As a history buff and native of Morgan County, I was surprised that I had never been on the “Mormon Flat Dirt Road,” as it is named in a self-guided auto tour of the Hastings Cutoff through the county.
But there I was, with husband and children packed in the car, anticipating various sites along the well-maintained dirt road. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Morgan County Historian Linda H. Smith calls the trail one of Morgan’s little-known treasures. Years ago, she spear-headed a project to bring awareness to the trail used in the past by pioneers, Pony Express riders and California gold rushers.
“There is no need to travel great distances when history is in our own back yard,” Smith said. “The self-guided tour is designed for individuals, families or groups to follow the historic trail and learn about its significance to the development of Utah and the West.”
I was eager to start my own journey in the footsteps of my pioneer ancestors.
We left home in Ogden about 5:30 p.m. on a weekday evening, following Interstate 84 until arriving at the Henefer Park in Summit County around 6 p.m. A historical marker and much-needed bathrooms greeted us at the beginning of our adventure.
Armed with the “Emigrant Travel Guide” published by the Morgan County Historical Society, complete with tables of distances similar to original emigrant travel guides of the 1800s, we were on our way. At the park, we set our odometer to 0 as suggested in the guide before entering State Route 65.
I took on the role of narrator, reading several statements by some of the early travelers included in the well designed brochure as my husband drove and closely monitored our odometer. Perhaps due to large tires, our odometer was between 0.3 miles and 1 mile off of the distances published in our guide. As such, I was glad to have a calculator handy to calculate mileage deviations.
Since vehicle odometer readings may vary, the Morgan Historical Society had much foresight in also including GPS coordinates.
Near the Henefer Park, road signs informed us that we were closely following a route once known as the Mormon Pioneer Trail, Pony Express, and the California Trail over 160 years ago. Thousands in the western migration, including the Donner-Reed Party, Mormon Vanguard Company, the YX Company, Johnston’s Army, the Mormon Militia, the 49ers and Pony Express riders used this important 16-mile section of the Hastings Cutoff.
Then, it was a series of narrow ravines, steep rocky inclines, marshy areas, and willow laced camp grounds that for many proved to be the most difficult section of their entire trek west. Today, it is a paved stretch of road with beautiful views worthy of a leisurely drive.
We kept our eyes peeled for the various historical markers along the way, as well as glimpses of the actual trail and wagon ruts. Although I was disappointed that the “white carsonite trail markers” mentioned in the guide were very modern markers and not vintage 1800s, the very visible markers kept us on track during the drive.
We were easily able to locate the “tan swales” located on our right as mentioned in the guide during the early part of our drive, but struggled to understand if this was in fact evidence of the actual trail. Upon further investigation, Smith told me these were in fact sections of the trail upon the hillside, the swales created by weathering of the route over the years.
It was easy to see why pioneer travelers chose sites among bunches of trees along the creek to camp—plenty of water and shade.
Despite the picturesque quality of today’s sites, the trail was not an easy one for travelers to follow. Morgan County is home to the “Martin Cove of Utah,” where in 1856 some members of the handcart company traveling in rescue wagons were snowed in for three days and nights until help arrived.
The Donner Party experienced taxing setbacks in Morgan County that contributed to their well-known ordeal in the Sierras, where half the party died from starvation and exposure.
To Be Continued. . .