Hollywood actress, revered folk singer, and unwavering environmentalist. Known for her spunk and a penchant for dropping f-bombs, Katie Lee was a Jill of all trades. She became one of the most outspoken opponents against the damming of Glen Canyon.
Born on October 23, 1919, Lee had a childhood full of traipsing through the deserts of southern Arizona, a prelude to her later connection to the landscapes of Glen Canyon. Hollywood beckoned her in the 1940’s and she launched her career as a stage and screen actress. Her career shifted in the mid-fifties as she began to sing in cabarets. Eventually she became a folk singer, touring with the likes of Josh White and Burl Ives. Her later career led to her induction into the Arizona Music Hall of Fame.
Lee first fell in love with river running when she went on a Grand Canyon river trip with her friend and photographer Tad Nichols. She eventually became the third woman to run all of Grand Canyon’s rapids. She was often the entertainer on river trips, playing her guitar and singing old cowboy songs for passengers under the stars.
It was during these trips that she fell deeply in love with the stretch of the Colorado River known as Glen Canyon. The side canyons, the stories of the ancient people who lived there, and the flowing river all drew her in.
“Eden couldn’t have touched this place,” Lee said in the film The River Woman, “…some of the vistas were so beautiful, we just stood there and cried.”
“Eden couldn’t have touched this place…some of the vistas were so beautiful, we just stood there and cried.”
The Glen Canyon that Lee fell in love with no longer exists today. In 1963, the completion of Glen Canyon Dam submerged the place as she knew and loved. She became a vocal opponent to the dam using public protest, song, and her voice to speak out against the damming of other rivers. “DamnDam – that’s my license plate.”
Lee went on to write books that kept the history of Glen Canyon alive, including Glen Canyon Betrayed, Sandstone Seduction, and Ghosts of Dandy Crossing. In 1971, she settled in Jerome, Arizona and continued to protest the Glen Canyon Dam decades after its construction.
On November 1, 2017, Lee passed away in her home, just after her 98th birthday. Her fiery spirit, steel-like conviction, and deep, powerful love of rivers are remembered in the outpouring of the tributes to her life.
“The river became part of me. And still is. I don’t think I’m anything like the person that I am, until that river just picked me up and took me along.”
Learn about another pioneering river runner Georgie White.
(Photos: Northern Arizona University Special Collections & Archives and the Glen Canyon Institute)