- Historic Sites
This Is The Place
Retracing the Pioneer Trail in Mormon Utah
April 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 2
Seen from the cemetery, Bluff, which borders the San Juan River, looks like an oasis; its tall black locust trees provide a touch of green in a landscape of eroded sandstone cliffs and gullies. Its few businesses, mostly catering to tourists, are strung out along the highway. For years this was Utah’s frontier, the last part of the state to be settled, where Indian troubles lasted until the early 1920s. A few days before I arrived, Navajos from the reservation across the river had called in a medicine man to exorcise the evil spirits that they believed had infested the town Laundromat when lightning struck a nearby tree.
The Mormons came here in 1880 to befriend the Indians and establish a buffer between Mormon Utah and the outside world. To get there before winter set in, they decided against taking more roundabout routes to the north and south and went straight, into uncharted territory, across the desert. It was a mistake, but it produced a true saga of the West, a “labor beside which the toil of the emigrant trains that crossed the entire continent to California and Oregon was child’s play,” wrote Huffman Birney in Zealots of Zion .
The 230 colonists had trouble enough reaching the Colorado River, but, once there, they found the way blocked by the high cliffs of Glen Canyon. With winter approaching, it was too late to turn back, so they improvised, first blasting a notch in the cliffs with dynamite and then building a road out over the cliffside. (After cutting a narrow track wide enough for one wagon wheel, they drilled holes five feet below and parallel to this shelf, then drove two-foot oak stakes into the holes, and finally built up a roadway over the stakes with poles, brush, and gravel. The wagons then descended with their inside wheels on solid rock, their outside wheels moving precariously over this man-made ledge.) “Give those Mormons credit,” wrote Wallace Stegner in Mormon Country . “When they couldn’t blast a road out of the cliff, they tacked one on as a carpenter might nail a staging under the eaves of a high house.”
The settlers were headed for Montezuma, twenty miles to the east, but when they reached Bluff, they were too worn out to go farther. Today about half the thirty stone houses that they built still stand. The Barton cabin, Bluff’s oldest building, is all that remains of several cabins grouped together in a crude fort for protection against the Indians. Foushee lives in a house built by Jens Nielsen, a Danish Mormon elder and a leader of the Hole-in-the-Rock party.
For a while Bluff was the seat of the sparsely populated San Juan County, but construction on a courthouse was halted in the 189Os when the county seat was moved north to Monticello. Bluff’s bad luck has left posterity the gift of a charming old town in an exceptionally scenic corner of the state. Now tourism and development, Foushee believes, threaten to destroy what draws people here. He recalls how the Mormon Church tore down a handsome Relief Society building for a church parking lot—in a town where parking is hardly a problem.
The frontier spirit—that’s part of the trouble, Foushee said, pointing out where someone wants to put a trailer on the side of cemetery hill, spoiling not only the view but the graveyard’s splendid isolation. “We’re all too self-sufficient to have zoning,” he said. “That’s the downside of the frontier spirit.”
The road itself from Bluff to St. George across the bottom of Utah must be one of the most beautiful in the country, as it passes by mesas, cliffs, and canyons, winds through forests of ponderosa pine, and soars over mountaintops with sweeping panoramas. Short detours bring you into old Mormon towns with intriguing names like Loa and Panguitch. Near Escalante, the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail, now a four-wheel-drive track, leads off the highway.
St. George, in the extreme southwestern corner of the state, is the capital of the temperate region known as Utah’s Dixie. In 1861 Brigham Young sent 309 families here to “cheerfully contribute their efforts to supply the Territory with cotton, sugar, grapes, tobacco, figs, almonds, olive oil, and such other useful articles as the Lord has given us.” With the Civil War at hand, Young particularly wanted a source of cotton, and the recently restored two-and-a-half-story cotton factory next door in Washington, Utah, attests to the temporary success of the Mormon cotton-growing enterprise. (It failed when Southern cotton came back on the market after the war.)
St. George has preserved much of its past. The town hadn’t been settled long when Brigham Young discovered that the climate relieved his rheumatism, and in 1869 he built a winter home and installed a wife as hostess. The St. George Temple, with a white stucco exterior that gleams in the desert sun, was the first completed in Utah. Brigham Young had it built when he realized he would not live to see the Salt Lake Temple finished. The St. George Tabernacle was also built on Brigham Young’s orders—“to be not only useful, but an ornament to your city and a credit to your energy and enterprise.”