The Incredible Saga of the Hole-in-the-Rock

This article originally appeared in Vol.51, No.4 (2004) of Pioneer Magazine.

by Raymond E. Beckham

The year 1879 was an exciting one for Utah. Brigham Young had died unexpectedly two years before. The Church was being governed by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles with John Taylor as President of the Quorum and would continue to do so until October of 1880 when President Taylor was sustained as the third president of the Church.

By 1879, most of the Utah Territory had been settled. Mormon settlements stretched from Idaho to Southern California and Arizona, and from the to the Sierra Nevadas. Under John Taylor’s leadership, the Church continued to colonize the West. More than one hundred new settlements were founded in Wyoming, the Uintah Basin, Castle Valley, southern Nevada and Arizona in the three years following Brigham’s death.

Prior to his death, Brigham Young had talked about colonizing the desolate, rugged, and isolated southeastern part of Utah, He wanted to do missionary work with the warring Navajo, Ute, and Paiute Indian tribes that frequented both sides of the San Juan River, He was also concerned that this part of the Territory had become a hangout for outlaws and that raiding parties from there were attacking Mormon settlements west of the Colorado River and stealing cattle, sheep, and horses estimated to cost more than a million dollars a year. Another reason was that settlers from Colorado were looking to move into what is now the Four Corners area of Utah, and he wanted to stabilize the outer borders of Mormon country,

A special conference had been held in St. George in 1877, where the Temple had been dedicated in April, to discuss a settlement on the San Juan River. Brigham Young’s death in August of that year delayed any plans that were made.

The first exploring party to the San Juan

A year later President John Taylor asked Silas Smith to organize an expedition to the area to find out if colonies were feasible. Smith gathered twenty-four men together, along with two families (in case a settlement could be started), and left Paragonah, about 225 miles south of Salt Lake City, in mid-April 1879. Five months and more than 1,000 miles later, they returned to Paragonah and reported that the area was, indeed, habitable.

Smith had made a circuitous route southward to Lee’s Ferry in Arizona, then north to what Is now Bluff and Montezuma, returning via the old Spanish Trail to Moab, Green River, Castle Dale, and Salina in Utah, before returning to Paragonah. The families of Harrison H. Hardman and James 1. Davis, each with four children, had stayed on the San Juan as the first settlers of Montezuma, along with Harvey Dunton, Mary Davis gave birth to a girl shortly after the group arrived, the first white child born in the area.

Smith reported that the southern route was too difficult for a large party. There had been little water, poor forage, hostile Indians, and nearly impassable terrain for wagons. He estimated that it was only about 200 miles due east from Cedar City to the new settlement of Montezuma if a shorter route could be found through Escalante, a small settlement about 70 miles east of Paragonah. On their journey of exploration, his little group had built nearly 300 miles of road, much of it through rugged mountain ranges and cedar forests.

Other exploratory efforts

While Silas Smith had been exploring a possible route to the San Juan River country, Church leaders had directed others to find a more direct route to the Colorado River and the San Juan. Charles Hall, Andrew Schow, and Reuben Collette, all of Escalante, had made the journey. Hall is credited by some as being the first white man to discover , a narrow notch in the sheer rock walls leading from the rim to a steep gulch going to the river below, nearly a mile away. Schow and Collette later confirmed the route, and all three men thought a good wagon road could be fashioned from Escalante to the Hole-in-the-Rock, and then on to the San Juan. Their optimistic reports-—made after a very superficial reconnaissance beyond the Colorado River—along with Silas Smith’s recommendation that a more direct route could be found, caused Erastus Snow, one of the Twelve Apostles, who had been named by President Taylor to be the head colonizer, to activate the Southeast Mission and to select the Hole-in-the-Rock as the way to go. It was, as novelist Wallace Stegner was to say later, “one of the most incredible wagon trips ever made anywhere,” The trip was expected to take six weeks but took almost six months of the most arduous and exhausting trail-blazing the world has ever seen.

The Hole-in-the-Rock expedition

Silas Smith and his exploring party arrived back in Paragonah on September 16, 1879. Once the decision was made to take the “Escalante Shortcut” to Hole-in-the-Rock and thence on to San Juan, Church leaders lost little time selecting families to make the trek. Enthusiasm ran high, as those called to the “” made preparations. They were encouraged to take enough food for a year, plus cattle, seeds for planting, and other provisions. Some took a few head of cattle; others took more than a hundred head. Families were called from Pare wan, Cedar City, Harmony, Paragonah, Oak City, Holden, Beaver, and other Southern Utah towns. Many others joined the group voluntarily because of the excitement of pioneering this new venture.

