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Wagon trails, railroad encouraged in Provo Canyon

By D. Robert Carter - | Aug 30, 2008

11In 1852, William Gardner led a small group of men into that picturesque chasm. Its possibilities as an avenue of transportation evidently impressed them. That same year, the Utah Territorial Legislature sent a memorial to the United States Congress asking for the passage of a bill encouraging the construction of a railroad stretching from the East to the Pacific Ocean. The legislature recommended laying the rail into the Great Basin through Provo Canyon.

When nothing came of this memorial, Mormon leaders pulled their heads out of the clouds and concentrated on the construction of a wagon road through the canyon. In 1855, Utah’s legislature granted William Wall, Evan M. Greene, Thomas S. Williams and Aaron Johnson the right to build a toll road through Provo Canyon and beyond, connecting at the most feasible point with the main wagon trail leading from the Missouri River.

Isaac Bullock led an exploring party through the canyon that year and found a possible wagon route to the new Mormon settlement at Ft. Supply, located near Ft. Bridger. However, it was not until 1858 after Brigham Young ordered the “Move South” during the Utah War, that the road was actually completed.

After men from Salt Lake City and northern Utah communities had temporarily situated their families in Utah Valley, some of them had very little work to do. Young led the organization of the Provo Kanyon Road Company in early June and put many of those without jobs to work. When the displaced settlers returned to their homes in July, the road was well on its way to completion, and the canyon became much more accessible.

This availability led to more travel through the canyon. Not long after workmen finished the road, a few people began visiting the canyon in order to camp, fish and see the sights. They publicized their visits, and their glowing reports convinced more people to travel to the canyon to view the scenery.

One excursionist who visited the canyon in 1860 wrote a letter to the Deseret News describing his trip. He simply signed his missive J.J.F. The penman reported the road was in good condition but “remarkable for being crooked.” In his opinion, it was so tortuous that it caused people who traveled up the canyon for the first time to wonder if they would make it to the east end, where the canyon widened. When they finally reached Provo Valley, they felt like they “had performed a miracle.”

He wrote of the intrinsic rewards of the trip: “In passing up the kanyon of the Timpanogos, one who has a taste for the wonderful, can see many things that will excite his curiosity and admiration. At the mouth of the kanyon, a perpendicular precipice of rocks several hundred feet high, forms the base of the mountain on either side of the river.”

Although today a portion of these cliffs has been blasted away, making room for a much wider road, a drive up the canyon can still provide an inspiring experience.

This early sojourner touted the beauty of Bridal Veil Falls. He also mentioned “several other water-falls along the face of the rocks which extend a distance of two miles each way” from the main falls.

At the South Fork of Provo Canyon (Vivian Park), the traveler paused for a time. He inspected the lumber mill built near the confluence of South Fork Creek and the Provo River by “Messrs. Wilkins, Holdaway & Co.” Then he traveled on to Heber in Provo Valley. His correspondence with the Deseret News encouraged others to go and see the sights he had viewed.

Several other factors led to an increase in recreational travel through the canyon a decade later during the 1870s. Most of the territory’s major Indian confrontations had been fought by that time, and there was only a very remote chance of encountering hostile Utes while on the scenic road leading from Utah Valley to Heber.

In addition to increased safety, travel to the canyon became more convenient. In 1874 the Utah Southern Railroad puffed into Provo, bringing visitors from Salt Lake City. From the railroad station in Provo, these tourists traveled to the canyon in increasing numbers in order to rusticate for a day or more.

A tourist from Salt Lake City used the July 4 holiday as an excuse to travel through the canyon in 1877. He reported his trip to the Salt Lake Daily Herald and said the road was a very good one, considering the difficulty encountered in making and maintaining it. He further qualified his statement by writing, “In many places it could be greatly improved, and thus enhance the pleasure derived from a trip up the canyon.”

The sightseer paused at North Fork, where he obtained what he called “a magnificent view of the river . . . in its serpentine course, studded with timber, with the rugged mountains rising on either side several hundred feet.” He noted concerning the area, “This would be a pleasant place for a pic-nic party.” The Utah Valley people who established the little mountain community of Wildwood on that site years later obviously agreed with this early tourist.

Further up the canyon, the wayfarer took a side trip up Deer Creek before crossing the river on a substantial bridge and viewing Provo Valley. Of the valley he wrote, “On every hand waving fields of grain and other products meet the gaze, some of which in two or three weeks will be under the sickle.”

On the whole, this early traveler had a very satisfactory excursion and advised others to make the trip. They heeded his advice and followed in his wagon tracks.

More local inhabitants began visiting Provo Canyon also. When living conditions improved, residents of Utah Valley found more leisure time on their hands. During the hot summers, they visited the canyon in increasing numbers in an effort to escape the stifling heat and the monotony of everyday life in the valley.

