Capitol Reef
Administrative History
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In the rugged Waterpocket Fold country, human access has historically been a concern. Led by stockmen and miners, newcomers have blazed roads and trails through narrow canyons and over rocky ridges to the wide open desert country east of the Waterpocket Fold. Because of the difficult terrain, few routes could be maintained. Even the roads that were at least graded remained extremely rough and rocky, effectively barring admittance to all but the most determined.

By the 1930s, businessmen and tourism boosters saw the lack of an all-weather road through southern Utah as the main reason the area remained poor and undeveloped. Cattle and sheep ranchers also wanted better roads to provide easier access to their winter grazing lands. Many were certain that after Capitol Reef National Monument was created in 1937, paved roads would follow. In fact, a key reason for campaigning for National Park Service involvement in the area was the belief that a park would bring about road improvements. Yet, nothing changed for 20 years.

Finally, in 1962, Utah Highway 24 was rerouted and paved through the Fremont River canyon. The new road brought more people into the area and changed circulation patterns in the monument and on surrounding lands. Within Capitol Reef, the old, traditional route through Capitol Gorge was closed by the park superintendent, and trails were built to accommodate hikers. Better access to the area encouraged more people to explore the region's backcountry. Easier travel and improved utilities benefited the local communities, stockmen, and entrepreneurs. As a result, some area businessmen and politicians continued to push for even more roads and utility corridors.

Demands for improved access coincided with the dramatic expansion of Capitol Reef National Monument in 1969 and its redesignation as a national park two years later. Concerns over transportation and utility access were key components of the congressional debate and final authorizing legislation. But even the call for wilderness and transportation studies could not resolve the growing dispute over how access should be controlled in the new park. The drawn out controversy over the paving of the Burr Trail road exemplifies the continuous conflict that typifies road development in southern Utah.

This chapter presents a historical chronology of the road and trail developments within the headquarters or old monument area, as well as on lands later incorporated into the monument and park. Specific analysis of the transportation and wilderness studies required by the park's enabling legislation, the 1982 Capitol Reef General Management Plan, the ongoing Burr Trail controversy, Revised Statute 2477, and a separate segment on power and telephone rights-of-way conclude this chapter. Since roads, trails, and utilities are a fundamental part of park operations, the other chapters of this administrative history should be cross-referenced.

Early Monument Roads and Trails

Roads Before 1937

Because only a few hundred people settled the rugged terrain of south-central Utah, state- or county-sponsored road construction was rare until well into the 20th century. The enormous amount of effort required just to survive left little time or money to invest in road construction. When a road was built in the area between the late 1800s and 1930s, it was mostly done by cooperative efforts involving local residents. Given these conditions, the roads of the Waterpocket Fold country throughout this period were crude, at best. [1]

By the mid-1930s, the only road passable by car through the Waterpocket Fold was the road that went from Sigurd, through Loa, Bicknell (then Thurber), and Torrey, and then down to Fruita. From Fruita the road veered south, following the washes and hills at the base of the towering Wingate cliffs. The wagon road from Fruita through Capitol Gorge had originally been cleared by Elijah Cutler Behunin in 1883. Further improvements were made in 1892, when the newly created Wayne County Board of Commissioners appropriated $100 of territorial road funds for improvements for the Capitol Gorge section. [2] From Capitol Gorge, the rough, two-rut road, passed Notom, cut precariously down across the steep sides of Mancos shale hills (the Blue Dugway), and went on eastward to Caineville and Hanksville. In 1910, this route was designated the first state road in Wayne County. [3]

Other roads connected to Utah Highway 24 at the turn of the century included the Grover cut-off, Notom Road, and the Fremont/Caineville wagon route. The Grover cut-off was a shortcut from Teasdale and Grover that descended the steep Miners Mountain to connect with the main road just west of Capitol Gorge. Evidence of wagon ruts and blasting can still be seen on the stretch of road in the park that is now part of the wagon road loop trail. As late as 1930, this route was included on regional maps.

