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About Utah: One group's disaster paved the way for another's success

EMIGRATION CANYON — This Friday is July 24, aka Pioneer Day, when the state takes time off to celebrate the arrival of the Mormon pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley 168 years ago, in 1847.

Much less celebrated is the arrival of another group of pioneers a year earlier — even though their efforts had a lot to do with the survival and enduring success of that first Mormon settlement.

The Donner Party.

The same Donner Party that became snowbound in the Sierra Nevadas, where half of them died, and the other half resorted to eating that half to survive.

But before all that, in the summer heat of August, the group carved a trail over the mountains into the Salt Lake Valley.

This was significant because no one had ever done it before.

It was not light work. For 21 days they hacked and dug the way for their wagons to cover just 36 miles — from present-day Henefer, Summit County, to present-day Salt Lake City.

A man named Lansford W. Hastings, one of California’s first, but certainly not last, real estate speculators, put them up to it. Hastings had land to sell in California and in 1846 advertised to westbound wagon trains of a shortcut through present-day Utah that would trim weeks off their journey.

When travelers got to Fort Bridger in present-day Wyoming, he advised the Donner Party and others, instead of turning north on the established Oregon-California Trail, they should turn southwest. The Hastings Cutoff would take them on a direct route across the salt flats until they reconnected with the California Trail near present-day Elko.

Hastings himself successfully tested the route in the summer of 1846 with a wagon train that left Fort Bridger, crossed what is now the Utah border into Echo Canyon, then turned northwest down Weber Canyon until reaching what is now Ogden, before setting out across the flats.

It was a hard slog down Weber Canyon, however, and Hastings, knowing the Donner Party was on its way and that one of its leaders, James Reed, was crossing the plains in a luxurious palace car — a limo of the day — left a note at the mouth of Echo Canyon, suggesting they avoid Weber Canyon and instead continue on a straight line over the mountains toward the Salt Lake Valley.

The three weeks it took the Donner Party to traverse those 36 miles over Big Mountain and Little Mountain, and finally down Emigration Canyon, exhausted their oxen, depleted their supplies, and, most seriously, ate up valuable time.

When they were a mere quarter-mile from emerging into the valley, fed up with fighting rock and tangled brush, they decided to detour up the steep hill to the south, using every ox they had left to individually pull each of their 23 wagons over the top.

By the night of Sept. 3, when they camped by the Jordan River near where the state fairgrounds now stand, the night air was already beginning to turn chilly.

After that came the Great Salt Lake desert, a land so forbidding (today Hill Air Force Base uses it as a bombing range) James Reed abandoned his palace car somewhere in the middle.

Almost two long months later, on Oct. 28, the hard-luck emigrants were three hours from the top of what is known today as Donner Pass when a snowstorm struck. As they were forced to bivouac through the winter, things only got worse. Not until the following April did 47 survivors make it to Sutter’s Fort in California.

That same month, Brigham Young shook off the frost in Winter Quarters and led the original band of Mormon pioneers out of Nebraska. By mid-July they were at the mouth of Echo Canyon, where they picked up the Donner-Reed trail and followed it to the valley. Instead of three weeks, it took them one. When they got to the last quarter-mile, rather than hauling the wagons up the hill, they decided to hack through the brush and rocks that stopped the Donner Party — and just four hours later emerged at what is now This Is the Place State Park.

In tribute, they named that steep hill Donner Hill.

A stone monument was erected to mark the spot, with a marker commemorating the Donners' effort.

Another maker, erected at the base of the obelisk at This Is the Place State Park, states:

“By following this (the Donner-Reed) route, the Mormon pioneers saved more than two weeks travel, a matter of great importance since it enabled them to plant wheat and potato crops for the fall and winter harvest.”

“The Donner Party indeed saved the Mormons,” attests Craig Anderson, a history buff who, along with Jay Weyland, runs the Donner-Reed Museum in Grantsville.

The museum, which includes many implements from the Donner wagon train found littered on the nearby salt flats, is open only by appointment. It may be the least-visited museum in Utah.

And that stone monument below Donner Hill at the mouth of Emigration Canyon? It’s still there, but the marker isn’t. A sign for a missing dog is in its place.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: benson@deseretnews.com