Less than a month after Smith returned from his exploring trip, he was placed in charge of the mission. Time was short. They were behind schedule. Smith and his counselors estimated that it would take six weeks to make the trip, and they wanted to arrive in time to build homes and prepare for winter. Wagon trains from the various communities were instructed to meet in Escalante, and most of them left their respective towns around October 4, 1879, The Parowan group consisted of twenty-five wagons. The group from Cedar City was two miles long and comprised two hundred people, about a thousand head of cattle, chickens, and eighty wagons. When the group finally met near Escalante, many of their wagons were in poor repair and many horses were lame. Some families had temporarily dropped out because of the hardships and breakdowns in crossing the Wasatch Mountains and the Escalante Mountains.

Most of the pioneers were young married couples with small children. Some were unmarried men, , at fifty-nine, was the oldest man in the party. Everyone stocked up with supplies in Escalante, itself only three years old, and pushed on to Forty-Mile Spring, which was located forty miles from Escalante and twenty miles from Hole-in-the-Rock.

With the final pioneering group, at that time, were about seventy families, eighty wagons, and eighteen hundred head of cattle and horses. The cattle and horses were spread out over many miles in every direction for forage, Willard Butt, J.M. Redd, George Decker, Amasa Barton, and others were put in charge of managing the large herd and keeping it fed.

While at Forty-Mile Spring, President Silas Smith decided to scout out the country ahead. He appointed his second-in-command, Platte D, Lyman, to lead a party of thirteen men: Reuben Collett and Andrew Schow (who had previously explored the area), William Hutchins, Kumen Jones, Samuel Rowley, Cornelius Decker, George Hobbs, John Robinson, Joseph Barton, Joseph Nielson, Samuel Bryson, and James Ruby. The group took a wagonload of supplies and a boat and left on November 28, It took them two days to make the twenty-mile trip.

On the way, they met some prospectors coming from the Colorado. The prospectors told the group that it was impossible to make even a burro trail to the San Juan, much less a road for a wagon train. Moving on to Hole-in-the-rock, crossing the Colorado River, and exploring for another six days, the men decided that the country was so broken up, cut into such fantastic box canyons and draws, that it would be impossible to build any kind of road through the solid rock and rough terrain.

When the scouting party reported back at Forty-Mile Spring, pessimism spread through the camp. It was early December, It was snowing and very cold. The way back to Escalante was blocked with snow. Cattle were short of feed. Negative feelings were prevalent, but in a group meeting it was voted to move ahead. Silas Smith carried the day.

Two new camps were established-one at Fifty-Mile Spring, and the second at Hole-in-the-Rock itself. It took seven days to make the journey from Forty-Mile Spring to Fifty-Mile Spring. By December 10, ninety men, thirty women, sixty children, and some eighty wagons were camped at Hole-in-the-Rock. There was little food. Horse feed was ground into flour. Parched corn was a staple food. Rationing was a way of life. One woman reported that it was “the coldest Friday In history.”

At this point, four immediate tasks were undertaken:

  1. building a road for the wagons down through the notch in the canyon wall;
  2. building a road from the base of the notch to the Colorado River itself;
  3. constructing a ferry to carry the wagons and supplies across the river; and
  4. building a road out of the gorge on the other side of the river.

It was decided to divide the party into work crews and to accomplish all four tasks at once.

Attacking the “Hole” and to the river

Six inches of snow had fallen by Christmas Eve, and the New Year saw about fifty men continuing to work at opening the notch wide enough for a wagon to pass through. Blasting powder was scarce and the Church rushed a ton of powder to the site, with drills, picks, and rope. Men were lowered over the cliffs in half-barrels, and they drilled holes for blasting powder. Below the notch was a 60-foot sheer cliff, which required several days of blasting to taper the cliff enough to allow a worker to walk down.

It was impossible to build a wagon road straight down the dugway.

Benjamin Perkins recommended that they tack a dugway to the side of the cliff with wooden pegs, then laying the wagon road on top of the pegs. Two-inch diameter holes were drilled in the side of the cliff; then oak stakes several feet long were driven into the holes. Brush and debris were then placed on top of the stakes, along with a border on the outer edge to keep wagon wheels from going over the edge. A groove was chiseled and blasted into the cliff for the left wheels of the wagons to keep them on track. This unbelievable 100 feet of “Uncle Ben’s Dugway” successfully carried all eighty-three wagons over it and became the main route to the San Juan for the next three years. You can still see the remains today of this extraordinary accomplishment in the drilled holes and wheel grooves. (After three years of hard use, the crossing of the Colorado was moved upstream about thirty miles.)