Early South District Roads

Notom Road, which leads from the old community of Notom to the Burr Trail, is the oldest continuously used road now within Capitol Reef National Park. Begun as a supply route for gold miners in the 1880s, it was later used to haul wagons of supplies to winter livestock ranges, the Baker Ranch, and a 1929 oil drilling operation in the Circle Cliffs. According to Golden Durfey, a Notom resident since 1910, the roadbed is in nearly the same location as it was when he trailed sheep down it as a young boy. At The Post, the road veered east toward the Henry Mountains. As a point of reference, the Burr Trail was only a steep sheep and horse trail until the late 1940s, and the Halls Crossing Road down through Muley Twist Canyon was never used on a continuous basis (Fig. 46). [4]

Figure 46. Early South District roads and trails. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Early North District Roads

According to local rancher Guy Pace, the first road to Hanksville was not through Capitol Gorge, but rather over the Hartnet in the northern section of the park. From the small town of Fremont, this road went over Thousand Lake Mountain, down the Polk Creek drainage and across the Hartnet to Rock Water Spring. From there, this wagon road went east to Willow Spring, and then down Caineville Wash to Caineville and Hanksville. [5]

Regional travel guide Ward Roylance's interpretive handout, "Four Roads Lead to Cathedral Valley's Great Monoliths," further elaborates on this early route. The road, he wrote, was named for Dave Hartnet, who purportedly drove the first buckboard through the area from Fremont to Caineville. Thereafter, the rough trail was used as a freighting route between Caineville and settlements in upper Wayne, Emery, and Carbon Counties. [6]

It is uncertain exactly when this route was first used, how often it was used, or whether this was the road traveled by the first settlers to towns east of the Waterpocket Fold in the early 1880s. It is also unknown how closely this old wagon route follows the current road alignments, since no early maps of the North District have been found.

According to Pace and fellow rancher Garn Jeffery, a switchback wagon road into the Upper South Desert was built off the Hartnet road by Alonzo Billing and some members of the Blackburn family around 1895-96. It is unclear if this road reached the Fremont River. It is known that the Blackburns attempted to farm a small section at the junction of Polk and Bullberry Creeks at about this time. [7]

Other early roads within or near the current boundaries of Capitol Reef National Park included a 1890 wagon route down Meeks Draw to the Last Chance (Baker) Ranch. This road was later realigned down Windy Ridge in the 1920s to make it passable to automobiles. Later known as the Baker Ranch road, it apparently was the first automobile road into the northern end of the Waterpocket Fold. The road south from Fremont Junction to the Last Chance Ranch was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps around 1934. A wagon road evidently was also built from this ranch down Rock Spring Bench into Upper Cathedral Valley at about this same time. Other routes via the Caineville Wash and Oil Bench Road were not used until the 1940s since there appears to have been no route through the length of lower or upper Cathedral Valley. [8]

Roads In Capitol Reef National Monument: 1937-1938

One of the key reasons why Wayne County residents wanted a national park was to draw state and federal road-builders, and thus tourist and other businesses, to the area. [9] A paved highway through the Waterpocket Fold and across the Colorado River to Blanding had been promised by Governor George Dern when Wayne Wonderland was proposed as a state park in 1925. Yet, by the time Capitol Reef National Monument was created on August 2, 1937, there was still no oiled surface in all of Wayne County. Utah 24 from Torrey to Fruita, according to National Park Service Engineer Frank C. Huston, had never actually been constructed, but merely followed an old wagon track that had been established by use over the years. Huston wrote, "For some two miles [inside the monument, the road] follows the bottom of a wash and is impassable after big storms. There are no bridges or culverts. This road continues on through the Monument, going through the bed of Capitol Wash to the crossing of Pleasant Creek at Notom, 12.5 miles from Fruita, and continues on East through Hanksville." [10]

Huston found that the road was usually 18 to 20 feet wide, with narrower sections in Fruita and Capitol Gorge. The only bridges in the monument were a 16x36-foot wood span across the Fremont River in Fruita, and a small bridge about halfway from Fruita to Capitol Gorge. There were two spurs off the main road: one went a short distance along the bottom of Grand Wash, and another headed south from the west entrance of Capitol Gorge to Floral Ranch on Pleasant Creek. There is no mention of any other roads in the monument. Huston concluded the only place a right-of-way would be needed was across Aaron Holt's land, where a proposed road realignment and bridge construction across Sulphur Creek were desired. [11]

The state highway department also recognized the poor condition of Utah 24. Engineer Huston reported that the state had already identified a new route from Torrey to Fruita, and had begun work between Chimney Rock and Sulphur Creek, just west of Fruita. [12] Later, the main improvements to Utah 24 within Capitol Reef would come as a direct result of the monument's creation.