In 1879, a dozen wagons loaded with students and faculty from Brigham Young Academy — including Karl G. Maeser — and a few visitors from Salt Lake City started from the school’s Lower Campus early one June morning on a trip to the South Fork of Provo Canyon. A member of the group who referred to himself as the “Lone Fisherman” reported this excursion to the Herald.

He and the other occupants of the last wagon, like the children of Israel, followed a cloud by day. They drove bravely onward “now on the skirts and now in the midst of the flying volume of alkali, which hid all else from view.”

When the sun arose, it illuminated the beauties they would have seen, had it not been for the dust. Old Sol may have brought beauty to some, but he also brought discomfort to all. The Lone Fisherman described the varied reactions that occurred as a result of the sunrise:

“Nearly everybody was in ecstasies and instinctively reaching for pencil and paper to apostrophize the flaming god of day, which the ‘Professor,’ who shared our seat and is noted for the vigor and practicality of his rhetoric, remarked blandly that it was ‘too damned hot.’ “

The party stopped at Bridal Veil Falls for their midday picnic. A female correspondent, who referred to herself as “One of the Eaters,” informed Provo’s Territorial Enquirer of the activities at the falls. After eating lunch, some of the students, both male and female, climbed to the top of the lower cascade.

A few of the women worried that their staid grandmothers would not consider their descent from the falls to be very decent. The scribe excused the somewhat forward actions (for those days) of the females by writing, “But, law! We could not help it; we were up and had to come down, and some of the boys had to be below to catch us.”

At this point, some of the party returned to Provo, and the others traveled to South Fork near Holdaway’s Mill and made camp for the night. The mill apparently proved to be a disappointment to the “Lone Fisherman.” He observed the presence of “a dam by a mill site, but no mill by a dam site.”

After eating supper at about sundown, the group assembled for prayers, then they built a big bonfire and amused themselves with songs, recitations, anecdotes and speeches. One overzealous orator climbed a nearby tree and proceeded to deliver what he called a stump speech. Another over-exuberant youth grabbed an axe and proceeded to chop the tree down in order that the oration could literally be given from a stump. The young speaker rapidly descended from his perch and gave a well-grounded address instead.

After the program, older members of the group went to bed, and the youngsters continued to “make the night hideous” with their “giggles, hoots and noisy conversation.” One notable incident added variety to this tiresome routine.

While a golden-haired girl was sitting on the floor of a wagon telling a joke, an old, white mule, who had been wandering around camp without any discernable purpose, stuck his muzzle over the wagon’s end gate and nibbled on her flaxen hair. According the “Lone Fisherman,” “One wild, despairing yell reechoed among the hilltops and the girls sprung to their feet, but the mule had already fainted.” As a result of the tonsorial work provided by the mule, the poor girl was forced to wear a hat while she w as in polite company. At 7:30 a.m. the next morning, the group assembled for prayers, and at 1:00 p.m., they came together again for Sunday services under the shade of a stately pine. Bishop John E. Booth presided over what was likely a rather motley gathering. The choir sang, and A.O. Smoot Jr. offered the opening prayer.

Prof. Karl G. Maeser, Bishop Orson F. Whitney, a visitor from Salt Lake City, and Bishop Booth expounded upon the gospel from a wagon-box pulpit. After more singing, Elder Aaron McDonald gave the benediction to end what was likely one of the first church services held in Provo Canyon’s cool mountain air.

After this “season of spiritual refreshing,” the congregation gathered up the paraphernalia from their rustic resting place, “bade good by to the eternal hills, and returned to the realms of civilization” after pausing at the toll house, located near present-day Springdell, long enough to empty their last can of oysters.

School excursions like this one and camping trips taken by friends and family in an effort to escape the summer heat helped make Provo Canyon a popular destination for rustication. Two more fortunate developments helped speed this process. During the late 1880s, the Provo Kanyon Road Company’s charter expired, and the road through the canyon became a public highway. People could now travel to the canyon free of charge.

The second important event occurred on the afternoon of September 21, 1899, when a large crowd in Heber watched the driving of the last spike on a short line railroad stretching between Provo and Heber. Because the train customarily chugged through the canyon at a low rate of speed, people nicknamed it the “Heber Creeper.”

The Creeper may have moved at a snail’s pace, but it opened the canyon to more convenient travel by tourists and campers. People visiting from Salt Lake City could conveniently take a day trip to Provo Canyon, and men from Provo could camp in the canyon with their families and commute to work and back.

The increased demand for sites on which to rusticate led to the establishment of a string of resorts adjacent to the railroad track in Provo Canyon. L.L. Donnan, one of many Midwesterners who relocated in Utah Valley in the 1880s and 1890s, quickly took advantage of this situation and established the Upper Falls Resort.

To be continued.


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