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Lincoln Highway: Utah March 20, 2012

Posted by Jenny in history, travel.
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Driving across the hypnotic Salt Flats

In this series of posts, we journey on the Lincoln Highway from New York City to San Francisco, taking it state by state. Go here for an introduction.

Among Lincoln Highway states, Utah has the distinction of being the only one in which a major chunk of the former Highway route is now off-limits to the public. The original alignment passed through what is now the Dugway Proving Ground, part of a complex of top-secret military testing areas.

For instance, Dugway is adjacent to the Utah Test and Training Range, which is the “largest overland contiguous block of supersonic authorized restricted airspace in the continental US,” according to the Wikipedia article. That is quite a mouthful.

These areas are used for training exercises, disposal of explosive ordnance, and testing of experimental equipment. Dugway is known for the “sheep kill incident” of 1968, in which quantities of a nerve gas called VX were released in open-air operations and drifted over to Skull Valley, where more than 6,000 sheep were killed.

Dugway sheep kill, 1968

A classified report, produced in 1970, stated that VX was found in snow and grass samples recovered from the area three weeks after the incident. The report was not made public until 1998 (through the efforts of a newspaper reporter), and even then the Army did not admit responsibility. However, back in the days of general outrage against military use of chemicals—think napalm in Vietnam—the incident contributed to President Nixon’s 1969 decision to ban all open-air chemical weapon testing.

Things were a bit different in the early Lincoln Highway days, when travelers were advised that if they had a breakdown near Fish Springs—now in the off-limits area—they should build a sagebrush fire. “Mr. Thomas will come with a team. He can see you 20 miles off,” said the Lincoln Highway Association’s 1916 Official Road Guide.

In earlier posts we’ve met Effie Gladding, author of the 1914 Across the Continent by the Lincoln Highway. Driving across the western Utah desert, Effie and her husband made their way from ranch to ranch, stopping for meals and overnight accommodations. They must have offered some compensation to the ranch owners, though her book doesn’t say. Here is a bit of her description of the Fish Springs Ranch, where they stopped for lunch.

Our host was a tall and powerfully built elderly ranchman in a blue jumper [presumably the Mr. Thomas of the LHA Guide]. A younger man lived with him and the two did their cooking and eating in a little log and stone house, near the main ranch house. He explained that he kept the little house because it was once a station on the Wells Fargo stage route…. We had fried eggs, potatoes, pickles, cheese, bread, butter, and tea, and an appetizing cup cake cut in square pieces…. As we left him he warned us that we were now entering the “Great American Desert” and that we should have sixty miles with very little undergrowth and with no water. [He told them to build a fire if they got into trouble.] “I’ll see you with my glasses and drive to your rescue with gasoline and water.”

From Effie Gladding's book: 1. American Baptist Home Touring Wagon; 2. Fish Springs Ranch

Drivers wishing to travel the route of the Highway must now stick close to I-80, passing on a straight east-west line north of the Dugway area, where the Highway’s alignment had followed the trail of the Pony Express and the Central Overland Route. The latter was used for transport of passengers, mail, and freight in the 1860s, up until the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed.

But back to our usual east-to-west sequence. Entering Utah from Evanston, Wyoming, the route passes through Echo, a railroad junction town on the Union Pacific line, which passed through Echo Canyon. Locomotives loaded up on coal there before heading up the canyon’s steep grade. After steam power was replaced by diesel, the town’s location at the junction of two major highways kept it going for a while, until I-80 turned it into a minor exit.

Church in Echo, Utah

We pass through Coalville, where Effie Gladding noticed not coal but many old-fashioned yellow rosebushes in bloom, and cross the megalopolis of Salt Lake City.

The Mormon temple in Salt Lake City

As the temple is considered sacred by the church of the Latter Day Saints, ordinary visitors cannot enter but must content themselves with a tour of the grounds.

Just west of Salt Lake City, the original route of the Highway goes through Magna, entering property of Kennecott Corp. It’s possible to visit the Kennecott Copper Mine, said to be the deepest open-pit mine in the world. In production since 1906, it is now 0.75 miles deep, 2.5 miles wide, and covers 1,900 acres.

Kennecott Copper Mine

South of I-80 at Grantsville, travelers can visit the Donner Reed Museum. It was in Utah that the party of 87 pioneers started to run into serious trouble on their way from Missouri to California in 1846. They opted to take a route across Utah and Nevada known as the Hastings Cutoff for the man who proposed it—a man who had never taken the route with wagons. The museum’s website states that the trail left by the wagon wheels across the salt desert is still easily detected. The pioneers lost their oxen to exhaustion and thirst, they cast off many possessions and abandoned wagons, and they had many conflicts before they eventually became mired in deep snow in the Sierras. The Donner Party is mainly remembered now for the way the survivors pulled through—by cannibalism. We will return to the subject at Donner Pass in California.

James and Margaret Reed, two of the 48 survivors

West of Grantsville, the interstate passes through a virtually unpopulated desert for about 80 miles, staying within a corridor between the military zones. The highway passes Skull Valley and crosses the Cedar Mountains.

Cedar Mountain Wilderness

It’s possible to visit the town of Gold Hill, formerly a mining center but now nearly uninhabited. It lay on the original route of the Highway, but it now can only be entered from across the state line in Nevada, along roads that stay outside the boundaries of the military testing areas.

Gold Hill, Utah

The interstate exits Utah at Wendover to enter Nevada near the Silver Island Mountains—a nice name.

Mountains near Great Salt Lake