CCC Road Work: 1938-1942

Civilian Conservation Corps Foreman Marion Willis and his crew of 17 men arrived at Capitol Reef just a month after the establishment of the monument. This federally funded project, under the auspices of the Emergency Relief Administration (ERA), would continue over the next five years. Besides building the National Park Service ranger station/residence and stabilizing stream banks, crew was to improve the road and trails in the monument. [13]

Even before camp was set up at the base of Chimney Rock, workers began stabilizing the road between the proposed headquarters area and Fruita. The road was also widened to the 18-foot standard used on the state-improved section from Chimney Rock to Sulphur Creek. [14] ERA Foreman Leon Stanley described the work accomplished:

Three-tenths of a mile of road SE of the Fremont River bridge in Fruita was improved. The road was changed from 11 feet in width to 18 feet. Four hundred feet of rock wall was constructed to improve the road width, grade, drainage and to keep the road from sloughing into an irrigation ditch. Part of the ditch was relocated....Seven-tenths of a mile of road below the Fremont River bridge was improved. Some road drainage was established. An irrigation ditch was improved and repaired to keep the road dry at this point. [15]

This work, along with some minor improvements south of Fruita, consumed much of the road crew's efforts for the rest of 1938. [16]

In May 1939, work began on the stretch of road between Fruita and Capitol Gorge. This work consisted of "cut slope flattening, providing improved sight distance on the sharper curves, minor widening, and drainage improvements which included stone check dams in the road ditches that are eroding badly." [17]

As part of this "temporary" construction, one rock culvert was rebuilt and another was replaced with steel pipe. This shows that rock culverts were in place along this portion of the road before the arrival of the CCC. Because the various documents do not specify how many or exactly where culverts were built by the CCC crews, it is unknown how many of those have lasted into the 1990s. [18]

In October and November 1939, work crews began reclaiming the old roadbed between Chimney Rock and Fruita by re-establishing the original slope contours. [19]

During 1940, a wooden bridge over Sulphur Creek near the ranger station was completed, and more extensive work was started on the Danish Hill portion of the road south of Fruita. [20] In drawing the initial realignment plans, it was discovered that a small portion of the road in S26 T29S R8E was actually outside the monument boundary. The oversight may have delayed the start of the Danish Hill project until the Wayne County Board of Commissioners approved the realignment and granted a right-of-way. [21] This final CCC project was almost completed by April 1942, when the Utah State Road Commission promised to provide road equipment to finish the job. Unfortunately, the rapid mobilization for World War II canceled all further federal assistance, prematurely ending CCC work at Capitol Reef. [22]

At the same time that the CCC was working in the monument, the Utah State Road Commission paved Utah 24 from Sigurd to Torrey and state crews began grading the road to Fruita on a regular basis. The state also began planning for alternative routes through the Waterpocket Fold. [23] Throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s, commissioners conducted several reconnaissance trips through Wayne and Garfield Counties in search of a route for an all-weather highway through southern Utah. Two routes were proposed. One would pass through Garfield County from Bryce Canyon to Escalante and then around the southern end of the Waterpocket Fold. The other would follow the Fremont River from Fruita to Caineville, continue across the Henry Mountains, and go on to Blanding via the Dirty Devil and Colorado Rivers and White Canyon. [24]

In anticipation of the Fremont River route, Zion National Park Superintendent Paul Franke proposed that the current route through Capitol Gorge be made into a scenic drive. Franke told his regional director:

