“Should we turn back or move ahead?” This was the question that dominated the thoughts of the pioneer company on the night of 3 December 1879, camped at Forty-Mile Spring, located on a high plateau southeast of the then-new village of Escalante, in southern Utah. Their leader, President Silas S. Smith, realized the gravity of the situation. Camped nearby in some eighty wagons were nearly 250 men, women, and children from the southern Utah towns of Parowan, Paragonah, and Cedar City. Hundreds of cattle were also part of the caravan. President John Taylor had called the pioneers to settle the San Juan Mission, which comprised the southeastern part of the state now known as San Juan County. Winter was upon them, and they had neither the supplies nor the protection to remain until spring.
President Smith sat in his tent and deliberated with other leaders. Behind them, to the west, lay the Escalante Mountains, where recent heavy snows had buried the road as well as any foliage the livestock could eat. Turning back seemed impossible. In addition, each pioneer took seriously the call from President Taylor to settle the San Juan Mission as part of President Brigham Young’s original plan to establish settlements throughout much of the West. Who among them would refuse such a call?
Ahead of the pioneers, to the east, lay nearly two hundred miles of rough terrain with no road and little water. A decision to go forward would force them to travel through Hole-in-the-Rock—a crevice in the west wall of Glen Canyon at a high plateau above the Colorado River. Though a shortcut when compared with the only other trail of more than four hundred miles, it was a dangerous route. An exploring party’s report had been pessimistic. A few of the pioneers thought the company could manage the 45-degree angle of the upper third of the nearly two-thousand-foot drop. Most felt it was impossible. After much discussion, one of the men made the motion to leave the decision to “President Smith and the Lord.”1 A unanimous vote reflected the faith of those present that the Lord would inspire their leader.
The next morning, President Smith called a meeting to announce the decision to move ahead. “The miracle of this decision went through the company like an electric shock,” wrote Kumen Jones, a member of the group, “and all was good cheer and hustle.” In the meeting, many bore testimony in support of moving ahead. A spirit of unity prevailed. One man said, “We must go on whether we can or not,” and if “we have plenty of stickie-ta-tudy we cannot fail.” Someone began to sing. Others joined in, and soon the chilly December air rang with “The Spirit of God like a fire is burning! …” (See Hymns, 1985, no. 2.)
United in their resolve to be true to their call from the prophet, the company headed into the desert toward Fifty-Mile Spring. Since there was no road, the pioneers cut their own through what one man described as “the roughest country I ever saw a wagon go over.” Mostly rock and nearly void of foliage, the land was a combination of gulches and straight-walled chasms several hundred feet deep.
At Fifty-Mile Spring, President Smith divided the company into three work groups: one to work at the crevice, one to build a road from the crevice to the river three-quarters of a mile away, and one to build a ferry. Joseph F. Barton explained in his journal the work schedule: “On account of Scarsity of wood water & grass it was deemed advisable to divide the company leaving 1/2 back at 50 mile Spring 5 miles from the rim, from which camp we would walk to our work Monday morning remain all week and walk back Saturday evening.”
For the next six weeks, all three groups worked simultaneously. “I don’t think I ever [saw] … men go to work with more a will to do something than that crowd did,” wrote Cornelius I. Decker of the group who worked to widen the narrow crevice. “We were all young men; the way we did make dirt and rock fly was a caution.” Two blacksmith forges were established at “the Hole” so that two blacksmiths could keep tools sharp as men cut solid rock. The Perkins brothers, coal miners from Wales who were experts in using blasting powder, were soon nicknamed the “blasters and blowers from Wales.” These two men were among several who were lowered by rope in half-barrels over the forty-five-foot cliff. While dangling in midair, they drilled holes in the cliff and filled them with blasting powder. Work continued in blizzards as well as in sunshine.
The second group constructed a road over virtually impassable land. The steep upper third of the road was a serious challenge, but the workers soon learned they also had to create a section of road along the face of a fifty-foot rock wall. About five feet below the rock wall, the men drilled in a rock incline a line of vertical holes ten inches deep and about a foot and a half apart. They built a retaining wall by pounding long wooden stakes into the holes and then filled in the resulting area with brush, rocks, and gravel until a road had been tacked on to the face of the rock wall.
The third group built a ferry wide enough to carry two wagons at a time across the Colorado River. Part of this group also began work on a road eastward.