No horses were lost going down the hole, but many had scratched knees and patches of tom skin. Men drove the wagons down, while the women and children walked, crawled, and slid down the road behind the wagons. By the end of the first day, twenty-six wagons had made the trip to the bottom. In the following days, another fifty-seven wagons were carefully lowered and then driven to the beaches several hundred yards away. After the wagons were down, about eighteen hundred head of cattle, horses, and mules had to be moved down the chute and across the freezing river. Because the animals had dispersed to find forage, this took several days of gathering the animals from as far away as fifty miles.

Now there was no turning back, even if they wanted to. Wagons and animals could never make it back up that chute. 

Crossing the river

While the one group was blasting their way through the “Hole,” Charles Hall and his sons had been busy cutting timber from as far away as the Escalante Mountains. They pre-cut the planks at the Escalante Mill and hauled them to the cliffs overlooking the river. By mid-January, they had lowered the timbers to the river with long ropes and assembled a ferry large enough to carry two wagons with their teams. The kiln for pitch was constructed at the river so that the caulking material would be nearby, Charles Hall said later that “half the people from Escalante came to help build the ferry,”

As the wagons came down the “Hole,” they were loaded onto the ferry and carried the 350 feet across the river. When the livestock was ready to cross the river, ice extended several feet into the water from each bank. The herdsmen bunched the animals into small herds and forced the leaders into the icy water. The animals revolted, hut finally forded the stream under their own power. They landed downstream quite a distance. After herding a small group of animals across the river, the cowboys would return to the west bank to pick up another herd. George W. Decker recalled making at least twenty crossings of the ice-filled river.

The crossing took more than a week. What the men had done seemed impossible. One old Ute Indian was amazed to see them there. When he asked where they had come from and was told that they had come down through the hole-in-the-rock, he flatly called them liars and rode away insulted.

Onward to what is now Bluff

From the Colorado River crossing to Fort Montezuma, their ultimate destination, was about 75 miles as the crow flies. But it was more than 150 miles the way they had to go—through the Clay Hills, around the heads of bottomless narrow canyons, over the “Slick Rocks” of desolate barren wastelands, hewing their way through impenetrable scrub brush and building dug ways through innumerable mountain passes.

But while one group had been conquering the “Hole,” and another was building ferries, another search party had gone ahead to find the best way to Fort Montezuma. George Sevy, Lemuel H. Redd, George B. Hobbs, and George Merrill took two pack animals, two riding horses, and food for eight days, leaving on December 17 to map out the best route. With only 75 miles to go, they estimated they would average 20 miles a day.

It was mid-winter. Deep snow lay over the wild, treacherous country. There was no trail to follow. After eight days of exploring many canyons and exiting only a few, facing nearly perpendicular walls up to 2,000 feet high, and crossing several mountain ranges, the party found themselves on Christmas Day in a blinding snowstorm and without food.

Three days later and still without anything to eat, they followed a canyon some thirty miles before they found in the spectacular red walls a break where Indians had fashioned a very rough trail to the top. From there, they were faced with another difficult wash to conquer before reaching what is now Bluff. There, they found a cabin occupied by the Harris family, who had gone with Silas Smith on his original southward trek back in April and May.

Four weary and hungry scouts ate their first meal in four days, and then they went another fifteen miles to Fort Montezuma. Staying one day and buying a forty-eight pound sack of flour from a passing trapper, the men headed back to the “Hole,” arriving January 8.

Their round trip had taken twenty-three days—twelve out and eleven back—in steady snowstorms, fog, slush, hunger, and unfamiliar rugged countryside. They had traveled 310 miles. The hooves of their horses were worn almost to the hide and left circles of blood at every step.

Their report on January 9 was surprisingly favorable, but with reservations. After their return and report, it was decided to continue to Montezuma. The “Hole” and the crossing of the river were finished. While crews worked at the Hole and the search party did its scouting, another crew had worked six weeks to blast a road up the other side of the river—a 250-foot wall of sheer cliffs. They had built a steep and narrow roadway diagonally across the face of the cliffs* When the crossing of the river was finished, the Saints began the fearsome task of moving up the other side and three miles further on, where an ideal campsite had been located with a clear water stream and plenty of forage for the livestock. Some said it was like reaching the promised land. These campsites and the unique dugway leading to them are today covered by the waters of Lake Powell.

The party rested a few days to catch up on their laundry and repairing of wagons, then pushed ahead into country which earlier explorers had said was impassable. But for those who had just come through Hole-in-the-Rock, nothing was impossible-though it may be difficult.

But help was on the way. The Utah Territorial Legislature had appropriated $5,000 to help build a roadway and seventy men arrived on February 1 to assist. The work was slow because of steep cliffs, dead-end canyons, drifting sand dunes, and one area so difficult it was called “Little Hole-in-the-Rock” (but going up out of a canyon rather than down). Another apparently insurmountable 500-foot cliff required two weeks of chiseling and blasting to build a narrow sloping rock shelf angling up the face of a solid limestone mountain. The feat would seem unbelievable if the road did not still exist.

