Ash Creek County Wagon Road

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

This discussion of Washington County’s historic wagon road through Ash Creek Canyon 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.

Figure 1. Overview map of the Wagon Road

Within the Project area, the County Wagon Road runs through varied landforms characterized by topography, soil quality, and access to water. These factors affected how the wagon road was built and maintained and how surrounding historic development occurred. Most of the Project area includes a mosaic of rolling hills, heavily eroded washes, and sand dunes. However, the road alignment also crosses a 2-million-year-old volcanic lava flow know as Black Ridge (Chronic 1990). The road runs across Black Ridge for 5.45 miles, dropping 700 feet, or 128 feet per mile, from north to south over this distance. The topography here includes steep sideslopes that required excavating “dugways” into the hillside, large boulders, and a steep precipice into the Ash Creek Canyon several hundred feet below the road. The alignment of the County Wagon Road (also known as the Salt Lake City to Saint George Wagon Road) in comparison with the later U.S. Route 91 and Arrowhead Highway/Trail and current Interstate 15 (I-15) corridor is shown on Figure 1.

The tortuous terrain, lack of arable soils, and difficulty accessing the waters of Ash Creek meant that no development would occur there. The obstacle to travel presented by Black Ridge was well understood by the Native Americans of the region. The Pine Valley Mountains rise to a height of 10,300 feet to the west and the Hurricane Cliffs rise to a height of 6553 feet to the east. LaVan Martineau noted that the Paiutes called Black Ridge Kaw’uwhaim Awvee (Ankle Lying) or Too’Yoonuv (Lava Flow) and the surrounding area Chuhngkawweep (Rough Land) (Martineau 1992).

The first Europeans to witness Black Ridge were fathers Silvestre Vélez de Escalante and Francisco Atanasio Domínguez. The expedition “entered a ridge cut entirely of black lava rock which lies between two high sierras by way of a gap” on October 13, 1776 (Warner 1995). After being abandoned on the ridge by their Native guides, the company “continued south for a league with great hardship on account of so much rock.” They camped in a cottonwood grove they named San Daniel, probably located approximately 2.4 miles north of Pintura, and passed over sand dunes north of present-day Leeds the next day (Warner 1995).

Jedediah Smith and other fur traders probably passed over Black Ridge in 1826 and 1827 but left no account of their travels (Morgan 1953). Mormons first arrived in the region in 1849. Parley P. Pratt’s exploratory expedition crossed Black Ridge on horseback on December 29, 1849, where the company was “forced to leave the stream [Ash Creek] and take to our right [east] over the hills for many miles. Country rough and marred with huge stones, the North side a foot deep with snow on the summit and South side very miry” (Smart and Smart 1999). As the company entered the area south of Black Ridge, they noticed a significant change in the climate and landscape. Their first impressions of the area were less than favorable: “Southwardly for about eighty miles there appeared a wide expanse of chaotic matter, huge hills, high sandy deserts, grasslands, waterless plains, perpendicular rocks, loose, barren clay and dissolving beds of sandstone; in short a country in ruins, dissolved by the peltings storms of ages, or turned inside out, upside down by terrible convulsions” (Smart and Smart 1999).

With quite a precipitous ascent of two miles, and covered with boulders of black volcanic rock, interspersed with brush and cedar trees, it looked impractical for wagons.

Mary Judd, March 1856

One of the earliest settlements in the region was Fort Harmony (1852) near the north end of the Project area. Settlement could not extend farther south at this time due to the obstacle to travel caused by Black Ridge and the lack of arable land to the south (Compton 2014). Over the next few years, a number of trips across Black Ridge were attempted; few were successful. In January 1852, John D. Lee successfully led a company that included four wagons; in 1852, the Smith-Steel company traveled north across the Ridge; and in 1854, Rufus Allen and David Lewis led separate companies across.

