Utah Stories from the Beehive Archive

Conquering the Unconquerable River: Buzz Holstrom's Rise to Fame


Dublin Core


Conquering the Unconquerable River: Buzz Holstrom's Rise to Fame


Armed with a cameraman, a rubber boat named “Charlie,” and a pet racoon, Buzz Holmstrom took a legendary river trip that was featured in the 1938 film “Conquering the Colorado."

In 1937, a man named Buzz Holmstrom built a wooden boat and ran the whitewater rapids of the entire Colorado River system completely solo. The following year, he became the subject of a documentary film that brought him national fame as the expert boatman who had supposedly “conquered the Colorado.” But Holmstrom always said that the rivers he ran in Utah have “never been conquered and never will.” 

The man who documented Holmstrom’s river running feats for the 1938 film was photographer Amos Burg. Burg needed his own boat for filming so commissioned a rubber raft from Goodrich Tire Company that he affectionately named “Charlie.” It was the first of its design, and Burg often boasted the raft could “float on a dew drop.” Charlie weighed about 80 lbs but could carry over 5,000 pounds of film equipment in its water-proof containers. Charlie was the first rubber raft used in the Mountain West, and marked a shift in the way river craft were designed across Utah. 

Holmstrom and Burg’s thousand-mile journey began in Green River, Wyoming and ended at Hoover Dam in Nevada. The trip took months, and during a pitstop in Utah one fan gave them a pet raccoon to provide “hours of entertainment.” On Lake Mead, Holmstrom rowed for four days so he could symbolically bump the tip of his wooden boat against the Hoover Dam’s wall, signaling the completion of his so-called “conquest.” 

Despite this amazing adventure and the fame that came with it, Holmstrom received no financial gain from the film. He regarded Utah’s rivers with a sense of reverence and awe, not resources to be dominated and controlled. In one of his journals, Holmstrom wrote “I think this river is not treacherous as has been said. Every rapid speaks plainly just what it is and what it will do… Some people have said I 'conquered the Colorado River’ – I don’t say so. It has never been conquered and never will I think. Anyone who it allows to go through its canyons and see its wonders should feel thankful and privileged.”


Megan Weiss for Utah Humanities © 2021


Image: Amos Burg, Willis Johnson, and Buzz Holmstrom aboard their boats at Lake Mead on November 7, 1938 after their Grand Canyon trip. Image courtesy of Northern Arizona University Cline Library.

See “Charlie” the River Raft, USHS 1982-009-001, Utah State Historical Society; Buzz Holmstrom, Every Rapid Speaks Plainly The Salmon, Green and Colorado River Journals of Buzz Holmstrom, ed. Brad Dimock (Flagstaff, AZ: Fretwater Press, 2003); “Famous Pair to Embark on Five Month Journey, The Bingham Bulletin, August 26, 1938; Film Conquering the Colorado (1939); Amos Burg photographs, 1889-1985 Oregon Historical Society Davies Family Research Library; Russell G. Frazier Papers, Utah State Historical Society MSS B 112.


The Beehive Archive is a production of Utah Humanities. Find sources and the whole collection of past episodes at www.utahhumanities.org/stories.