About the Hole-in-the-Rock


In 1878–79, Church officials called a number of families—perhaps 250 people in all—to go on a settlement mission to the area where now the states of Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico meet. They were to help Indian tribes, keep bandits from the area, and work as missionaries.

The hills in southern Utah are as round and smooth as apples. In winter, snow blankets the rock. Even in spring, there are few plants. Wind-whipped, a level surface suddenly turns into gulches and blind canyons, cliffs falling thousands of feet to the rare river. In the winter of 1879–80, 230 people, 83 wagons, and 1,000 head of livestock made this unbelievable journey.

After the first four weeks of travel, their road ended at 40-Mile Spring. Snow filled the mountain passes behind them. The only possible way was through the rocky canyon lands to a crack, or hole, in the cliff that dropped 1,000 feet (over 300 m) down to the Colorado River. Using hand tools and the little bit of black powder they had, the men divided into three teams and began to work. The first team widened the crack.

The second team chiseled, blasted, and filled the trail, which they called a dugway. At first it couldn’t even be walked down. Men were lowered in half barrels to where they chiseled holes two inches (five cm) wide and 10 inches (25 cm) deep. Stakes were pounded into the holes, then covered with poles, brush, and dirt, thus tacking 50 feet (15 m) of road onto the cliff face. The finished road was 1,800 feet (550 m) long.

The third team worked on a steep dugway rising from the other side of the river for use once the wagons were ferried across the river.

After six weeks of hard work, on January 26, 1880, they started down through the hole-in-the-rock. The rear wheels of the heavily loaded wagons were chained. One man drove each wagon while as many as ten men held it back with ropes. The women and children preferred to walk and slide to the river. Not a single wagon was lost.

Joseph Stanford Smith and his wife, Arabella, were the last to take their wagon down, and they did it alone. After the family drove on to the river, they met a group of men who were coming back to help them. “Through the Hole-in-the-Rock” is the story of how the family did it.

[illustration] Illustrated by Dick Brown