Highway to History
Explore the area’s past on a scenic driving tour.
Photography: Courtesy of Harold B. Lee Library
T heir hearts were pounding in their chests. The panic they felt for the survival of their families and their church kept them moving until what would have seemed an impossible feat had been accomplished. Stones that each weighed more than the equivalent of two men were heaved and piled atop one another until the group could kneel down behind them and remain unseen.
The year was 1857, and federal troops had come through Utah with the intent of quashing the Mormons’ practice of polygamy. The Mormons built these low stone walls, called breastworks, so that they could hide behind them and rain gunfire down on their persecutors as the troops traveled through the narrows of Echo Canyon. As it turned out, no gunfire was ever exchanged, but more than 150 years later, the walls of stone remain as evidence of the plight the Mormons endured. They constitute just one of the many fascinating points of interest on the Summit County Historical Driving Tour.
My husband, son, and I recently piled into our Subaru and took the tour, heading for Echo Canyon, home to several historical sites that attest to Utah’s Wild West past. After driving about 25 miles on I-80 eastbound, we turned onto the Lincoln Highway at Exit 169. The Lincoln Highway was the first transcontinental road in the United States. Upon its completion in 1913, people could travel by car on a gravel road from New York City all the way to San Francisco.
Although this sounds unbearably uncomfortable, it was a major milestone in American history. The roadway is still used in bits and pieces all over the northern part of the country, but the stretch through Echo Canyon is surely the most breathtakingly beautiful. Red rock formations tower over the two-lane road and parallel railroad tracks that have been in use for more than a century and a half. This was the route used by hundreds of thousands of westward-ho travelers looking for new lives, and it remained the principal east-west road through Utah until I-80 was completed in 1956.
At the mouth of Echo Canyon is a historical marker indicating where the first gristmill in Summit County operated. This fact may sound mundane, but I imagined what it must have been like for the pioneers who depended on this gristmill for their most basic food requirement: ground grain. Built in 1871, the mill produced flour for the area’s population until 1942.
Not far from the mill stands the first billboard in Utah, aptly named Billboard Bluff. The words “Plantation Bitters” are neatly printed on a low, flat rock that sits close to the train tracks; the opportunity to advertise to a captive audience of several hundred railway passengers every day apparently could not be passed up. Plantation Bitters, whose main ingredient was rum, was marketed in the 1800s as a curative for everything from headaches to cholera, and it sold like gangbusters in Utah. Today the empty bottles, shaped like log cabins, sell on eBay for hundreds of dollars.
Another mile up the road is what at first appears to be a large, narrow cave. When we hiked up the short path to get a better look, it turned out to be a long stone outcropping that forms a natural shelter. Called Hanging Rock, it served as a waiting area for stagecoach passengers. While people killed time or passed by on foot, a few of them wrote their names on the rocks, much as graffiti taggers do today—attesting to the uniquely human urge to leave future generations evidence that we existed.
Heading back to I-80, we stopped to read the Pony Express Trail historical markers and take a look at the town of Echo, whose schoolhouse and post office are both on the National Register of Historic Places. A little farther down the road is the town of Henefer, which has a Daughters of Utah Pioneers museum well worth the drive. The non-profit organization, formed in 1901, is dedicated to perpetuating the names and achievements of the men, women, and children who founded Utah.
On the way home, my son began grumbling about having spent one of his precious weekend days looking at “rocks and old stuff.” Just as I was about to lecture him about his failure to grasp the importance of what we’d seen that day, an image of the back of my dad’s head popped into my mind. That swirl of brown hair, circling an ever-growing bald spot, had framed my view of the world as he and my mom took my siblings and me on countless trips exactly like the one my family had just finished—and in an instant, I realized how my love of history had been formed.
So I sighed, closed my mouth, and smiled to myself, knowing that I was witnessing the creation of a chapter in my son’s own history, mere miles from our Park City home.