Highway to History
Explore the area’s past on a scenic driving tour.
TEXT: ANNETTE VELARDE
PHOTOGRAPHY: COURTESY OF HAROLD B. LEE LIBRARY
PHOTOGRAPHY: COURTESY OF HAROLD B. LEE LIBRARY
T heir hearts were pounding in their chests. The panic they felt for the survival of their families and their church kept them moving until what would have seemed an impossible feat had been accomplished. Stones that each weighed more than the equivalent of two men were heaved and piled atop one another until the group could kneel down behind them and remain unseen.
The year was 1857, and federal troops had come through Utah with the intent of quashing the Mormons’ practice of polygamy. The Mormons built these low stone walls, called breastworks, so that they could hide behind them and rain gunfire down on their persecutors as the troops traveled through the narrows of Echo Canyon. As it turned out, no gunfire was ever exchanged, but more than 150 years later, the walls of stone remain as evidence of the plight the Mormons endured. They constitute just one of the many fascinating points of interest on the Summit County Historical Driving Tour.
My husband, son, and I recently piled into our Subaru and took the tour, heading for Echo Canyon, home to several historical sites that attest to Utah’s Wild West past. After driving about 25 miles on I-80 eastbound, we turned onto the Lincoln Highway at Exit 169. The Lincoln Highway was the first transcontinental road in the United States. Upon its completion in 1913, people could travel by car on a gravel road from New York City all the way to San Francisco.
Although this sounds unbearably uncomfortable, it was a major milestone in American history. The roadway is still used in bits and pieces all over the northern part of the country, but the stretch through Echo Canyon is surely the most breathtakingly beautiful. Red rock formations tower over the two-lane road and parallel railroad tracks that have been in use for more than a century and a half. This was the route used by hundreds of thousands of westward-ho travelers looking for new lives, and it remained the principal east-west road through Utah until I-80 was completed in 1956.
At the mouth of Echo Canyon is a historical marker indicating where the first gristmill in Summit County operated. This fact may sound mundane, but I imagined what it must have been like for the pioneers who depended on this gristmill for their most basic food requirement: ground grain. Built in 1871, the mill produced flour for the area’s population until 1942.
Not far from the mill stands the first billboard in Utah, aptly named Billboard Bluff. The words “Plantation Bitters” are neatly printed on a low, flat rock that sits close to the train tracks; the opportunity to advertise to a captive audience of several hundred railway passengers every day apparently could not be passed up. Plantation Bitters, whose main ingredient was rum, was marketed in the 1800s as a curative for everything from headaches to cholera, and it sold like gangbusters in Utah. Today the empty bottles, shaped like log cabins, sell on eBay for hundreds of dollars.
Another mile up the road is what at first appears to be a large, narrow cave. When we hiked up the short path to get a better look, it turned out to be a long stone outcropping that forms a natural shelter. Called Hanging Rock, it served as a waiting area for stagecoach passengers. While people killed time or passed by on foot, a few of them wrote their names on the rocks, much as graffiti taggers do today—attesting to the uniquely human urge to leave future generations evidence that we existed.
Heading back to I-80, we stopped to read the Pony Express Trail historical markers and take a look at the town of Echo, whose schoolhouse and post office are both on the National Register of Historic Places. A little farther down the road is the town of Henefer, which has a Daughters of Utah Pioneers museum well worth the drive. The non-profit organization, formed in 1901, is dedicated to perpetuating the names and achievements of the men, women, and children who founded Utah.
On the way home, my son began grumbling about having spent one of his precious weekend days looking at “rocks and old stuff.” Just as I was about to lecture him about his failure to grasp the importance of what we’d seen that day, an image of the back of my dad’s head popped into my mind. That swirl of brown hair, circling an ever-growing bald spot, had framed my view of the world as he and my mom took my siblings and me on countless trips exactly like the one my family had just finished—and in an instant, I realized how my love of history had been formed.
So I sighed, closed my mouth, and smiled to myself, knowing that I was witnessing the creation of a chapter in my son’s own history, mere miles from our Park City home.
From Ghost Towns of Wyoming:
Bear River City, Wyoming Territory
Of such a nature was Bear River City about 10 miles south of Evanston. Bear River City, 1867, pictured below right, is not to be confused with the city of the same name in Utah, Bear River City, at its peak had a newspaper, The Frontier Index, published by Legh Freeman. Freeman, utilizing a box car as a printing office, followed the tracks starting his newspaper in Fort Kearney, and moving westward to Julesburg, Cheyenne, Fort Sanders, Green River City and Ogden. Freeman was not, however, a milquetoast in expressing his opinions as to fraud by the Railroad or his opinions as to others. In the November 15, 1868 edition of The Index he expressed his opinions as to Blacks, Indians and Chinese. If his opinions didn't get the attention of the gentle reader, he persisted several days later with a vitriolic attack on the L.D.S. and a call for the lynching of three accused murderers. Following the necktie party, a group of vigilantes turned on him. Nineteen years later in the June 19, 1877 edition of the Ogden [Utah] Freeman he described, with perhaps some exaggeration, the reason for his departure from Bear Wyoming:
"The next morning at the break of day, when several thousand graders headed by the most villainous desperadoes, beseiged the office, gutted and sacked it, and threatened to burn us in it, and would undoubtedly have left nothing but a grease spot of our mortal remains had not a milk white steed conveyed us to Fort Bridger, where we obtained troops, who arrested the leaders and held the town under martial law until the large gangs of men passed westward to the grading camps of Echo and Weber Canyon. Forty-odd rioters are buried around the office. the only citizen killed in the melee was Steve Stokes. The last of the cutthroats has died with his boots on and the ringleader had his head chopped off with an ax."
Union Pacfic under construction, Echo Canyon, 1869, photo by Wm. H. Jackson
The graders from Echo Canyon were, however, a bit rough. When the Echo Canyon saloon was torn down years later, seven human skeletons were found under the floor boards. A more accurate version of the November 19, 1868, Bear River City Riot was described by George Crofutt in his 1872 edition of Crofutt's Trans-Continental Tourist's Guide: