Arrowhead Trail (aka Old US-91 Highway)

Prepared by Lindsey M. Evenson, Jennifer Bannick, and Everett Bassett of Transcon Environmental, Inc. for Washington County Water Conservancy District.

This discussion of the Old US-91/Arrowhead Trail through northeastern Washington County is condensed from an archaeological study: Washington County Water Conservancy District’s Ash Creek Project—Historic Context for Four Historic Properties, Washington County, Utah (Project) (Evenson et al. 2021). This report was produced by Transcon Environmental, Inc.

The Arrowhead Trail (or U.S. Route 91, Old US-91, or Arrowhead Highway/Arrowhead Trails Highway as it was sometimes called) was the first all-weather road in the western United States that connected Los Angeles, California, to Salt Lake City, Utah. Built primarily during the automotive trails period of the 1910s and prior to the establishment of the U.S. numbered highway system, the road within the Project area was largely rebuilt in 1920 to 1925 and its designation replaced in 1926 by US-91 and, subsequently, Interstate 15 (I-15).

Arrowhead Trail Background

When the idea of the Arrowhead Trail was first pursued around 1914, southern Utah’s road system was very different from how it would be just a decade or two later. Long-distance transportation was dominated by the railroads and stage line systems. Roads were mainly used locally to travel around a community or else were primitive “market roads” used to transport agricultural products by wagon from farms to town markets or, in Washington County, to the railhead at Lund (Wallis and Williamson 2007). The condition of these roads was typically very poor and, in 1916, there were only 37 miles of concrete pavement in the state, all along the Wasatch Front (Church 2018). Existing roads were constructed or maintained by locals, often supported by small grants provided by local governments or county “road commissions.” As late as 1919, Utah’s poll tax required all able-bodied men to devote at least two working days per year to road construction projects (Laws of Utah 1919).

Another reason for the lack of extensive road systems was that there were few vehicles capable of utilizing them. Automobiles were still something of a novelty in 1914 when the Arrowhead Trail Association was formed, and Henry Ford’s Model T had been introduced just 6 years earlier (Davies 2002). Church (2018) notes that elsewhere during this period, “cars exploded in the American consciousness, first as a novelty, then as a source of entertainment such as speed racing, and finally as a means to freedom and movement across long distances.” But in Hurricane, close to the Project area, it was not until around 1915 that residents reported seeing their first automobile. According to young Alice Isom Gubler Stratton, it “came roaring, popping, and chugging into town laying a trail of dust [and] puffing clouds of smoke from its rear” (Reeve 1996). The automobile “made a terrible noise, and smelled awful, but it ran without horses.”

Most long-distance automobile trips were only attempted by wealthy adventurers or thrill seekers, and most early automobiles were either touring cars or racing machines (Weingroff 2020). One difficulty with any long-distance trip was that the driver usually required a navigator. While it was theoretically possible to stitch various market roads together and drive long distances along them, these road systems were not mapped or signed, so drivers often had to depend on locals to guide them. Gas, oil, and parts were often difficult to obtain, and food and lodging in southern Utah was rare and of poor quality (Butko 2005). Village blacksmiths often took on the role of mechanics, and some later would open the first service stations (Franzwa 1999). The condition of the roads in southern Utah was also a problem. These were almost always unpaved dirt roads, dusty in dry weather and muddy in wet. Poor surface conditions such as rocks, sand, mud, or snow created problems that horse-pulled vehicles could overcome but proved more difficult for cars (Weingroff 2020).

The first Complete Official Road Guide of the Lincoln Highway (LHA 1916) provides some interesting insights into motoring in Utah during this period. Trips were considered “something of a sporting proposition.” Motorists could be expected to average 18 miles (29 kilometers) an hour and were advised to drive only during daylight hours. They recommended that a trip should cost no more than 5 dollars a day per person, including food, gas, oil, and even “5 or 6 meals in hotels.” Firearms were not needed, but full camping equipment was. The guidebook advised motorists to select campsites early: “If you wait until dark, you may be unable to find a spot free from rocks.” Equipment needed included chains, a shovel (medium size), axe, jacks, tire casings and inner tubes, and a set of tools. Motorists were also advised to bundle up in motoring cloaks and to wear either goggles or veils (LHA 1916).

Establishment of the Arrowhead Trail

The concept for an improved all-weather road connecting Salt Lake City and Los Angeles was heavily promoted by Charles H. Bigelow, who became known as the “Father of the Arrowhead Trail.” Bigelow was a Chicago-born automobile enthusiast who had relocated to Los Angeles with his wife by 1910. He became a long-distance automobile racer, with the 1910 Mercer Raceabout being his car of choice. The earliest race in which Bigelow competed was the first-ever 400-mile Los Angeles to Phoenix overland race of 1908 (Church 2018). Possibly the highlight of Bigelow’s competitive career was his race in the inaugural Indianapolis 500 in 1911 ( 2021a). His races took him across the Southwest, and he became an expert on the early desert roads. “Bar none, California has the worst desert roads in the country,” Bigelow told a newspaper in 1908 ( 2021e). “I have motored in Utah, New Mexico, and Nevada, but there is nothing to equal the roads in California. There is not a single sign board that gives the miles to the nearest water hole, and the maps are unreliable in this feature as the holes are often twelve miles from the place indicated.” He repeatedly encountered large rocks, sand dunes, quicksand, deep rivers without bridges, and steep inclines that tested his car. He also stated that a winter storm could isolate towns from one valley to the next for several months without a passable highway (Church 2018).

As a promoter, Bigelow began to explore the surrounding states, making a record of desert roads for California auto associations and other groups. Early American road promoters were a visionary breed of men, most of them sponsored by either a car company or a newspaper (Church 2018). They were paid to explore new and shorter ways across the challenging terrain of the West. The organizations would then organize efforts to improve that particular route (Lyman 1999). Promoters would also advertise new routes, and Bigelow ended up writing hundreds of national newspaper articles extolling the gorgeous scenery of southern Utah and the rest of the West. In 1916, he described the scenic beauties of southern Utah as “two Yosemites rolled into one” (UDN 2021d). In 1914, Bigelow was recruited by the Automobile Club of Southern California as the driver of a “scout car” which would search out the most practicable route to Salt Lake City. He eventually became so adept at scouting desert roads that he became known on the coast as the “Desert Rat” ( 2021a).

Eventually the Automobile Club of Southern California, on the advice of Bigelow and through consultation with local governments, identified a route between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. The road followed the old Mormon Trail within Utah and throughout much of southern California. In much of Nevada the road followed new, shorter alignments that bypassed some established communities. Waddell (1916) noted that the Arrowhead Trail provided a north-south connection between the country’s two main transcontinental routes, joining the Lincoln Highway at Salt Lake City and the National Old Trails (later U.S. Route 66) at Goffs, California. Between Salt Lake City and Cedar City the road passed through a series of established Mormon agricultural villages where the old road was in much better condition and roadside facilities more available than elsewhere along the proposed alignment.

Within Washington County the route avoided the circa 1829 Old Spanish Trail alignment that ran to the west and was in very poor condition. Instead, the selected route followed the approximate route of the circa 1852 Old Mormon Trail that ran south from Cedar City, down Ash Creek to Washington, and then southwest to St. George, Santa Clara, and Bunkerville, Nevada. An approximately 4-mile-long stretch along Ash Creek north of Pintura crossed an area of deep canyons and the ancient lava flow of Black Ridge. In 1914, the Washington County News reported the road to be in good shape except for a sandy area around Grapevine Springs.

In July 1916 in California, Bigelow teamed up with Douglas White of the Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad and others to organize the Arrowhead Trails Association. The stated purpose of the Association was “the connection of Southern California and Salt Lake City by the most direct route, the furtherance of the good roads cause, and the securing of desirable publicity for this vicinity” (Church 2018). The route’s name is believed to have come from an arrowhead figure visible on the mountain slope at San Bernardino near the southern terminus of the old Mormon Road (Lyman 1999). The association also started a new magazine called Arrowhead, the official magazine of the Salt Lake Route (UDN 2021c).