Up to this point, attempts to cross Black Ridge were carried out by pathfinders and other explorers capable of blazing trail and wrestling wagons around boulders and across canyons (Compton 2014). That changed in March 1856 when eight men and several women, one named Mary Judd, crossed Black Ridge from south to north with four wagons. The company had been told Black Ridge was impassable to wagons, but they attempted it regardless. Judd wrote: “With quite a precipitous ascent of two miles, and covered with boulders of black volcanic rock, interspersed with brush and cedar trees, it looked impractical for wagons.” When they finally reached Harmony, they were in a sorry state. Judd wrote: “We had torne our close [clothes] terably traveling thrue brush and rockes with no road of any kinde… We obeyed orders and made the first wagon tracks that there ever was made south of harmony over the black ridge. We travelled about 75 miles without any wagon track” [sic.] (Autobiography of Mary Minerva Dart Judd as quoted in Compton 2014). She also described the route they took—approximately along the western edge of Ash Creek where the Duffin Road, Arrowhead Trail, and I-15 would later be constructed. These early travelers could not follow the streambed because of the large basalt boulders that accumulated there, so they had to cross the lava flow on the often-steep mountain flanks. Despite these obstacles, the early Mormon pioneers felt divinely inspired to settle their territory. However, the terrain at and surrounding Black Ridge seemed to thwart their efforts. In 1861, Hugh Moon, who had crossed Black Ridge, described it as consisting of “black nasty rocks that looked as if the Lord had made them for nothing but to bluff off our enemies and spoil the land” (WCHS 2021). Compton (2014) observed that “the pioneers sometimes personalized their descriptions of the Black Ridge country, viewing it as a conscience, malignant stretch of land.”

The reason these early settlers wanted to travel down Ash Creek was because once they passed Black Ridge, they could continue in a south-southwest direction to access the new settlements of the Virgin River drainage—Santa Clara, settled in 1854; Washington, settled in 1857; and St. George, settled in 1861. They also had the option of turning southeast through Toquerville (settled in 1858) over “Jesse’s Twist” and on to Pocketville (now Virgin) and other communities along the upper Virgin River (Larson 1960). There existed an alternative route from the north to Santa Clara and the other Virgin River communities of Utah’s Dixie, but it required following the circa 1829 Old Spanish Trail, improved as a crude wagon road in 1847 (Jenson and Bradshaw 1950). This route headed west from Cedar City to near present-day Enterprise, then south through Mountain Meadows and down the treacherous Mogotsu Creek and Santa Clara River drainages. While this was an efficient route to southern California, it required extensive backtracking to get to the St. George area. In addition, after the horrific 1857 massacres that occurred at Mountain Meadows, that area was shunned by many travelers (Todd Compton, personal communication 2021).

Brigham Young clearly understood the importance of dependable transportation and communication between Washington County and the rest of the Utah Territory. In 1854, while visiting Harmony, he asked the men who had visited Dixie whether “a wagon road could be made across the Black Ridge down to the Rio Virgen” (Annals of the Southern Utah Mission, holograph, MS 318, Church History Library, as quoted in Compton 2014). Apparently, “their replies were very discouraging.” By 1856, Brigham Young began contemplating founding a cotton-growing mission in Washington County, increasing the need for a passable road. The importance of the cotton mission grew after 1861 when, with the onset of the Civil War, the price of cotton skyrocketed. At this time, Peter Shirts, a resident of New Harmony, claimed to have located a new road that skirted the Ash Creek Canyon area and looped well to the west to skirt the base of the Pine Valley Mountains (Jenson and Bradshaw 1950). John Woodhouse stated that “The road to our Dixie over the Black Ridge [presumably the one blazed by the Judds in March] was considered so bad that Brother Peeter Shirts had been appointed to explore a better one” (Kirkham and Kirkham 1952). On December 1, 1856, the Iron County Court appointed Woodhouse County Road commissioner. However, there was a problem with Shirts’ new-found road: it crossed a canyon 165 feet deep and a thousand feet across. When asked how he would get across the canyon, Shirts reportedly replied “leap it” (Compton 2014). Although he did have a road graded and a dugway of sorts across the canyon excavated, it was really too steep and dangerous to use. The location became known as “Peter’s Leap” and the drainage named Leap Creek (Compton 2014).

Although a real road across the Black Ridge had been built, it could not be used effectively due to Peter’s Leap. In 1857, the Latter-Day Saints apostle George A. Smith used Shirts’ road and called it “the most desperate piece of road that I ever traveled in my life, the whole ground for miles being covered with stones, volcanic rock, cobble heads… and in places, deep sand” (Smith 2002). At Peter’s Leap, travelers often had to lower their wagons down a sheer cliff and then haul them up the other side. Mary Ann Mansfield Bentley recalled having to disassemble their wagons and pull them across the chasm one piece at a time. When the “Texas Company,” a group of southern cotton growers headed to Dixie saw Peter’s Leap, they proposed killing Shirts (Compton 2014).

