon, said the new sign left him slightly confused.
“I didn’t know that I was at the right place at first,” he said.
Small was familiar with Jeanetta Williams’ views against the name change, and he said he’s sympathetic toward them.
“I think it’s kind of sad because it changes history,” Small said. “It needs to reflect that an African American man was here.”
However, Salt Lake City resident Elise Gatti said she doesn’t see any reason to keep the Negro Bill name.
“The new name is so much more dignified, right?” she said. “It’s still named after him; we all know who he is. We just don’t need that modifier at the beginning.”
Castle Valley resident and innkeeper Michele Johnson said the mere existence of the Negro Bill name led to some uncomfortable moments with visitors – none of whom thought it reflected well on the area.
In the past, she said, people would say things like, “What’s wrong with Moab?”
The new name, in contrast, is a good compromise that “removes a blemish” from the roadside, while leaving the canyon’s place name on official maps.
“For me as an innkeeper living in Castle Valley, there are no more awkward moments with our guests,” she said.
McGann hails change to “Grandstaff;” Jackson says he’s dismayed by the move
The new “Grandstaff Trailhead” signs at the entrance to Negro Bill Canyon have been stolen.
U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Moab Field Office Manager Lisa Bryant said that a Castle Valley resident first reported the theft at about 7:30 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 29. The person said the signs were still in place around 8:15 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 28.
The BLM spent more than $1,600 to install the signs as part of its broader effort to replace signage along the state Route 128 corridor.
The theft of the signs is a felony offense, and Bryant said the BLM is working in conjunction with the Grand County Sheriff’s Office to investigate the incident.
If you have any information about the theft, you can contact the BLM at 435-259-2100, or the sheriff’s office at 435-259-8115.
“Ideally, somebody would return the signs,” Bryant said. “That’s really what we want.”