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. You can learn more about why the pioneers came to Bluff and their arduous journey over the Hole-in-the Rock trail.
One of the original cabins, the Barton Cabin, may still be seen at the Bluff Fort. You will also find one of the original wagons used in the Hole-in-the-Rock Expedition. Replicas of the original log cabins and the Meetinghouse have been constructed to give the visitor a glimpse of pioneer life on the San 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
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 (Glen Canyon National Recreation Center). Brothers Hyram and Benjamin Perkins had experience using explosives from their days as miners in Wales, and were put in charge of drilling and blasting to make a path for wagon passage.
Most of the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail is still visible and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Two sites on the Hole in the Rock Trail are part of present-day Bears Ears National Monument, Shash Jaa Unit.
By April 1880, the pioneers were too exhausted to continue to their intended destination 20 miles upriver and chose to settle along a flat area in the river valley. Calling the new location Bluff City, the pioneers began dividing the land, building log cabins, and digging a ditch from the river for crop irrigation.
Click here for the Hole in the Rock Foundation (HIRF) Website. http://www.hirf.org/
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 Meetinghouse was completed in the fall of 1880 and served for 14 years as a church, school, dance hall, and public meeting place.
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.
After several failed attempts at farming, the pioneers shifted to ranching and formed a successful cattle cooperative business, the Bluff Pool, to compete with larger ranches.
Residents built large, red rock, Victorian houses during this period of prosperity. Many of these homes have been restored and can be seen in the Bluff Historic District.
In the summer of 1883, the Bluff Fort was dismantled leaving the former Fort as part of a private garden.
The San Juan River proved difficult to tame with cycles of drought and flooding. Many of the original pioneer families and descendants moved away to colonize Monticello in 1888 and Blanding in 1905. Some of the original pioneer families who settled Bluff are buried on Cemetery Hill overlooking Bluff.
During the trek, advance scouts were sent to explore the rugged terrain to search for a feasible route for the larger wagon train to follow. During their search, the scouts became lost and low on food. On a snowy Christmas morning in 1879, the scouts climbed a small hill to search for landmarks. Seeing the Blue Mountains allowed the scouts to get their bearings and plan a route for the wagon train. Today, at the top of Salvation Knoll, visitors can enjoy a 360 degree panorama of incredible views.
Crossing Comb Ridge proved to be another grueling part of the journey. Knowing Comb Ridge was a formidable obstacle, they traveled south along the Comb to the San Juan River. There they built another dugway up the face of Comb Ridge naming it “San Juan Hill”.
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, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
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).
Lamont Crabtree, David Walton