Shirts’ road was widely despised, and the county refused to reimburse him the $300 he had expended on it. In addition, they replaced him with John D. Lee and Elisha H. Groves as new county road commissioners. Compton (2014) has documented a small dribble of appropriated funds from Iron County to conduct maintenance on the road, including $297 for work on the Black Ridge road and $50 for road work south of Grapevine Springs. Despite the improvements made to Shirts’ road, it appears to not always have been the preferred route, and at least one company of travelers in 1861 followed the old Hamblin-Judd road along the west side of the Ash Creek Canyon (Compton 2014). The Shirts road does not appear on any contemporary maps. However, the General Land Office (GLO) maps for Township 40 South, Range 13 West (1904) and for Township 39 South, Range 13 West (1931) show that what is probably the southern two-thirds of the road across Black Ridge. A jeep trail that appears to follow the original road and Peter’s Leap are both easily discernable to this day.  

Apparently, the Shirts road remained so bad that, in 1862, Brigham Young and Erastus Snow ordered a new road to be built. On November 27, 1862, Snow traveled with three new road commissioners, Charles Stapley Jr., Robert Lloyd, and Daniel D. McArthur, to choose the location of the new road. This location ran along the west side of Ash Creek, possibly at the same location blazed by Hamblin and Judd in 1856. Historian Todd Compton first identified this alignment (Compton 2014). This general alignment was reused again by the Arrowhead Trail in 1924 and then again by I-15 in the mid-1960s. This road was sometimes referred to as the “Duffin Road” after Isaac Duffin, superintendent of construction in 1863. Although much communal work went into the Duffin Road, it appears to have been extremely difficult to maintain, and in 1866, Erastus Snow proposed building a new third road (Compton 2014). The Duffin Road, which was only used for approximately 5 years, does not appear on any of the 1870 GLO maps which were completed just 2 years after the Duffin Road was abandoned. The area where it was located has been so badly impacted by post-1924 road construction, no evidence of it is currently visible.

A new road was constructed on the east side of Ash Creek and was generally referred to as the “County Road,” although it is listed on historic GLO maps by various names, including St. George to Salt Lake and to St. George (Compton 2014). The road served as the main route connecting Dixie with the rest of Utah between 1868 and 1924.

The urgent necessity for better means of reaching the outside world was one of the stiffest burdens borne by the early settlers who were already faced with problems of survival that demanded all of their labor and ingenuity.

Todd Compton, 2014

Much greater effort went into the construction of this road and into the subsequent maintenance than for the two earlier iterations. There are a number of possible reasons for this. First, the population of the region was growing rapidly. There was a greater demand for a good road and many more people available to contribute “labor tithing” to the road’s construction and maintenance. 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). Second, the presence of the highly profitable silver mines at Silver Reef near the new County Road provided additional tax revenue and a need for a quality road for hauling supplies and ore. The expansion of the mining industry possibly allowed for the greater local availability of equipment and supplies such as graders, rock drills, fill carts, and explosives. A third possible reason is that the county realized from their two earlier road attempts that a poorly designed and constructed road could not be adequately maintained in the long run.

Much of the labor provided on this and the other roads were an act of communality carried out by the area’s Mormon communities. Compton (2014) provides an excellent description of the concept and implementation of communality and the importance to the communities of having dependable roads: “The urgent necessity for better means of reaching the outside world was one of the stiffest burdens borne by the early settlers who were already faced with problems of survival that demanded all of their labor and ingenuity.”

Grading work on the road utilized both horse-drawn drag scrapers (sometimes referred to as Mormon boards) or wheeled scrapers. Rocks and tree stumps were probably removed by pick and shovel, although horse teams and even explosives may have been used in difficult situations. A number of the boulders that required moving were quite large, sometimes referred to as haystack sized. A local anecdote is that when a very large boulder was shifted within a deep wash on the road, a man’s body was found beneath it. The wash has been called “Deadman’s Wash” ever since (Compton 2014).

