1880 Hole-in-the-Rock expedition a tale of Mormon settlers’ tenacity

Visitors to the Hole-in-the-Rock, overlooking the Colorado River, circa 1947. Photo courtesy of the San Juan County (Utah) Historical Society.

Route of the 1879-1880 Hole-in-the-Rock Expedition from Escalante, Utah, to Bluff, Utah. Map courtesy of the National Park Service, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

When the first of 260 Mormons struggled into the San Juan River Valley near what would become Bluff, Utah, on April 6, 1880, they were exhausted, but what they had accomplished was amazing.

The journey they had expected to take six weeks had actually lasted nearly six months. It had required some of the most amazing feats of road building in the history of the West.

“Countless caravans (on the Oregon Trail) traveled half the continent in less time than it took these Saints to cross the corner of one state,” wrote historian David Lavender.

And none of those other caravans faced obstacles like those the Hole-in-the-Rock expedition overcame to cross a little more than 200 miles of southern Utah, he said.

Consider just one of those obstacles, the Hole in the Rock. It was actually a narrow notch in the canyon wall, 1,200 feet above the Colorado River on the rim of Glen Canyon.

It took six weeks for Welsh-Mormon miners to blast the rock and widen the notch sufficiently for a wagon and team to slip through.

The miners also altered a 50-foot cliff at the notch and made it a 300-foot passage with a 45-degree slope, still a formidable obstacle.

Imagine sitting in the seat of a wagon at the precipice of that passage, with all of your family’s possessions aboard.

The livestock pulling your wagon — horses, mules or oxen — are terrified. They have no intention of heading down that slope.

So, a half-dozen strong men push your wagon and livestock over the edge, launching them on a 300-foot slick-rock slide.

Down you plunge, sliding and skidding on the rock. Your wheels are locked with chains and logs. Men behind the wagon haul on ropes to slow the wagon’s descent. Some of your animals fall to their knees, but none are killed.

Finally, you slide to a halt in a sandy flat spot, shaking as badly as your animals.

Remarkably, all of the other 80-plus wagons in the expedition make the same slide with no loss of life, human or animal.

The leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints determined to settle the San Juan River country in 1877.

Non-Mormons such as miners, cattlemen and outlaws were moving into the region, and the church wanted its members to settle and assert control.

The call for church members to join what was officially called The San Juan Mission occurred in late December 1878, in Parowan, Utah, north of Cedar City.

Several scouting parties were sent to examine possible routes.

One went south, through northern Arizona, crossed the Colorado River at Lee’s Ferry, then headed northeast toward the San Juan River.

But that party found angry Navajo Indians and little grass and water for a large expedition.

The Old Spanish Trail was a possibility, running northeast from Cedar City, then east over the San Rafael Swell, and finally south toward the San Juan. But, at more than 450 miles, that route was viewed as too long.

Another trio of scouts took the most direct route, from Cedar City to Escalante, Utah, then southeast to the Colorado River.

They found a way down to the river and across it, then over rugged country to where they could see the San Juan River.

In late summer 1879, they reported that the route appeared difficult but doable.

Based on that report, mission leaders led by Silas Smith chose this route, taking wheeled vehicles where none had ever gone before.

Families and wagons began moving eastward in small groups in October 1879, mostly from the communities around Cedar City.

By early November, most had gathered at a site called 40 Mile Spring, east of Escalante. They had supplies to last for six weeks, as well as cattle, horses and personal possessions.

By mid-December, 83 wagons and roughly 260 people were in two camps, one at 50 Mile Spring, 10 miles east of the earlier camp, and one at the edge of the Hole in the Rock.

Extra supplies arrived infrequently from Escalante and St. George, Utah.

It was a difficult time, but expedition members didn’t huddle in misery. There were fiddlers and dances under the stars when the weather permitted.

Three babies were born during the journey, one during a blizzard.

The workers spent six weeks, often delayed by weather, widening the notch and building trails below it to the river.

After surviving the Hole-in-the-Rock slide, wagons still had nearly 1,000 feet of mountain to descend to reach the Colorado River, beginning with a 50-foot- long path chiseled into the side of a cliff face, called Uncle Ben’s Dugway.

Past the dugway, the trail was easier. Up next was a ferry ride across the river, then more dugways, steep climbs and dangerous descents.

One climb was so steep and long it required seven teams hitched to each wagon to pull to the top.

After crossing the river, it took expedition members another 2 ½ months to construct more roads and surmount Cottonwood Canyon, Gray Mesa, Comb Ridge and Butler Wash before they finally began straggling into the area that they first called Bluff City.

In coming years, settlers found it tough to irrigate and raise crops along the constantly flooding or nearly dry San Juan River. Many switched to cattle and sheep.

Others moved north to help found the communities of Blanding and Monticello, Utah.

The fact they survived the trip and completed the church’s mission call was a testament to their faith and perseverance, noted Vern Howell of Loma, whose great-grandfather, Jens Nielsen, was one of the leaders of the Hole-in-the-Rock expedition.

“They had amazing tenacity,” Howell said. “Jens Nielsen called it ‘stick-to-it-ness.’ “

Information for this column came from “Hole in the Rock: An Epic in the Colonization of the Great American West,” by David Miller; “A Guide to Southern Utah’s Hole-in-the-Rock Trail,” by Stewart Aitchison; “One Man’s West,” by David Lavender; “Hole in the Rock Remembered,” trekholeintherock.blogspot.com; and an interview with Vern Howell of Loma.

Bob Silbernagel’s email is .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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