They expected to be on the trail about six weeks, but the anticipated journey stretched on for nearly six months.
In November 1879, 236 pioneers from 16 communities throughout Utah gathered in answer to a call from LDS Church leaders to establish a Mormon settlement on the San Juan frontier.The church's reasons for establishing the Mormon colony in the remote region of the San Juan were several: to occupy the land ahead of non-Mormon cattlemen who were moving into the region from Colorado and Texas, to provide a buffer for southern Utah settlements against possible Indian depredations, to get more land for the expanding Mormon population in the state and to carry out missionary work among the Indians.
Moving east from Parowan, Cedar City, and other southern Utah towns, the group stood poised the morning of Jan. 26, 1880, at the top of Hole-in-the-Rock, ready to make the descent down what has become one of the most celebrated miles of trail in the saga of Western pioneers.
Hole-in-the-Rock was the only crossing of the Colorado River between Lee's Ferry, Ariz., and Moab. To negotiate the 500-foot descent from the cliff down to the river, the San Juan pioneers had to cut back the 45-foot sheer cliff at the top, build a dugway along a lower section of steep slickrock and make their way through a mountain of sand to the river, which they crossed on a 16-by-16-foot raft.
The passage out of the canyon to the east was equally difficult as a dugway had to be cut in the solid rock wall out of the river gorge.
The construction took eight weeks. At the top of the Hole-in-the-Rock, men were lowered by ropes over the 45-foot cliff to swing picks, chipping away at the rock to make holes for blasting powder. Farther down, where it was impossible to cut back the rock to allow for a straight descent, it was necessary to angle across the slickrock on what became known as Uncle Ben Perkin's Dugway.
This remarkable feat of pioneer engineering and road construction was described by Charles Redd, whose father was one of the Hole-in-the-Rock pioneers:
"First Ben directed the smith to widen out the bits of the drills. Then men were set to drilling holes about 4 feet apart along the down-side edge of the slick-rock where the wagons had to cross. While the grade was nothing like that higher up, it was still so steep that men swinging the doublejack hammers had to be secured by rope passed around their waists and steadied by a fellow worker from above.
"The vertical holes they drilled were 6 to 10 inches deep and large enough to admit a sizable oak stake which was driven in and left sticking up two feet. Driftwood logs and poles were then piled against these stakes, and a screen of brush was placed over the logs to prevent the fill-dirt and rocks from seeping through.
"This crib was then filled to the level with solid matter, and the road bed for the lower wagon wheel was ready to be tried. Meanwhile, along the upper side of the road bed and parallel to the `tacked-on' fill, with pick and drill they cut a rut, 4 to 6 inches deep in the rock and wide enough for a wagon wheel."
On Jan. 26, 1880, the 40 wagons in the group were taken down through the Hole-in-the-Rock and more than half of them were ferried across the river before dark. Elizabeth Decker Morris, who walked down through the Hole-in-the-Rock with her son that day, wrote to her parents:
"If you ever come this way it will scare you to death to look down it. It is about a mile from the top down to the river and it is almost strait down, the cliffs on each side are five hundred feet high and there is just room enough for a wagon to go down. It nearly scared me to death. The first wagon I saw go down they put the brake on and rough locked the hind wheels and had a big rope fastened to the wagon and about 10 men holding back on it and then they went down like they would smash everything. I'll never forget that day. When we was walking down Willie looked back and cried and asked me how we would get back home."
Ten weeks after the descent through the Hole-in-the-Rock, the pioneers reached their destination on April 6, 1880, 130 miles from the Hole-in-the-Rock at present-day Bluff on the San Juan River.