In the spring of 1880 a direct supply and access road connecting southwestern and southeastern Utah was completed. Known as the Hole-In-The-Rock Trail, its direct penetration through the Colorado River gorge and surrounding topography shortened distances over alternative routes by up to hundreds of miles. Built by Mormon pioneers answering a mission call to colonize the southeastern section of the territory, the trail provided a crucial link for one year before the most rugged stretches were bypassed with the opening of Hall’s Crossing.
The mission which resulted in the trail’s construction was initiated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to secure peaceful relations with the Indians and to open the area to further colonization. After four months of exploring for a feasible route to their intended destination, the pioneers selected a direct route from Escalante. Although it was the least explored of all the possible routes, it was by far the shortest.
As winter approached at the end of November 1879, 250 men, women, and children, with 80 wagons and 1,000 head of cattle, found themselves up against terribly broken, seemingly impassable terrain. The settlers had been en route for more than two weeks when they reached the 1,200-foot-deep Colorado River gorge, sixty-five miles southeast of Escalante.
For six weeks, the men labored on a wagon road down the sandstone cliffs to the Colorado River. Built by chiseling and blasting a path through a steep crevice named the Hole-in-the-Rock, their road stands today as a testament of pioneer ingenuity and determination. Construction consisted of cutting away a 40-foot drop-off at the top of the crevice, moving huge boulders, leveling high spots, filling depressions, and widening crevice walls. To avoid the steep grades near the bottom of the Hole-in-the-Rock, the pioneers tacked their road onto the face of the north wall of the crevice. The tacked-on road was supported by oak stakes secured into holes drilled into the crevice wall at two-foot intervals.
After driving the wagons through the Hole-in-the-Rock and ferrying across the 300-foot-wide river, the emigrants proceeded east out of the river gorge. On 6 April 1880, after another ten weeks of grueling labor in harsh winter conditions, the missionaries reached a sandy bottomland along the banks of the San Juan River where they established Bluff City.
The hundred miles of road built after descending the Hole-in-the-Rock crossed some of the most rugged terrain in North America. Deep ravines and washes were crossed, trails down thousand-foot drop-offs blasted, deserts traversed, paths through thick cedar forests cut, and steep cliffs ascended. Many grades required seven spans of horses to pull the heavily laden wagons, and the worst stretches could be identified by the blood and matted hair from the forelegs of the struggling teams.
In all, the trek took six months. Food supplies were depleted, and teams had been worn to the point of exhaustion. Two babies were born en route and, miraculously, no one had died. The pioneers had toiled under the most trying of circumstances in a harsh land. Most significantly, their ordeal forged them into a self-reliant colony ready for the formidable tasks of nurturing peace with the Indians, controlling the lawless who sought refuge in the area, irrigating with the unruly San Juan River, and eking out a living from the sun-baked land.