By Hartt Wixom
Recently I traveled with Duane Woodward, Washington, in his “Rhino” to Hole in the Rock. It was here that dozens of Utah pioneers did what many considered impossible. According to the History of Grand County, they lowered 83 wagons, with more than 200 men, women and children over a cliff opening a thousand feet to the Colorado River below. Next, they passed through “impassable” terrain with hundreds of cattle and horses to settle the community of Bluff, Utah. It was supposed to take six weeks. It took nearly six months.
Yet, somehow, they suffered not a single loss of life. I had read about the Hole-in-the-Rock expedition of 1879-80 for many years. Now, I rode that 54 rough dirt road miles from Escalante to the Hole. It required 3.5 hours in a rugged four-wheel drive Rhino. And an equally rugged driver s showing the way.
Anyone who has taken that trek could agree it would require plenty of grit via horse and wagon just to reach the overlook itself. Immigrants gathered to Escalante from as far away as Cedar City, the Delta area and points north. After negotiating the first 40 miles, they faced a major dilemma. Could they make it to the rim at all? Three of four who scouted ahead reported “no.” One suggested it might be remotely possible. So, they forged ahead–when by all rules of common sense it would seem they should have turned back.
Reaching the San Juan region from Arizona was dismissed due to Indian problems; the north route was deemed too long. They wanted a short cut. Writes historian David Miller in his book Hole-in-the Rock : “It may seem incredible that [Mormon] church leaders would send a large company of more than 200 men, women and children through an unknown region on the strength of such inadequate exploration. The ’shortcut’ would have been much shorter in time and immensely shorter in terms of hard work and energy by any other route.” But these immigrants somehow carved and blasted their way through today what can only be called an “incredible” fete born of indomitable will.
Diaries reveal, as expected, that these settlers prayed mightily for divine providence. It could be said in retrospect, however, that they placed a heavy burden on themselves as well as their Maker. As I gazed down the steep gash in the ridge leading to the gorge bottom at today’s Lake Powell, it was with the realization then they had to take wagons down another 200 or so feet to the Colorado River down a sheer wall. They had to use blasting powder to slice out a ledge wide enough for wagons… to go where both humans and horses must have been terrified.
It has been suggested in some histories that by November (they arrived in April) the party could not return due to deep snow. However, there is record of persons returning to Escalante for supplies, including blasting powder. Fortunately, some of the LDS converts came from Wales where they had experience with blasting tools and explosives in coal mines.
One problem in reaching the canyon abyss can be seen in a monument at bottom of a steep hill before reaching Forty-mile Spring. Thirteen people were killed there in modern times (seven of them Boy Scouts) when a truck lost power near the top, and rolled backward when the brakes failed. A horse could have also stumbled at that point with the same result.
I should add that while trucks with campers and station wagons had had to mosey along at 5-15 mph due to washboard ruts, we could go much faster with our Rhino’s soft cushion tires. Even then, Woodward said the road was much improved compared to when he took it five years before. Still, it required 3.5 hours each way from Escalante, with an extra half an hour exploring Dance Hall Rock. Here, as diaries record, the emigrants danced to three fiddlers, “to keep our spirits up.”
Safest part of the expedition was probably ferrying wagons across the river. A map shows that east of the Colorado, wagon drivers had continual trouble with precipitous terrain. And after reaching Bluff, the settlers were further challenged (with everything in short supply) to plant crops for survival.
One thing that surprised me on the 108-mile round trip dirt road trek (plus side trips to springs) was the absence of big game animals. We saw no mule deer or their tracks, although a U.S. Bureau of Land Management wildlife biologist at the Escalante Visitors Center said he has seen deer near the base of Fifty-Mile Mountain which parallels the Hole road. A BLM clerk told me she has lived in Escalante her entire life and never seen antelope there, despite what appeared to be ideal pronghorn habitat. I was told antelope were transplanted to the area but migrated south toward Big Water. This all fits with diary entries saying game meat was scarce.
Escalante is worth visiting, of course, for its amazing scenery alone. But if you follow the Hole-in-Rock road, plan to be even more amazed at the accomplishment of pioneer settlers who refused to quit against seemingly impossible odds.