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Secluded Pine Valley a cool, historic escape

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Those silly cows — always wandering off and getting lost. It's enough to drive a reasonable cowherder crazy. On the other hand, good things can come from a lost cow. That's how Bryce Canyon was discovered, or so they say. Ebenezer Bryce went looking for a cow and found a canyon.

And it was because of a cow that Pine Valley was first discovered by pioneer settlers.

In 1854, Jacob Hamblin and some others were sent down to Santa Clara to work with the Paiute Indians and to settle the area. Santa Clara gets hot and dry in the summer, and grass became scarce, so they would take cattle to higher mountain areas to feed.

In the summer of 1855, as the story goes, Isaac Riddle and William "Gunlock" Hamblin were herding cattle about 15 miles north of Santa Clara. A cow got lost, and Riddle went to track it down. The trail took him along the Santa Clara river to a lush, secluded valley. "There stretching before me was the most beautiful site I had ever beheld on God's green earth," he said later. He found grass as high as his horse's knees on the valley floor, sparkling with morning dew. He saw rich stands of timber on the mountainsides. And he found his cow, peacefully grazing in the meadow.

The availability of timber was a strong attraction for those early pioneers; and shortly after, a sawmill was established in the valley. It was not long before Pine Valley was a booming little town of about 300 people. Timber was used in nearby settlements and hauled as far away as Salt Lake City, where it was used in building the Tabernacle, the pipe organ and the Salt Lake Temple. The wood was especially prized because it grew tall, with few knots. Eventually five sawmills and two shingle mills were located in the valley.

The timber, the abundance of water and Pine Valley's cool mountain temperatures were welcome. The short growing season was something of a disadvantage, and winters could be harsh. But the valley also became a popular summer "resort" — a place where the people of St. George and Santa Clara could escape the summer heat. And it was particularly popular with expectant mothers, who found a cool haven there to get them through their final weeks before delivery.

Today Pine Valley, about a 40-minute drive from St. George, still provides that cool summer respite, although you'll probably find more hikers and bikers than mothers-to-be. It is a popular area for camping and horsebackriding as well. After electricity came in the early 1960s, summer homes were increasingly popular. There are now about 400 homes in the valley, but only between 22 and 27 families live there year-round. But winter brings snowmobilers. And there's a lodge and steakhouse that are open all year.

One of the most popular attractions in Pine Valley is the little white-frame church built in 1868 and still in use today, making it one of the oldest — if not the oldest — oldest continuously used Mormon meetinghouses in the state.

The fact that it is still there and in good condition is appreciated, but even more interesting is how the chapel came to be built, says Carol Terry, who gives tours in the building once a week as part of an LDS mission she and her husband are serving in the area. (The chapel is open to the public every day, but couple missionaries rotate among it and other historic sites in the area.)

"They wanted to build a chapel that would provide a place to worship but also to meet for plays and socials. The problem was, no one knew how to build a building."

The closest they had was Ebenezer Bryce (he of lost-cow fame) who had worked in shipyards in Europe, and some say, Australia. Bryce agreed to build the chapel, if he could use shipbuilding techniques. So the wood frame walls were assembled on the ground and lifted into position. Wooden pegs and rawhide strips, still visible in the attic, were used to join the wooden planks. As you stand in the chapel and look up at the curved roof, you can see the shape of a ship, and some people have speculated that if you turned the building upside down and set it afloat, it would indeed sail. The people of Pine Valley, though, hope never to find out for sure.

The church was also used as a school for the first 50 years of its life; a classroom was built in the basement. But in 1919, school boards decided children had to go to school in St. George. "They would often go live with relatives for the winter," says Terry. But after that, the town decreased in number.

The chapel is built of "Brigham oak," pine that is painted with grain to look like hardwoods. The benches there now are not original but came from an old church in Beaver. The original arched entry is still there, though, and so is the hole in the ceiling where the stovepipe once went. "They had a stove that was six-feet by four-feet in the center of the room to provide heat," explains Terry. The benches were placed around it. Then on weekends, they would sometimes stack the benches against the wall and have a dance. "The dances were a drawing point for all the cowboys in the area," she says.

Just to the east of the church is a small red brick building that served as a tithing office and was built in the 1880s. A few of the original homes still remain in the valley, although they have been remodeled and added to over the years.

The little church is a focal point for the town, an easily visible landmark as you drive down the hill from Central and into the valley. But this was not the site of the original town of Pine Valley. The first homes and buildings were built down the road a ways, nearer the mouth of a canyon to the south. But in 1861, floods washed out dams on the Virgin River and water came pouring down the canyon. "It washed away the old town," said Terry. "But those folks didn't give up. Those stalwart Mormon pioneers never gave up. They moved to a lower site and started over."

And that, she says, is one lesson modern visitors can appreciate as they visit Pine Valley and the little church. "This really is a historic building. It took a lot of commitment and sacrifice to build it so it would last. Life was not easy in those days. They had to learn to work together. That's how they were able to accomplice what they did."

Every person, every tree, every building — every cow — was important. And that's not a bad legacy to leave behind.

E-MAIL: carma@desnews.com