In May 1916, Bigelow, another driver, and two publicists drove straight through from Los Angeles to Salt Lake to prove that there was, indeed, an all-weather route to the coast. He named his Packard Twin Six touring car “Cactus Kate II.” Over the next few years, Bigelow would take a number of highly publicized trips in Cactus Kate II along the route (UDN 2021a). One of the accompanying publicists, a Mr. Wood, noted that:

…the feature of this highway, is its scenic wonders. There is no scenery on any tri-state highway to equal what we have seen in the past nine days. From a practical standpoint as well as a scenic, the Arrowhead trail cannot be equaled by any other route… [it] passes through mile after mile of wonderful sandstone erosions, a formation to be found on no other cross-country route… for the experienced driver with a good car the Arrowhead trail is a practical route today.

While on these and other trips, Bigelow would give speeches and meet with local government representatives and commercial leaders. Some references referred to him as an “assistant state engineer of Utah,” but this position has never been verified and may just have been an honorific (Church 2018). In 1918, Bigelow told the St. George Chamber of Commerce that the city would one day be a key point along the highway. At the time of Bigelow’s speech, only “a rough excuse for a road then passed through St. George, and one car had come through the city that week” (Wadsworth 2019). Bigelow assured the Chamber that someday upwards of 100 cars a week would pass through St. George, “which elicited a ‘hardy laugh’ among the disbelieving chamber members.”

At these events Bigelow popularized the then-new concept of automotive tourism which would later come to dominate the economy of southern Utah. Longtime St. George businessman Sid Atkin remembered the surprise he felt when he realized people would come to his remote town just for the scenery. “We thought it was a wonderful thing that people would stay with us and leave their money here” (Church 2012).

During a driving trip of only 5 days, Bigelow’s party organized 16 chapters of the Arrowhead Trail Association in as many towns, with a total membership of 1500. Money was pledged at these meetings to keep the road passable during all seasons (UDN 2021d). It must have seemed odd at this time, before the involvement of much state or federal road support, for commercial interests in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and even farther afield to assist in road improvement in Utah. Soon after Bigelow’s second trip along the route, the Goodrich Tire Company began installing metal signs at every crossroad and junction along the road at their own cost of $15,000 ( 2021c). As the publicity onslaught intensified, would-be tourists throughout the West began to identify the Arrowhead Trail as the best and most scenic route between the two cities, and local towns started to notice more motorists traveling through their communities. In Washington County it was noteworthy to the local paper that, during one week in 1916, a record number of “seven autos from northern points have passed through bound for the coast” ( 2021d), but just a few months later, in June 1917, more than 199 autos traveled the Arrowhead Highway in one month. The newspaper declared it “a real artery of travel by autoists.”

The Arrowhead Trail Association was not the only organization pushing for better roads in Utah. In the early 1900s, David R. Roberts, a state representative from Ogden, spearheaded the “Good Roads” initiative in Utah to promote more development throughout the state. Because of his position on the state legislature, he pushed through several bills to improve state roads and petitioned federal appropriations. He also took his fight to the public through several newspaper articles and talks with local groups. Roberts sponsored the bill in 1909 that created the state road commission, freed up road appropriations, and allowed the use of convict labor for road construction.

The Arrowhead Trail would also serve as an artery into Zion National Park, the Grand Canyon, and other newly popularized tourist destinations. However, with the United States’ entry into World War I, “pleasure travel” was discouraged by the government. This did not slow Bigelow down. In 1917 he set a record for road travel between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City in an Oldsmobile 8, characterized as a “military run – made under strict military rules for the purpose of demonstrating feasibility of the Arrowhead Trail” (LVCCLD 2021) to demonstrate that cars might work as well as trains to move troops overland. The effort captured the imagination of the public just as Americans were being drafted to fight.

The Arrowhead Trail in Washington County

Despite efforts to improve the Arrowhead Trail, the road remained mostly muddy, rocky, rutted, and narrow. This was especially true at Black Ridge and on the Shivwits Reservation. In and near established villages the road was kept in better repair. Local residents continued to work on the roads to fulfill their poll taxes, and limited funds were provided by the Washington County Road Commission, although extant records do not indicate where these funds were applied. From 1911 to 1913, Utah’s governor sent crews of state prison inmates to Washington County to work on roads, including at Black Ridge (Knowlton 1960).

Figure 1. Photo of an automobile on the road from Santa Clara to St. George, (n.d.) (WCHS 2021a).