On 26 January 1880, everything was ready. George W. Decker, then a boy of fifteen, told of the first wagons to pass through the notch: “Hy’s and Ben’s wagons came to the Chute in this order. Hy’s horses refused to face the Chute—too steep—and they had too clear a view of the river about two-thousand feet below. They tried another team with the same rearing and surging backward and still a third team. … Joe [Barton] brought his big wheel horses and they moved off unconcerned but very slow and sure, feeling their way with their large careful feet for they were totally blind [an epidemic of “Pink Eye” had blinded them as well as hundreds of other horses in southern Utah more than a year earlier]. … Joe’s horses, calm and sure, gave the other horses courage to go down. … The crowd at the top came to life with chatter, laughter, and a crazy explosion of hurrahs.”
Elizabeth M. Decker also wrote of the event: “Coming down the hole in the rock to get to the river … is almost strait down, the cliffs on each side are five hundred ft. high and there is just room enough for a wagon to go down. It nearly scared me to death. The first wagon I saw go down they put the brake on and rough locked the hind wheels [chained the rear wheels together so they slid as a unit instead of rolled] and had a big rope fastened to the wagon and about ten men holding back on it and they went down like they would smash everything. I’ll never forget that day.”
The wagon of Joseph Stanford Smith was the last of twenty-six wagons to pass through Hole-in-the-Rock that day. Brother Smith, known as Stanford, had helped others through the passage all day while his wife and three children sat on a pile of quilts in the snow and watched. Apparently not realizing there was one more wagon to come down, the rest of the group had all moved on to the ferry. So Stanford and his wife, Belle, determined that they would have to bring their wagon down by themselves. Belle sat her three-year-old son on the quilts, placed the baby between his legs, and told them not to move until their father came back for them. Ada, the oldest, sat in front of her brothers and said a prayer.
Belle and one of the horses pulled on the ropes tied to the back of the wagon as Stanford braced his legs against the dashboard and gently urged the horses on. As soon as they started down, the anchor horse fell. Belle caught her foot in the rocks and broke free several times before she too fell and was dragged along with the horse down the steep slope. By the time the wagon stopped, a jagged rock had cut Belle’s leg from heel to hip. Stanford ran to her to see if she was all right. With pioneer tenacity, Belle told him she had “crow-hopped” all the way down. Stanford helped her into the wagon, cleaned her cut, and then climbed back up for the children. As he passed his horse, which was dazed but alive, Stanford took off his hat and waved it in the air as a salute to his wife. They had made it!
After crossing the Colorado River by ferry, the company still faced more than one hundred and fifty miles of rugged ground. Elizabeth M. Decker described this land in a letter to her parents. “It’s the roughest country you or anybody else ever seen; it’s nothing in the world but rocks and holes, hills, and hollows. The mountains are just one solid rock as smooth as an apple.” Because the land turned out to be rougher than anticipated, the journey took much longer than expected—six months instead of six weeks—making the so-called shortcut extremely arduous.
Two babies were born along the way. Supplies had to be brought in to the company by mule train. Even so, the pioneers never encountered anything on the entire journey as difficult or dramatic as blasting their way through Hole-in-the-Rock. Because of these challenges, the entire trek became known as the Hole-in-the-Rock expedition.
On 6 April 1880, the exhausted company came upon a few acres of good farmland near a small river. The pioneers simply stopped, too weary to go the less than twenty miles to their planned destination, Montezuma. They named the spot they established Bluff City. Though travel worn, the pioneers had remained true to their resolve to follow the prophet and move forward, and they had endured the hardships in good spirits. As one member of the company recalled, “In a camp … moving … through extremely rough country, one would naturally look for some trouble and a few accidents, but this was not the case. All was hustle and harmony.”
The road created by this pioneer company served as the major highway in and out of San Juan country for about one year. Westward traffic headed back through Hole-in-the-Rock required each wagon to have a six-horse team. In order to make it up the steep corridor, each team had to make about one hundred separate pulls forward because each pull moved the wagon only a short distance. By 1882 the road had fallen into disuse, but the pioneers had done what they had set out to do—establish a settlement in a remote area of the proposed state of Deseret. Though the area today remains somewhat isolated, it stands as the legacy of those faithful and tenacious pioneers who cut their way through solid rock in obedience to a prophet’s call.
David Miller, a historian who studied extensively the Hole-in-the-Rock expedition, said of this company: “There is no better example of indomitable pioneer spirit. … No pioneer company ever built a wagon road through wilder, rougher, more inhospitable country. … They proved that virtually nothing was impossible for a zealous band of pioneers.”