In December of 1879 approximately 80 wagons, consisting of 250 men, women, and children, gathered about 40 miles southeast of Escalante, Utah. They were prepared, with supplies, for a six-week journey to establish a new community in southeastern Utah. Unfortunately, the trek actually took six months to complete.
These families, many already living in southwestern Utah, had been called by LDS Church President John Taylor to settle the southeast corner of Utah. Investigation of a southern route, along what is now the Utah and Arizona border, had been deemed too sandy for wagons. Explorers believed that a new route could be created near the town of Escalante traveling southeast across the Colorado River and then east along the edge of the San Juan River. The sheer faces of the cliffs and the depth of the canyons meant that the Colorado River basin was the least explored region of the continental United States.
Explorers found a narrow slot on the edge of the cliffs of the Colorado River and they surmised that this was a possible passageway for the wagons. Platte D. Lyman, leader of the party indicated that if a road could be built, it would be a steep descent in sections and would have to negotiate several sheer precipices. The company was prepared to do blasting of the cliffs to carve a passageway, and then to build a raft that could carry their teams and wagons across the Colorado River.
Members of the company, the Perkins brothers, were coal miners from Wales who were experts in using blasting powder. They were given the nickname of the “blasters and blowers from Wales.” These two men were among several who were lowered over the cliff and dangle in midair to drill holes in the cliff and fill them with blasting powder. Their daily work continued even during winter blizzards.
The workers soon realized they would also have to create a section of road along the face of a fifty-foot rock wall. To accomplish this, men drilled a line of vertical holes ten inches deep and about a foot and a half apart. They built a retaining wall by pounding long wooden stakes into the holes and then filled in the resulting area with brush, rocks, and gravel until a road had been tacked onto the face of the rock.
Another Hole In The Rock expedition leader, Kumen Jones, recorded his description of the events surrounding the descent of Hole In The Rock. He indicated that approximately twenty men and boys would hold long ropes on the back of each wagon. The wheels were brake-locked with chains, to stop the wagons from rolling forward too fast and into the struggling animals that were in the front of each wagon. On January 26, 1880, Platte D. Lyman recorded in his journal: “Today we worked all the wagons in this camp down the Hole and ferried 26 of them across the river. The boat is worked by one pair of oars and does very well.”
Once the wagons were across the river, they began the arduous task of climbing out the other side of the canyon and finding their way onto the place that would become Bluff, Utah. Members of the party described their trek as some of the most desolate and rough country imaginable. This part of the journey also proved difficult as the group encountered other deep canyons and high rock formations that stood in their direct path. One canyon, now called Grand Gulch had to be circumnavigated and a route had to be found up, over, and down a large formation called Comb Ridge. The anticipated six-week journey found the group hungry and worn out throughout the actual six months of the trek. The Hole In The Rock expedition would not have been successfully accomplished without the additional supplies and support obtained from Mormon leaders and the pioneer settlers of Escalante.
The path that was taken by these pioneers can be partially retraced in the Garfield County Utah area (west side of the Colorado River) by driving your vehicle down the “Hole In The Rock” road which begins just north of Escalante, Utah.