Other locations were just barely passable. On a segment between St. George and Santa Clara, the road crossed the Santa Clara River numerous times, and a fording of the Virgin River near Washington was impossible following heavy rains (Figure 1). Waddell (1916) reported that “north from St. George convict labor had been employed on the road to a great extent in recent years, and it is today a good dirt road.” However, the road across the Shivwits reservation was among the worst segments. Waddell (1916) claimed that “a good driver with a good car need have nothing to fear there today, but it is not a road for an inexperienced tourist.” C.D. Warner, the Indian agent at the Shivwits reservation, noted that just 35 cars had passed through there in the first half of 1916 (Waddell 1916).

Although the first Federal Highway Act had passed in 1916, the law gave little to Utah in terms of aid. Bigelow helped organize several “Good Roads Day” events in the state, most successfully in Washington County, which resulted in impressive number of citizens turning out with their own teams, wagons, and shovels to improve the road. This aid was largely applied to the stretch between St. George and Santa Clara where motorists had to cross Santa Clara Creek 16 times in 5 miles ( 2021b). Motorists using the road were also expected to make repairs as necessary. For example, while scouting the road, Bigelow reportedly would contact anybody along the way whom he thought would help “make a bridge across a wash haul [using] some straw or gravel and clay in a deep sand bed—clean out some big rocks… He was always trying to get town boards and county commissioners to help” (Church 2018).

However, the era of privately supported roads was coming to a close. There was a general consensus in the country that road development and maintenance should be the purview of the state or federal government, not private concerns. For this reason, Henry Ford, a prominent proponent of this policy, refused to contribute any of his considerable wealth to the Lincoln Highway Association or other privately supported road schemes (Franzwa 1999). In 1909, the Utah Road Commission (URC) had been established to designate and fund official roads. The next year, Washington County was the first to submit its official map to the URC and request designation of the road that would become the Arrowhead Trail (Knowlton 1960). The first state road appropriation of $27,000 was made, and Washington County even received a small amount for the portion of the Arrowhead Trail along Santa Clara Creek.

Through 1924, improvements to the Arrowhead Trail were carried out as a combination of county, state, federal, community, and Arrowhead Trail Association-supported efforts. However, some segments remained in very poor condition. In 1920, Bigelow reported that there remained “one bad link” remaining on the road through the Shivwits Indian Reservation. In 1917, Waddell reported that:

[t]he greatest barrier today in the improvement of the Arrowhead trail is political, rather than physical. Between Bunkerville, Nev., and St. George, Utah, the Arrowhead trail crosses diagonally the extreme northwest corner of Arizona…Mohave County [Arizona] naturally dislikes to spend road money in a portion of the county where not a tenth of 1 percent of its population will benefit from it. The adjoining counties in Utah and Nevada would like to spend money on this stretch of road, but have no legal right to do so with county funds.

One issue not clearly understood was exactly when the main route across Black Ridge was moved from the east side of Ash Creek, where it had been referred to as the “County Road,” to the west side to become the Arrowhead Trail (Compton 2014). Maps are not very useful; although the 1891 U.S. Geological Survey 1:250,000 quads amended in 1908 and again in 1921 show the road only on the east side, it does not appear the maps were updated after 1891. The 1914 GLO map for the Road to Cedar City, to St. George shows a new alignment on the west side of the creek in Sections 7, 18, and 19 and crossing Ash Creek at the current I-15 crossing. Two telephone lines had been strung along this alignment. However, it is not known which of the two alignments saw the most traffic during this period and which was considered the Arrowhead Trail. It is possible this portion of the road was moved west as part of the 1910 to 1913 construction effort carried out by state prison inmates or else by County or Association efforts, but this is not mentioned in the records.

Road Improvement Activities

Around 1923, or possibly earlier, portions of the Arrowhead Trail began to be redesigned by the State Road Commission and construction contracts issued to private contractors. These were designated as Federal Assistance Projects (FAPs), for which the federal government provided a significant percentage of the cost. The federal contribution to FAPs increased in 1919 and again in 1921. In April 1927, the road was designated U.S. Highway 91 and all Arrowhead Trail signage removed. The Arrowhead Trails Association, with Bigelow still heavily involved, reorganized in 1929 to promote the St. George to Kingman, Arizona, road and other regional roads (Church 2018).

