Originally Published: February 11, 2012 10:20 p.m.
As one of the first pioneer settlers on the south rim of the Grand Canyon in the 1890s, Ralph Henry Cameron, in addition to his mining interests in the canyon, decided money could be made by catering to the new tourism trade as well. He constructed the Bright Angel Trail, charging a toll for its use and built a hotel on the rim. But he was soon under siege from two entities: the Fred Harvey Company and the Santa Fe Railroad. They wanted a share in the tourist dollars as well. In addition, the U. S. government was looking into turning the Grand Canyon into a national monument, which would negatively impact his mining claims and tourist business.
By the first decade of the 20th century, the battle for Arizona statehood was reaching fever pitch. Marcus Aurelius Smith, a Democrat, had been territorial delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives for many years and had promised statehood, but it had not yet been achieved, and Arizona citizens were getting impatient. Republican Ralph Cameron saw an opportunity and declared his candidacy for Congress in the 1908 election against Mr. Smith. Cameron thought that winning the seat in the House would give him leverage in his battle for his holdings in the Grand Canyon, but at the same time, he genuinely cared about Arizona.
Cameron barnstormed across the Territory, stopping in towns large and small. The Republicans held rallies for him at the Elks Opera House in Prescott. He promised that if he failed to secure statehood during his first term, he would not stand for re-election. All of the elements were working in his favor, and he defeated Marcus Smith to become territorial delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives.
While in Washington from 1909-1912, Cameron kept busy with securing federal funds for territorial development projects, lobbying to install post offices in various small towns, and visiting the White House regularly to lobby President William Howard Taft to support the Arizona statehood bills that were before Congress.
Statehood for Arizona came only days before Cameron left office though historians attribute it to intense behind-the-scenes negotiating in Congress and elsewhere. At the time, Arizonans believed that he was the one to finally secure statehood. Even he believed it had come because of his fiery lobbying. Today, the name of Ralph Henry Cameron is seldom, if ever, mentioned in connection with statehood. Whole books have been written about Arizona statehood without even mentioning his name. Why has the name of the last Arizona territorial delegate to Congress been erased from the history books? The answer can only be at the Grand Canyon where he is still regarded as a major villainous character.
When elections were held to choose Arizona's first federal and state officials, Cameron ran for the U.S. Senate but Arizona was still largely in the hands of the Democratic Party and he lost this election. Henry F. Ashurst and Cameron's old nemesis, Marcus A. Smith, became Arizona's first two U.S. senators.
Out of office in 1912, Cameron resumed his battles over property rights in the Grand Canyon with lawsuits and counter-suits filed over many years until he finally had his day in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1920. The justices ruled that the Interior Department had the right to invalidate Cameron's many mining claims and upheld the government's orders evicting him from the Grand Canyon. That same year, Warren G. Harding was elected to the presidency in a Republican sweep that brought Ralph Cameron into the U.S. Senate, once again defeating Marcus Smith.
By this time, Cameron was an angry and bitter man and, instead of working hard for Arizona interests as he had done in the House, he used his position in the Senate to retaliate against the Department of the Interior, using his influence to de-fund the department on many fronts. He ignored the government's order to vacate the Bright Angel Trail but the Interior Department was hesitant to use physical force against his crew while he was a powerful U.S. senator. Though he did act to secure the construction of the Coolidge Dam, his focus on the Interior Department began to cost him public support.
In 1926, Cameron was defeated for re-election by Carl Hayden, serving only one polarizing term in the Senate. Without this power, he finally vacated his claim to the Bright Angel Trail. He unsuccessfully tried twice to regain
the Senate seat in later years.
Ralph Cameron died in 1953 at the age of 89. In a final jab, his family had him buried in the American Legion Cemetery at the Grand Canyon near his old friends Pete Berry and the Kolb brothers. His tombstone reads: "Secured Statehood for Arizona Feb. 14, 1912. Arizona can never forget him."
But Arizona has forgotten him.