There is no evidence this road ever received any surface treatment. After about 1890 treatments could have involved spraying oil waste on the surface or “oil mulching,” which required scarifying the road surface and mixing the soil with the oil, then compacting it. This technique became very common in the Southwest around the turn of the century after the discovery of oil in California (Pierre 1998). A number of culverts and small bridges were required along the road. When originally constructed, neither concrete nor metal pipes were available in southern Utah, and these structures would have been constructed of either dry-laid or mortared masonry or else with timbers or dimensional lumber, if available. The remnants of a mortared masonry bridge crossing Dry Wash are present just south of Pintura, and a collapsed wood bridge fastened with cut nails is present on an unnamed wash near the north end of the Project.

The County Road continued as the main route between Washington County and the rest of Utah until 1924 when the Arrowhead Trail was constructed on the opposite side of Ash Creek. During this period, the road saw extensive use, especially in the boom years of the Silver Reef mining camp. Between 1878 and 1882, as many as 200 wagons of silver bullion might have traversed it daily (Compton 2014). Although the County Road was far superior to earlier versions, it was still extremely rough and included heart-stopping drop-offs and dugways down steep cliffs. During the dry weather, “the deep sands slowed travelers to a snail’s crawl… Sometimes the road became bottomless mudholes when the red clay was wet and soft… The sticky viscous mud adhered to wagon wheels, making travel almost impossible” (Larson 1960). In 1872, Elizabeth Kane traveled the road and described her experience: “We were told to prepare for eighteen miles of rough road when we left Kannarra, and we certainly encountered them. We were fairly in the rocks, and the lava blocks are the flintiest stones I ever heard ring against horse-shoe and wheel-tire.” Later, “we were winding down a narrow road painfully excavated along the side of what I now see to be a chasm, sheer down which I can look hundreds of feet—and I much prefer not looking!” She gazed down in “fascinated terror” into the Ash Creek Canyon: “We wind in and out of the corners of the great chasm, making short half-turns” (Kane 1974).

Figure 2. “Mountain Buggy” typical of those used on the County Road near Rockville, Utah (SUU 2005).

This and other rocky and muddy roads of southern Utah were quickly rutted by the narrow-wheeled wagons of the period. Specialized “mountain buggies” (Figure 2) and reinforced freight wagons were developed to handle the unusually rough conditions. However, lighter-weight buggies were also used. Because of its heavy use and the difficult terrain, the road required continual upkeep. In 1878, the territorial legislature awarded three thousand dollars “for widening dugways, removing rock from the roads, and graveling or otherwise covering what is known as the Grapevine Sand, and generally repairing and straightening the Territorial Road from the head of the Black Ridge Dugway… through Bellevue [Pintura] and Leeds, to St. George” (Utah Legislative Assemblage 1878).

One advantage in conducting research on this road is that the GLO cadastral maps that cover the Project area were issued in 1870, just a few years after the road was constructed. It is interesting that a short segment of the road was called out as a “Dug Way.” In the nineteenth century, a dugway was defined as an excavated road typically constructed along a hillside by pulling material from uphill and using it for fill on the downhill side. The short segment of dugway in Township 39 South, Range 12 West, Sections 18 and 19 is located on the steepest part of the road where Ash Creek runs adjacent to the highest elevation of Black Ridge.

These historic maps as well as aerial imagery indicate that a few relatively short alignments deviated from the original alignment. Some of these are visible on later maps (i.e., 1891, 1904, 1914, and 1921), although it is not known when the switch was made. The longest deviation is located just north of Pintura where a 2.35-mile-long segment had been mapped on the east side of Ash Creek on the 1870 GLO map. However, no alignment is visible at this location on Google Earth, historic aerial images, or through field inspection. Another more recent alignment may have occurred circa 1911 to 1913 when the governor had state prison inmates working on roads in this area (Knowlton 1960). The 1914 GLO map for Township 39 South, Range 12 West shows a parallel alignment that crossed to the west side of Ash Creek in the north part of Section 19, running north for 2 miles to cross back at the location of the current I-15 crossing and rejoin the original County Road alignment.

After 1924, the County Road saw very little use. North of the current Ash Creek Reservoir and south of the Wet Sandy, the road was completely abandoned, having been replaced by the adjacent Arrowhead Trail. Very little evidence of the road remains at these locations. Roughly 4 miles of road that cross Black Ridge on the east side of Ash Creek and 3.5 miles south of Pintura on the west side continue to see use as a primitive jeep trail, mostly used by recreationists, ranchers, and the Bureau of Land Management.


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