We much prefer that a parking area be developed at the entrance to both Grand and Capitol Gorges, and a by-pass to permit cars to the wash and travel on the wash gravel down into the gorges. In this way an unimproved road can be maintained in passable condition by removing rocks after each flood. Proper signs at each parking area can describe possible gorge hazards. Such a drive into the gorges would remain always one of the great thrills of this monument. [25]

Thus, the idea of creating a scenic drive along the old Utah 24 alignment through Capitol Gorge was considered as early as 1943. In 1947, Zion National Park Superintendent Charles J. Smith went even further, proposing to close the Capitol Gorge road to traffic once the Fremont River highway was completed. Smith wrote, "We would prefer however to retain a minor spur road through the Gorge terminating in a turnaround at the east monument boundary....It is agreeable to us to retain the Grand Gorge spur as a minor road." [26]

These plans for changing the roads, and thus the travel patterns, within Capitol Reef National Monument were put on hold for another 15 years. Despite continued promises to local residents and National Park Service officials, road commissioners postponed construction of a paved highway through the Fremont River canyon until the National Park Service acquired the necessary funding through Mission 66.

Meanwhile, the only significant change in Capitol Reef's roads occurred in 1941, when a new route was used between the Sulphur Creek bridge, past the Fruita schoolhouse, and near the upper north ditch to Alma Chesnut's property. This road, in approximately the same alignment as the present highway, replaced the old road that crossed Sulphur Creek parallel to the western edge of Chesnut's property. [27]

Hickman Bridge Trail: 1939 - 1945

One of the most significant accomplishments of the CCC era was the construction of a formal trail from the Fremont River to Hickman Natural Bridge. The graceful, 230-foot stone span is located up a small side canyon about one mile north of the Fremont River and one mile east of Fruita. Previous to the monument designation in 1937, access was provided by a rough horse trail that ascended a steep slope from the Fremont River. The CCC's job was to establish a permanent, improved trail from the river to the bridge. Crews were also to build an access trail from the proposed headquarters site through the heart of privately owned Fruita along Sulphur Creek and the Fremont River.

In 1939, the first 1.5 miles of trail were built through Fruita to the foot of the old horse trail. Early photographs of the trail indicate it ran along the Fremont river bed. [28] Property owners Orval Mott and R. A. Meeks donated a 100x440-foot right-of-way across the western edge of Fruita for the trail. The Oylers donated two sections of trail right-of-way, 10 feet wide and nearly 1,570 feet long. When the new road past the Fruita schoolhouse was blazed in the early 1940s, the trail was realigned to follow this route until it reached the Alma Chesnut property. From there, apparently, it followed the river through the Oyler property down to the present trailhead. [29]

From the river, the CCC crew constructed a dry-laid rock retaining wall to support the trail up a short stretch of steep cliff overlooking the Fremont. From there, the new trail switchbacked up to the rim and continued to Hickman Bridge. [30] From the bridge, the plan was to build additional trail up to "Bootleg" or Whiskey Spring and on to the rim overlooking Fruita. [31] As of 1948, this "rim" trail had yet to be completed. [32] There were also several other proposed trails, including as a route from Grand Wash to Cassidy Arch, that were postponed until the conclusion of Mission 66. [33]

Construction of these trails was delayed because there was no money. Since Capitol Reef had little visitation, did not even have a regular budget allocation until 1950, and was staffed solely by Charles Kelly as a "volunteer" custodian, it was unlikely that any trail -- or road -- work would be completed after the CCC left in 1942.

Impacts of Floods: 1938 - 1951

Late summer flash floods that wash out existing roads and trails have been an almost yearly problem for Capitol Reef managers. A 1938 flood that destroyed the bridge across the Fremont River should have been a clue that any road or trail along the floodplain would not last. [34] In August 1945, another flood washed large pieces from the Hickman Bridge trail where it followed the Fremont River. By December 1945, Charles Kelly had worked to make the trail passable to horses once again. Kelly also tried to improve the first part of the trail from the river up to the bridge, but could make only temporary repairs. He recommended that "the entire trail be rebuilt on a more permanent basis." [35]

