down to Utah
Averting vehicular catastrophe in Wyoming, we’re entering a region of the country rife with past catastrophes – both human and geological.
The Wasatch Range forms a rampart between Salt Lake and the rest of the world. Contrary to common sense, we don’t go up into the mountains; we descend into them. From Evanston, and then in the mountains themselves, we’re winding down narrow canyons beneath the peaks, and the road drops steadily over 3000 feet.
Like a walled medeival city, there are few ways through the mountains to the Promised Land of the West. Gates are small, obscured, and fortified against ingress. All supplicants are channelled into easily defended chutes like livestock.
Just beyond the border with Utah, we enter the first chute, the mouth of Echo Canyon. For hundreds of years, pilgrims have funneled through this spot – bowed their heads, shuffled their feet, and prayed. Places through here have ominous names: Devil’s Gate, Devil’s Slide, Hells Gate, etc..
It’s an historic route. Interstate 80, the road we’re on, is called the Lincoln Highway. Constructed around the turn of the 19th century, the first monument built to the dead President, it was the first road improved for automobiles that crossed the country, starting in Times Square in New York on the Atlantic, and ending in Lincoln Park in San Francisco on the Pacific. The highway passes through this straight, narrow canyon, which was previously also the path of the Pony Express, which was followed by the first transcontinental telegraph line, then the transcontinental railroad, and finally a road road. The Union Pacific still runs alongside the highway. In the deepening gloom we outpace a freight train, brakes squealing down the canyon on tracks cut into the raw hillsides.
Before any of that, though, this was just a skinny, boulder and willow-choked canyon, with a creek at the bottom. And it happened to play a role in one of the more gruesome events in pioneer history.
The original Oregon Trail, now followed by Interstate 80, first bypassed this area entirely. At Fort Bridger, just east of Evanston, the flow of wagons turned north to go around these mountains, nearer to the route taken by Lewis and Clark when they had to abandon their water route up the Missouri and cross the Continental Divide on foot. But, for settlers trying to reach California instead of Oregon, this northern detour added an extra 300 miles to the trip. At 3 miles an hour, that’s a long way around. Nevertheless, by the 1840’s the northern route was an established, worn and predictable trail.
A huckster from California, named Lansford Hastings¹, hoping to profit from an influx of gullible tourists, wrote and distributed a guidebook promoting California as the land of milk and honey, and a shortcut here through the mountains to get to it. A group of 87 settlers in wagons, on foot and horseback, now referred to as the Donner Party, took the bait. They were persuaded to depart from the beaten path and take the “Hastings’ Cutoff” through Echo Canyon.
It proved disastrous. The route was so difficult it took them a month longer than if they’d taken the long way around. The delay cost them precious time, and put them in the Sierra Nevada Mountains at the onset of winter. They were stranded in a high pass in deep snow, where, already weakened and low on provisions, they were forced to spend the winter. By Spring, when help arrived, half the men and women and children had died. Those that lived survived by eating first their oxen, then the rotting ox hides they used for shelter, then their own dead and dying.
Turns out when Hastings wrote and distributed the book, he had never actually taken the shortcut himself. Only two white men had ever passed through it, and that was on horseback. The emigrants were driving multi-ton Prairie Schooner wagons pulled by teams of six to eight oxen each. To get them through, the settlers had to hack down trees by hand. They had to dig out and pry out boulders that rolled off the hillsides and collected in the bottom of the canyon. Progress even on foot would have been difficult. But it was made worse by the fact that the wealthiest family in the group, the ones most in favor of taking the shortcut in the first place, were traveling in the largest, most elaborate vehicle ever moved overland from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Dubbed “The Palace Car” by other members of the party, it was an enormous double-decker affair, complete with a bed and a cast iron cookstove – the Winnebago of it’s day. It’s a fascinating story, filled with deceit, bad luck, bad decisions, pride, murder, mutiny and cannibalism.
Bad as it was, the Donner Party wasn’t the worst tragedy to befall emigrants on their way to Salt Lake and beyond. With the hard work of bushwhacking already done, later travelers took the same route cleared by the ill-fated Donners. Brigham Young’s exploration party followed in their wake just a year later, making it through with comparative ease, and founded a Mormon enclave at Salt Lake.
