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About Utah: Echoes of history abound in well-traveled corridor

Published: Thursday, July 30 2015 1:05 a.m. MDT

You'd be hard-pressed to find a stretch of land anywhere that has had a better view of the progress in the West.   (Lee Benson, deseret news) You'd be hard-pressed to find a stretch of land anywhere that has had a better view of the progress in the West. (Lee Benson, deseret news)

ECHO CANYON, Summit County — Freeway speeds vary between 70 mph and 75 mph here on Interstate 80 in the northeast corner of Utah.

It is thus possible to blow by nine miles of the state's most historically significant travel corridor in about seven minutes.

Even a truck going uphill toward Wyoming can do it in eight.

So little time, so much history.

Because the truth is, you'd be hard-pressed to find a stretch of land anywhere that has had a better view of the passing parade of modern progress than right here at the mouth of Echo Canyon.

The California and Mormon pioneer trails passed here in the 1840s; the original Pony Express riders sped by here in 1860; some of the last few frantic miles of track for the transcontinental railroad were laid here in 1869; the Lincoln Highway, America's first coast-to-coast automobile highway, passed through here in 1913; and in the 1970s the paving of I-80 helped complete Eisenhower's federal freeway system.

Atop the sentinel cliffs of Echo Canyon, the Mormon militia once posed with blackened tree trunks masquerading as cannons. (Lee Benson, deseret news) Atop the sentinel cliffs of Echo Canyon, the Mormon militia once posed with blackened tree trunks masquerading as cannons. (Lee Benson, deseret news)

Most everyone uses I-80 now, but a nine-mile stretch of the "old road" still exists, paralleling mile marker 169 on the freeway to mile marker 178. It's a span that is lightly traveled, used mostly by ranchers and the occasional tourist, and at 40 mph the speed limit is half that of the interstate.

At that, it would have left those who previously came this way dizzy with disbelief.

A few markers have been erected by various groups in an attempt to document all that's passed by. The National Historic Trails Association. The Pony Express Trail Association. The Boy Scouts of America. The Lincoln Highway Association. The Summit County Historical Society. On the freeway, just off Exit 170, the Utah Office of Tourism has erected a Welcome Center.

The historic markers can be difficult to spot, though. Even the Welcome Center, with no eastbound exit, is easy to miss if you don't slow down.

Big rigs roll along Interstate-80 as a forlorn marker along the ?old road? memorializing the California and Mormon Pioneer Trails and Pony Express waves in the breeze. (Lee Benson, deseret news) Big rigs roll along Interstate-80 as a forlorn marker along the ?old road? memorializing the California and Mormon Pioneer Trails and Pony Express waves in the breeze. (Lee Benson, deseret news)

In truth, there isn't much tangible to see. So much that passed through here left no visible mark.

But if they'd had iPhones, what videos these hills could show.

The Donner Party came this way, and all the Mormon pioneers, and Buffalo Bill Cody on horseback carrying the mail, and the first train passengers in the West.

I'd like to have been here in March 1858 when Alfred Cumming, the newly designated governor of the Utah Territory by order or President James Buchanan, traveled through Echo Canyon with Thomas L. Kane.

Kane, a statesman and soldier who five years later would become a Union hero at the Battle of Gettysburg, was trying to broker peace when he escorted Cumming the 100 miles from Fort Scott, Wyo., to Great Salt Lake City to satisfy him that Brigham Young would give up the governorship of Utah Territory without a fight. Buchanan didn't think he would, and he'd sent 2,500 federal soldiers with Cumming just to make sure, with 3,000 more on the way. The troops stayed behind at Fort Scott — near a ruined Fort Bridger that had been burned down by Mormon militia — as Cumming and Kane passed through the narrowest section of the canyon, just above where the I-80/I-84 junction is today.

Plantation Bitters, a medicine laced with rum, no longer exists, but it?s still advertised on a rock next to the railroad tracks in Echo Canyon. (Lee Benson, deseret news) Plantation Bitters, a medicine laced with rum, no longer exists, but it?s still advertised on a rock next to the railroad tracks in Echo Canyon. (Lee Benson, deseret news)

High atop the rock cliffs, members of the Mormon militia looked down. There some 1,200 men were on the mountaintops, but they had it rigged to look like they were many more. They blackened tree trunks and stuck them out over the cliffs to look like cannons and built huge bonfires to make it appear as if Genghis Khan's entire army was up there.

Cumming took in the scene and reported back to Army commander Albert Johnston that not only was Brigham Young in a negotiating mood but Johnston's Army would get massacred if it tried to pass through Echo Canyon.

It wasn't long after that the so-called Utah War, also known as Buchanan's Blunder, ended before it began.

They say you can still see some of those bulwarks the Mormon militia built, although all I saw were steep cliffs.

But I did see what must qualify as the oldest advertisement in Utah. At a place called Billboard Bluff, just west of the railroad tracks about halfway along the nine-mile road, the words "Plantation Bitters" are painted on the side of a large flat rock. The white letters were painted after the railroad arrived in 1869, visible to every passenger train that passed on the way to, or from, Ogden.

This marker denotes the Pony Express station once located at the mouth of Echo Canyon in 1860-1861. (Lee Benson, deseret news) This marker denotes the Pony Express station once located at the mouth of Echo Canyon in 1860-1861. (Lee Benson, deseret news)

Plantation Bitters, the history books say, was a "medicine" that contained mostly rum and is no longer available.

It's gone the way of the California and Mormon trails, the Pony Express, the passenger train, the Lincoln Highway — and those blackened tree trunks Alfred Cumming could have sworn were cannons.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday.

Email: benson@desnews.com

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company