Then in early August 1951, three cloudbursts struck the Capitol Reef area within two days, dumping almost 3.5 inches of rain and creating tremendous flash floods. The floods raced down the Fremont River, burying large sections of the Hickman Bridge trail in sediment. This flood ultimately was beneficial to the trail, since a work crew from Zion National Park was assigned to rebuild the rock walls and switchbacks first constructed by the CCC. According to Kelly, the crew blasted a new approach to the natural bridge. "This is a permanent improvement," he wrote, "and will eliminate much annual labor." [36]

The 1951 flood also wiped out the road into Grand Wash and made the main highway through Capitol Gorge impassable for several days. While a state road crew was able to open Capitol Gorge by the middle of August, it would cost the National Park Service around $250 to bulldoze enough rocks out of Grand Wash to make that spur road accessible to automobiles again. [37]

Road Improvements And Boundary Changes: 1951-1958

When the monument was created in 1937, the boundary ran along the northern edge of Utah 24's right-of-way from southwest of Twin Rocks, past Chimney Rock to the Castle formation. This boundary line had been suggested by monument investigator and Yellowstone Superintendent Roger Toll during the final boundary revisions in 1935, in order to avoid complications over the road's maintenance. [38] The problem with this boundary line, however, was that the road in those days followed wash bottoms in several locations. When a summer storm brought flood waters down the washes, the repaired road was realigned to one side or the other. This meant that the monument's boundary changed every time the grader came through to clear the road. The situation was exacerbated in 1952 when a new, graveled section of Utah 24 was completed between Twin Rocks and Chimney Rock: it swung the road's alignment northward by almost one mile. [39] Construction of a completely realigned and paved Utah 24 from Torrey to Fruita in the late 1950s caused further confusion. Toll's idea of making the road's northern right-of-way the boundary was simply not working. [40]

The obvious solution was to extend the monument's boundaries to include the entire road from the western boundary all the way through the monument. This change would avoid changes to the monument every time the road was realigned, and would give Capitol Reef more efficient control over future road construction and maintenance. A limited boundary adjustment to include at least some of the road was proposed in the monument's 1949 master plan, which described the road as primitive, unimproved, and subject to rerouting by floods and by users (Fig. 47). The plan noted, " It would seem more desirable to place the boundary by section lines or a natural feature less subject to change." [41]

Figure 47. 1949 Master Plan, roads and trails. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

The 1951 Boundary Status Report proposed that new boundaries be adjusted to run along section lines that would include the entire western approach of Utah 24 from the hill west of Twin Rocks (the monument and park's western boundary) to Fruita. Other small sections proposed for possible boundary expansion along the western side of the monument included an additional 80 acres between Danish Hill and Grand Wash, in order to incorporate the entire road within monument boundaries. Two 40-acre tracts were also proposed north of Sleeping Rainbow Ranch so that the Pleasant Creek access road would be in the monument, in case it was chosen as the later route for Utah 24. [42] The National Park Service decided to postpone any boundary adjustments until after construction of a new alignment west of Fruita. This left several hundred acres in the status of "no-man's land" throughout most of the 1950s. [43] Finally, in June 1957, the final six miles from the Twin Rocks formation near the western monument boundary to Fruita was completed. [44] With the new road's alignment firmly established, the proposed boundary revisions were approved by the director, faced no opposition in public hearings, and were formally authorized by President Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidential proclamation on July 2, 1958. [45] Besides extending the boundary south to Sulphur Creek, the 1958 proclamation also incorporated the remaining 240 acres of the section between Danish Hill and Grand Wash, a small section near the Egyptian Temple formation, and the two 1951 proposed small tracts north of the Pleasant Creek. The entire boundary extension was 3,040 acres, which increased the total size of Capitol Reef National Monument to 39,185 acres. [46]

Thus, by the end of the 1950s, Capitol Reef's boundaries had been adjusted, primarily to bring Utah 24 under monument control from the northwestern boundary all the way through Capitol Gorge. The next step was to coordinate the construction of a new paved highway along the Fremont River.

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Last Updated: 10-Dec-2002