Hole in the Rock Trail
Bluff, the first Anglo community in southeastern Utah, was settled in April 1880 by Mormon pioneers seeking to establish a mission on the San Juan River in the present-day Four Corners area. The San Juan area of southeastern Utah was then known as a refuge for lawless men. The San Juan Mission would act as a buffer for the rest of settled Utah, establish law and order, and maintain friendly relations with the Indians in the area.
A “mission call” went out in December 1878 and was answered by numerous southern Utah families, many of whom gave up fine homes to move with all their possessions to the remote San Juan area. Seventy families consisting of around 250 men, women and children, left Escalante in south central Utah in October 1879 intending to establish the mission at Montezuma on the San Juan River.
Using a route advised by a previous scouting party known as the “Escalante short cut”, the pioneers expected the 125 mile trek would take 6 weeks. Instead, the journey extended 260 miles over 6 months via the Hole-in-the-Rock-Trail in arduous, winter conditions. Historians consider the Hole-in-the-Rock Expedition one of the most extraordinary wagon trips ever undertaken in North America and a fine example of pioneer spirit. Many sections of the trail were almost impassable. To allow wagon passage, the men spent 6 weeks blasting and chiseling a path through a narrow, 1,200 foot drop in the sandstone cliffs known as the Hole-in-the-Rock, which is still visible at present day Lake Powell.
Crossing Comb Ridge proved to be another grueling part of the journey, requiring yet another dugway to be built up the face of the solid rock Comb Ridge. The pioneers named this “San Juan Hill”.
By April 1880, most of wagons had pulled onto the flat river bottom near Bluff. Although the intended destination was less than 20 miles upstream, the expedition was too exhausted to continue. The river valley appeared to offer good farmland. Calling the new location Bluff City, the pioneers began dividing the land into lots, building log cabins and digging an irrigation ditch from the river to irrigate fields.
In September, Erastus Snow, Brigham Young, Jr., and other church officials arrived in Bluff to take account of the San Juan Mission. They appointed Jens Nielson the first LDS Bishop of Bluff City. “We want you to maintain your start in this country,” said Erastus Snow, explaining that the church had a definite object and purpose in settling a colony in this wild region. He advised the people to build their houses in a fort to defend themselves more easily from the Indians.
The Bluff Fort grew into an open square surrounded by cottonwood log cabins with all cabin doors and windows facing inward. The exact number of cabins in the Fort is unknown, but ranged from 38 – 63 cabins. Inside the Fort, the Bluff City Meeting house was completed in the fall of 1880 and served for 14 years as a church, school, dance hall, and public meeting place.
Bluff Co-op Store
In a corner of the Fort, a Co-op store opened in June 1882. The Co-op sold goods and supplies to the people in the Fort and traded with the Navajo. Joseph A. Lyman was appointed salesman. Soon the store began to declare dividends. The pioneers bought Navajo wool, pelts, and blankets and transported this merchandise to Durango, Colorado for sale. On the return trip from Durango, they brought other freight to be sold in Bluff, thereby making a handsome profit. Profits from the Co-op provided means for the pioneers to stay in Bluff and to help make a start in the very prosperous cattle business years later.
In the summer of 1883, the Bluff Fort was dismantled. Men began moving their houses out to their town lots leaving the former Fort to be plowed as part of a private garden.
The San Juan River proved to be difficult to tame. The winter of 1883-1884 brought snow and rainstorms. Topped with runoff from the southern Rockies snow melt, the river flooded the newly formed town resulting in damage to homes, crops and the destruction of the irrigation system. Soon the residents of Bluff City asked to be released from their mission. Permission was given by the church, but only a few families chose to leave.
Bluff Pool Livestock Cooperative and Victorian Home Construction
After several failed attempts at farming the area, in 1885, a newly appointed San Juan Stake president, Francis Hammond, urged the community to shift from farming to ranching. A successful local livestock cooperative business, the Bluff Pool, was formed in the late 1880’s to help Bluff settlers compete with larger cattle ranches in the area.
In contrast to the 1880 floods, the 1890s proved to be a time of prolonged drought. The people of Bluff City persisted, however. Many residents built large, sandstone-block, Victorian houses during this period as an apparent commitment to the future. Today, many of these homes have been restored and can be seen in the Bluff Historic District.
Life continued to be challenging in Bluff City. Eventually most of the original families and their descendants moved away, with many going north to start the farming and ranching communities of Monticello in 1888 and Blanding in 1905.
The original Bluff Fort has been rebuilt and lovingly restored through the efforts of the Hole in the Rock Foundation (www.HIRF.org ) and is open to visitors free of charge. The original Barton Cabin may still be seen at the Fort. In addition, replicas of the original log cabins and the Meetinghouse have been constructed to give the visitor a glimpse of pioneer life on theSan Juan in the 1880’s. A replica of the Co-op Store was completed in 2013 and serves as the Visitors Center and Gift Shop. Admission is free.
550 East Black Locust
Bluff, UT 84512
Click here for the Hole in the Rock Foundation (HIRF) Website
1. Aitchison S. A Guide to Southern Utah’s Hole in the Rock Trail. 2. Miller D. Hole in the Rock 3. Hole in the Rock Foundation website (www.hirf.org).