“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. Church President John Taylor had called this group of pioneers to settle the San Juan Mission, in the southeastern part of what is now the state of Utah. But at this point in the trek, there seemed to be no clear answer on how to proceed.
The pioneers were camped at 40-Mile Spring, located on a high plateau. Silas S. Smith, the president of the company, realized how serious their situation was. Camped in some 80 wagons were nearly 250 men, women, and children. Hundreds of cattle were also part of the caravan. Winter was upon them, and they had too few supplies and other resources to remain at this encampment until spring.
President Smith sat in his tent and deliberated with other leaders. Turning back seemed impossible. Behind them, to the west, heavy snows had buried the road through the Escalante Mountains, as well as any foliage the livestock could eat. Besides, the pioneers took seriously the calling President Taylor had given them to settle the San Juan Mission, which was 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 more than 300 kilometers 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. It was a dangerous shortcut, but the only other trail was more than 600 kilometers long. An exploring party’s report had been pessimistic. Going through Hole-in-the-Rock would mean taking wagons and cattle on a trail that dropped 610 meters, one-third of that drop at a 45-degree angle.
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. Someone began to sing. Others joined in, and soon the chilly December air rang with “The Spirit of God like a fire is burning!” (Hymns, 1985, number 2).
United in their resolve to be true to their call from the prophet, the company headed into the desert toward 50-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 more than 100 meters deep.
At 50-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 1.2 kilometers away, and one to build a ferry. For the next six weeks, all three groups worked simultaneously. “I don’t think I ever [saw] … men go to work with more of 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; … we did make dirt and rock fly.” Two blacksmith forges were established at “the Hole” so that blacksmiths could keep tools sharp as men cut solid rock. Several men were lowered by rope in half-barrels over the 14-meter cliff. While dangling in midair, they drilled holes in the cliff and filled them with blasting powder. Work continued in snow storms 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; among the problems the workers had to solve was how to create a section of road along the face of a 15-meter rock wall. First they blasted a ledge along the wall, then extended the ledge outward. This was done by hammering staves into holes drilled parallel to the ledge. Logs, rocks, and gravel were piled into the resulting area to build up a shelf just wide enough to accommodate a wagon.
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.
Elizabeth M. Decker wrote of the first wagons to go down through “the Hole”: “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. [about 155 meters] 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 … [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 26 wagons to pass through Hole-in-the-Rock that day. Brother Smith, known as Stanford, had helped others all day while his wife and three children sat on a pile of quilts in the snow and watched. Apparently not realizing that men would be coming to help them, Stanford and his wife, Belle, thought they were stranded. So they determined to bring their wagon down by themselves. Belle sat their 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 lead 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 torn into 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 240 kilometers 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. On 6 April 1880, the exhausted company came upon a few acres of good farmland near a small river. They named the spot 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 the area for about one year. Westward traffic heading back up the steep corridor through Hole-in-the-Rock required each wagon to have a six-horse team.
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 a legacy of those faithful and tenacious pioneers who cut their way through solid rock in obedience to a prophet’s call.