Bluff Fort Attracts Thousands of Visitors

Contributed By Janet Keeler Wilcox, Church News contributor

  • 5 November 2015

The Steve Bothamley family from New Zealand strike a pose in pioneer garb while Sister JoLynn Mason, a Church-service missionary serving at Bluff Fort, takes their photo.  Photo by David L. Walton.

Article Highlights

  • In 2014 more than 32,415 people visited Bluff Fort.
  • The fort features historical cabins, recorded narratives, displays, and films.

“I have been amazed at those who visit from other countries, and they are thrilled with the spirit and the story that we have to share.” —Alyson Christensen, Fort Bluff docent

Dale and Beverly Black both come from pioneer stock, but it wasn’t until they were called as directors of Bluff Fort in Bluff, Utah, in 2015 that Sister Black realized the magnitude of the Hole in the Rock journey. “When I have been overwhelmed at times here at the Bluff Fort, I have felt the spirit of my Grandma [Sarah Williams] whisper to me, ‘We can do hard things.’”

No one exemplified that motto more than Corinne Roring, who first envisioned rebuilding Bluff Fort and became the driving force to make it happen. She always said, “If you build it, they will come,” and come they have—from diverse states and nations of the world. In 2014 more than 32,415 people came to the fort. Whether visitors are Harley riders, lost tourists, or busy little children, there is something at the fort for everyone.

As soon as the fort had exhibit cabins and a physical presence, volunteers began sharing the history of the 1880 Mormon pioneers. Eventually, the first Church-service missionary couples came in the spring of 2013. The number has now jumped to 27 full-time Church-service missionaries and 21 local volunteer docents who serve one day a week. Tasks include giving presentations, work projects, sewing, gardening, and manning the visitors’ center and gift shop at the co-op.

Cabins, recorded narratives, displays, and films give visitors a feel for the amazing accomplishment of carving a road from Escalante to Bluff. Docent Steve Keele said, “Until you actually go over those old roads, you have no idea how and what the Hole in the Rock pioneers accomplished. … Serving here shows honor to those blessed pioneers. It is great being able to share that amazing history with others.”

The history of Bluff Fort continues to draw in passersby. For many, the fort was not a destination but a pit stop on the way to Monument Valley. Their comments replay the refrains: “We just drove by and decided to stop.“ “It wasn’t in our plans but felt like we should stop!” “This is the favorite place we have seen on our whole trip.”

Docent Alyson Christensen said, “I have been amazed at those who visit from other countries, and they are thrilled with the spirit and the story that we have to share. How I wish I could speak another language!”

Fortunately, great strides have been made to accommodate those who don’t speak English. Recordings in many languages are available at each of the 14 pioneer cabins and in the co-op.

“After our foreign visitors watch the 11-minute video in their own language (French, German, Spanish, Italian, or English), many are ready to dress up in pioneer clothes,” service missionary Elder Jim Orr said. “The fort has a big selection of clothing, even one-sided pants to cover the legs of visitors wearing shorts. They climb in a covered wagon and we take their pictures. A laugh in any language is still a laugh, and those dressed as pioneers laugh a lot.”

Many visitors have posted comments on TripAdvisor.com, thus giving others an idea of what to expect from their experience at the fort.

A visitor from Yorkshire, England, wrote: “We stopped thinking it would take us an hour to see it all. We were there all morning, it was that good. It is so much bigger than it looks with excellent cabins, furnished and open to go inside without restrictions. Each cabin has a tape explaining about the family who lived there. Inside the visitor center there is a very interesting video to watch detailing the journey the Mormons had to undertake to arrive in Bluff, an unbelievable story of the hardships endured by the pioneers. Great knowledgeable staff too, who are all volunteers. It is all free too.”

A visitor from Solihull, United Kingdom, wrote, “Do not drive by this truly remarkable (and free) historical site.”

For Bob Healey, working at the fort has been a trip down memory lane. His grandmother lived in Bluff from 1940 to 1960 in the Jens Nielson home across from the fort, but he never knew any of its history. Since serving as a missionary he has learned about the Hole in the Rock pioneers and has grown to love and admire them for their drive, strength, and enduring determination.

Missionaries never know what they may be called upon to do. Mary and Casey Fox received a call at the visitors’ center from a French couple who were stuck in the sand out on the reservation. With no tow truck available in Bluff, they went to the rescue and made new friends in the process.

Docent Susan Flavel observed, “There are very friendly and beautiful families all over the world. They are interested in this story and they are humbled by it. … Many times they just sit in stunned silence. They always comment on the friendly people and the fun activities for children.”

Members of the Fred Robinette Jr. family of Duncan, Arizona, listen to an introduction given by Church-service missionaries Jim and Vickie Orr. Photo by David L. Walton.

A group shot of the Church-service missionaries serving at Bluff Fort in 2015. Photo by David L. Walton.