The Mormons steadily improved the path through Echo Canyon. They encouraged newly minted converts in Britain and Europe to leave their homes, cross the ocean by ship and follow the trails west to settle in Salt Lake City. Between 1849 and 1855, over 3,000 did. Hauling all their belongings in two-wheeled hand carts over thousands of miles of rough terrain – across prairies, through rivers, over mountains – they streamed into Utah. One so-called “Handcart Company” was caught by an early winter storm just beyond the border in western Wyoming, where over 200 pilgrims starved or froze to death.
The scale of human migration during the mid 1800’s was astounding. It boggles the mind. In a span of 30 years, not that long after Lewis and Clark first passed through, roughly half a million people essentially walked across the continent at a time when there were no roads. And that number accounts for just the people. It doesn’t include all the livestock and wagons. Over 16,000 oxen were counted passing through Fort Bridger in one year alone.
That’s just insane². Doing a little rough math, that volume – of men and women and children and wagons and oxen and horses and mules and cattle – would make a continuous unbroken living river nearly 2000 miles long. If this parade went past your house (as it did the homes of the Plains Indians), it would take a full month – going nonstop 24 hours a day, every day, day and night – to pass by.
Echo Canyon dead-ends at the foot of a mountain. From there you can go left and on to Salt Lake City, or right into Weber Canyon and points north. We head right, and the walls of the canyon become both steeper and more narrow, pinching almost to a close at the very end.
Exiting Weber Canyon we see the carnage has not stopped. A train has derailed going down the grade and around the curve. Blocking the traffic down to one lane, rail cars tipped over and mangled spill their guts out onto the highway, backhoes and cranes picking over the remains like carrion birds.
But then the Great Basin Valley opens up before us, and in the moonlight we travel through a giant moonscape bowl rimmed with steep, snow covered peaks. The cities of Ogden and Salt Lake huddle against their bases and sparkle with light, and the Great Salt Lake itself is flat and wide and blue to the west. It’s a beautiful, almost unearthly place.
Hugging the base of the Wasatch Range, the cities and the road are perched on the wide shelf of an ancient shoreline. The Great Salt Lake used to be greater, much greater. The reason it’s so salty now is because this pond is all that’s left of an older one, the original prehistoric Lake Bonneville, once the size of Lake Michigan.
At the end of the last ice age, Lake Bonneville covered 22,000 square miles – an area that included most of Utah, some of Idaho and Nevada – and was 1000 feet deep. Glaciers and ice sheets began to melt and retreat. The rising water breached a natural dam near the present border with Idaho, and rushed out in a torrent. Based on signs of destruction wreaked downstream reaching high up mountainsides, it appears 1000 cubic miles of water gushed out through the gap in just a few weeks, draining most of the lake. This epic flood charged northward out of Utah at Red Rocks Pass, into Idaho, and down the Snake River Canyon. From there, to Oregon, the Columbia, and the Pacific. And this was the small flood.
Like water in a bathtub, what was left of the lake after this discharge had no outlet. It evaporated slowly, leaving a briny puddle and a flat valley floor crusted in salt. The Donner Party, finally escaping the canyons, found they had to cross 80 miles of salt flats without fresh water or food. The hot sun turned the salt to caustic slime, the wagons sinking up to their axles. Oxen and mules went mad, broke loose and ran away across the flats to die.
They were going west. We follow the path of the angry water through the passes to the north, out of Utah and into Idaho.
¹ Hastings apparently made a career of ill-conceived notions and bad travel guides. He served as a captain in the California Battalion during the Mexican War, through which he hoped to create a new republic, of which he would be a leader. When the Federal government intervened, he took up law and was a delegate to the 1849 California Constitutional Convention. During the Civil War, Hastings sided with the South. In 1864, he travelled to Richmond, Virginia, where he met with Confederate President Jefferson Davis to promote his plan to separate California from the Union and unite it with the Confederacy. However, the so-called Hastings Plot was another bogus notion, and the war ended early the following year.
After the end of the war, many disgruntled former Confederates left the United States to establish colonies in Brazil. Hastings visited the region, made arrangements with the Brazilian government, and wrote “The Emigrant’s Guide to Brazil” (1867) to attract potential colonists. He died at St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands in 1870, possibly of yellow fever, while conducting a shipload of settlers to his colony at Santarém.
² Oddly enough, the 1840 Census was the first that attempted to count Americans who were “insane” or “idiotic”.