However, even though the new government funding might suggest there was a level playing field among Utah’s roads, this was not always the case. First, Utah’s power and wealth were concentrated along the Wasatch Front, and the southwestern corner of the state often had to struggle to access available funding. Second, the major alternative route to California ran west from Salt Lake City, across central Nevada, through Reno, and on to San Francisco. This route, initially designated the Lincoln Highway, followed current U.S. Route 50. Political and commercial entities along this route had their own promoters to advertise the route and downplay the value of the Arrowhead Trail. However, an advantage held by the Arrowhead Trail route was its great natural beauty and access to national parks. The northern route was dreary, and its long portion crossing Nevada came to be known as the “Loneliest Road in America.”

As the Arrowhead Trail road was improved and more Americans began utilizing automobiles, services available to travelers became both more common and of better quality. Local chambers of commerce and new advocacy groups (such as the American Automobile Association) encouraged restaurants and hotels not to price-gouge pass-through customers. The newly conceived auto-camps and motor hotels, soon to be called motels, were established in Cedar City, St. George, and other communities along the route (Church 2012). Service stations were also constructed.

The Project area includes several FAPs. FAP 12-A&B extended from the Iron/Washington county line to just north of Pintura. The segment to the south of this was designated FAP 79-08. FAP 55-B was located north of the Project area between Kanarra and the Iron/Washington county line. Government-sponsored road construction and improvement records are located at the Utah Department of Transportation, Region 4 in Richfield and at the Utah State Archives, where they are filed as “Federally Funded Highway Construction Projects (1923 to 1967)” Series 968 (UDOT 2021; URC 2021).

In 1925, $127,322 was expended on the road, apparently for grading and graveling. It appears this contract was mostly awarded to the J.C. Compton Construction Company of Springville, Utah. Other contracts were awarded to Paxton, Dority & Black (contract FAP 55-A-1) and Whitney and Reynolds (contract FAP 55-A-2). These contracts appear to be the first expenditure in the area of Black Ridge by either the URC or the federal government. In addition to the Ash Creek Bridge, three smaller concrete bridges were constructed.

Figure 2. Typical US-91 road cross section (UDOT 2021).

By 1930, $164,337 had been expended on the 7.22 miles of FAP 12-A&B, of which $121,609 (74 percent) had been provided through federal aid, with the remainder paid by the state. Of this total, $106,870 was expended on the road for a cost of $14,874 per mile and $57,407 expended on “bridges,” presumably the Ash Creek bridge (URC Series 968 Box 2/Folder 11). Materials utilized included 18-, 24-, 30-, and 36-inch corrugated metal pipes; elastic joint filler; 2.5-inch standard black pipe; lumber; posts; spikes; paint; cement; gravel; and paint. It is interesting to note that when originally designed in 1923, the cost was estimated at $153,046, with $113,254 to be provided through federal aid; this represents a 9.3 percent increase over 7 years (URC Series 968 Box 2/Folder 11). The URC records provide detailed information on the unit costs for all material types and construction activities as well as URC Project staff and salaries. Salaries ranged from $187.00 per month for Frank G. Lewis, the resident engineer, to $90.00 per month for URC “helpers;” teamster and horse teams were hired at a cost of $6.00 per day.

A typical section of the road rebuild within the Project area is shown in Figure 2. This profile indicates a total roadbed of 38 feet, including paved shoulders atop several layers of compacted fill material. Each of the two 13-foot lanes were cambered away from the centerline to assist in drainage. The road was paved with a bitumen. Bituminous road surfaces (short for “bituminous concrete” or asphalt) was obtained from natural bitumen or, more commonly, the fractional distillation of crude oil, which was used as a binder with locally sourced aggregate particles. This mixture was heated, poured hot, and compacted using mechanized rollers (Butler 1994). Using this mixture of oil and gravel to form compact roadbeds became very common in the Southwest around the turn of the century after the discovery of oil in California (Pierre 1998). This paving method, often referred to as “oil mulch” is explained in the following 1907 article excerpt:

