THE HOLE-IN-THE-ROCK TRAIL
In the spring of 1880 a direct supply and access road connecting southwestern
and southeastern Utah was completed. Known as the Hole-In-The-Rock Trail,
its direct penetration through the Colorado River gorge and surrounding
topography shortened distances over alternative routes by up to hundreds
of miles. Built by Mormon pioneers answering a mission call to colonize
the southeastern section of the territory, the trail provided a crucial
link for one year before the most rugged stretches were bypassed with the
opening of Hall's Crossing.
The mission which resulted in the trail's construction was initiated by
the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to secure peaceful relations
with the Indians and to open the area to further colonization. After four
months of exploring for a feasible route to their intended destination,
the pioneers selected a direct route from Escalante. Although it was the
least explored of all the possible routes, it was by far the shortest.
As winter approached at the end of November 1879, 250 men, women, and children,
with 80 wagons and 1,000 head of cattle, found themselves up against terribly
broken, seemingly impassable terrain. The settlers had been en route for
more than two weeks when they reached the 1,200-foot-deep Colorado River
gorge, sixty-five miles southeast of Escalante.
For six weeks, the men labored on a wagon road down the sandstone cliffs
to the Colorado River. Built by chiseling and blasting a path through a
steep crevice named the Hole-in-the-Rock, their road stands today as a testament
of pioneer ingenuity and determination. Construction consisted of cutting
away a 40-foot drop-off at the top of the crevice, moving huge boulders,
leveling high spots, filling depressions, and widening crevice walls. To
avoid the steep grades near the bottom of the Hole-in-the-Rock, the pioneers
tacked their road onto the face of the north wall of the crevice. The tacked-on
road was supported by oak stakes secured into holes drilled into the crevice
wall at two-foot intervals.
After driving the wagons through the Hole-in-the-Rock and ferrying across
the 300-foot-wide river, the emigrants proceeded east out of the river gorge.
On 6 April 1880, after another ten weeks of grueling labor in harsh winter
conditions, the missionaries reached a sandy bottomland along the banks
of the San Juan River where they established Bluff City.
The hundred miles of road built after descending the Hole-in-the-Rock crossed
some of the most rugged terrain in North America. Deep ravines and washes
were crossed, trails down thousand-foot drop-offs blasted, deserts traversed,
paths through thick cedar forests cut, and steep cliffs ascended. Many grades
required seven spans of horses to pull the heavily laden wagons, and the
worst stretches could be identified by the blood and matted hair from the
forelegs of the struggling teams.
In all, the trek took six months. Food supplies were depleted, and teams
had been worn to the point of exhaustion. Two babies were born en route
and, miraculously, no one had died. The pioneers had toiled under the most
trying of circumstances in a harsh land. Most significantly, their ordeal
forged them into a self-reliant colony ready for the formidable tasks of
nurturing peace with the Indians, controlling the lawless who sought refuge
in the area, irrigating with the unruly San Juan River, and eking out a
living from the sun-baked land.
See: David E. Miller, Hole-In-The-Rock (1959); and Cornelia Adams
Perkins, Marian Gardner Nielson, and Lenora Butt Jones, Saga of San Juan