There was even more difficult terrain ahead. Places like Grey Mesa, Slick Rocks, Castle Wash, Whirlwind Bench, Grand Gulch, Clay Hill Pass, Elk Mountain, Road Canyon, the Twist, and San Juan Hill each presented the Saints with almost impossible tasks—some taking days of road-building and superhuman effort to get through. Comb Ridge, a 30-mile-long line of vertical 1000-foot-high cliffs running north and south, stood in their path. Mons Larson later said that “the handcart journey which I made from Winter Quarters to Salt Lake City was not nearly as hard as the Hole-in-the-Rock journey”

The terrible canyons, thick cedar forests, and hazardous gorges were only part of the problem. Two blizzards punctuated what has been described as the worst winter ever known in the area. Platte Lyman, a man accustomed to hardship, said in his journal: 

“Last night was the coldest night I have ever experienced* It was impossible to be comfortable in bed or anywhere else.” 

Sometimes there was two feet of snow and sometimes two feet of mud. At one point, the roadbuilding engineers from Panguitch gave up and started for home, stating that the road could not be completed* It was February 27. Six more weeks of back-breaking toil was still ahead, and they were out of blasting powder. From now on, it would be hand chiseling and rock moving.

It had been six months since any of the animals had had any grain. They had barely survived the harsh winter. Each day, they were called upon to give their last ounce of strength against their collars and yokes, Some teams consisted of cattle and heifers; others had an ox and a mule yoked together; others had cows and heifers hitched beside oxen. Seven teams were often yoked together to pull the wagons out of a canyon or up a mountain. One ox, owned by Jens Nielson, dropped dead in his yoke. Others staggered and struggled to walk along even ground. At one point, the eighty-three wagons were strung out for thirty miles from Clay Hill Pass to Elk Mountain,

The leading wagons reached the San Juan River, ten miles from Bluff, about the end of March, The plan was to follow the river to Bluff, but the spring floods effectively blocked even a horse from riding anywhere between the two banks. The only way out was to once again tackle an “impossible” dugway. It turned out to be the most difficult part of the trip not only because of the ruggedness of the terrain, but because tired men and trail-weary beasts were forced once again to perform a miracle. It took five days of intense work to fashion a road and two more days to drag all the wagons to the top.

The next evening, June 6, 1880, the first wagons rolled into what is now Bluff. Some of the wagons barely made it, and families straggled in over several days. Some took as long as five days to make what normally would be less than a days travel. Bluff had water, grass, fuel, and sunshine, and the exhausted, hungry, happy Saints virtually collapsed in their tracks.

Most of those in the party settled in Bluff and mapped out a townsite. Fifty-nine of the settlers received from ten to twenty acres of land and one town lot. At least eight families went on to Montezuma. Some who had not been called as missionaries continued on to Colorado and Arizona,

One of the miracles of the trek had been that not one person had perished, even adding two new babies along the way. They had blazed an unexplored route 290 miles of the roughest, most difficult country in North America, They had built over 200 miles of new roads. They had done what no one else had ever done, and it had required all that they could give, A friendly Indian ran from Bluff to Montezuma, fifteen miles away, and reported the arrival of the Saints’ 

“Many white men and their squaws have come on the banks of the San Juan. They sit down, heap tired, horses no pull. All the time the white men sit down.”

What more can be said? 

The author is indebted to many authors and writers in preparing this article for Pioneer Magazine. The following books formed the primary source of information, and these authors quoted from many journals, articles, and other sources:
  1. Cornelia Adams Perkins, Marian Gardner Nielson, Lenora Butt Jones, eds. Saga of San Juan (San Juan County, Utah: San Juan County Daughters of Utah Pioneers, Mercury Publishing, 1968),
  2. Lee Reay, Incredible Passage through the Hole-in-the-Rock (Provo, Utah: Meadow Lane Publications, 1980).
  3. Robert S. McPherson, A History’ of San Juan County: In the Palm of Time, Utah Centennial County History Series (Salt Lake City: Utah State Historical Society, 1995),
  4. Jerry C, Roundy, Advised Them to Call the Place Escalante (Escalante: J. C. Roundy: Springville, Utah: Art City Publishing, 2000).
  5. Charles S. Peterson, with the cooperation of the Manti La Sal National Forest, Look to the Mountains: Southeastern Utah and the La Sal National Forest (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1975).
  6. Wallace Earle Stegner, Mormon Country, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981, c1970).

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.