The process, as now in use, took some time and experimenting to perfect. At first oil was sprinkled on top of the road, just as water is used. Although this laid the dust, to some extent, yet it was not very satisfactory, because the oily particles, flying around in the air, stuck to everything they came in contact with and left grease spots on the clothes. The best and most used process of today consists of first plowing up the road to the depth of about one foot. The clods are then broken up if not too large by harrowing, but sometimes sledgehammers and mallets must be used. After the soil is thoroughly pulverized, a road grader is used to make the road even and shape it so that it will shed water. After being again harrowed and rolled crude oil is sprinkled over it, after being heated to a temperature of from one hundred and seventy to three hundred degrees Fahrenheit. From one hundred twenty to three hundred barrels per mile, depending on the width of the road, are used. If the road has very heavy traffic, sometimes as many as four hundred barrels per mile are used. In a few weeks, a second coating is applied and then coarse gravel or sand, usually river sand is the best, is sprinkled over the top to absorb the surplus oil. After the road has been used a few weeks, it becomes as solid as macadam, the oil having mixed with the fine soil and thus forming a solid mass. The color of the road is from dark brown to black. The oil has little or no effect on rubber and does not hurt rubber-tired vehicles to any extent. After a few weeks no oil stains are left on the tires and the dust is effectually laid for one and sometimes two years (Ohnemuller 1907).

These crude “oil mulching” efforts began to be used on US-91 during the late 1920s. In later years, premixed asphalt prepared in mobile, heated mixers was applied directly to the road surface and rolled while still warm. This system, with some modifications, is still in use today. Combined with cut-and-fill excavation and compacted sub-fill, bituminous-surfaced roads were a huge improvement over the earlier dirt roads.

In addition to roadwork, this construction included the new Ash Creek Bridge (Figure 3). The new Ash Creek Bridge was a concrete continuous deck arch bridge. Concrete arch bridges had come into widespread use following the introduction of Josef Melan and Fritz von Emperger’s reinforcing systems in the late 1890s, and Daniel Luten played an important role in the development of reinforced concrete arch construction in the United States. However, this bridge type was not frequently used in Utah since closed spandrel arches are best suited for short span lengths while open spandrel arches are used to achieve greater lengths. The Ash Creek Bridge is the only pre-war concrete continuous deck arch bridge in Utah (Mead & Hunt, Inc. 2011). They described the bridge, constructed by Whitney and Reynolds, as follows:

Comprised of a single [130-foot] open-spandrel concrete arch, the Ash Creek Bridge marked the state’s first use of this intrinsically graceful structural type. But even in its forays into bridge aesthetics, which were by most standards modest, The Road Commission leavened its artistic justifications with considerations of cost. “Added to the beauty of line, permanence and low maintenance cost,” Housecraft noted. “is the consideration that due to the peculiarities of the site which the arch will occupy it is from $16,000 to $20,000 cheaper than any type of steel bridge which could be fitted to this crossing.

The Arrowhead Trail (now US-91) within the Project area was continuously repaired and upgraded during the following years. These activities included replacing culverts and adding guard rails and cattle guards. Surface treatments evolved from spreading gravel to oiling, scarifying, and mixing (oil mulching), to laying down bituminous concrete (asphalt). In 1956, a contract was issued to James Reid, contractor, for $91,276 to rebuild the road between Harrisburg and Leeds (URC Series 968 Box 8/Folder 12). This was likely the last major work done on this stretch of the road prior to the construction of I-15 in the mid-1960s. Some of the firms awarded these early contracts developed long-term relationships with the URC and profited well from them. W.W. Clyde, for example, developed into a large and successful heavy civil construction firm that constructed the Salt Lake International Airport and the 2002 Winter Olympic facilities.

In the mid-1960s, I-15 was constructed along the same approximate route as the older Arrowhead Trail/US-91. The new interstate did not cross the 1924 to 1925 Ash Creek Bridge where the older road is approximately 4000 feet to the west and used to access new housing developments. Along the southern portion of the Project, the older road had been designated Utah State Route 228 in 1981. It runs parallel and approximately 500 feet east of I-15, maintaining its role as the main street through Leeds, Harrisburg, and other communities.

Figure 3. Ash Creek Bridge circa 1925 (WCHS 2021b).


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