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How Harry Reid helped secure hallowed ground for the Latter-day Saints

Descendants of the Martin Handcart Company pull handcarts during a reunion trek at Martin’s Cove, Wyoming, in September 2011.
Descendants of the Martin Handcart Company pull handcarts during a reunion trek at Martin’s Cove, Wyoming, in September 2011.
R. Scott Lloyd, Deseret News

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Five years after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints opened the Mormon Handcart Trail Visitors’ Center near Martin’s Cove in Wyoming, church leaders again asked Congress for the right to buy what to them is hallowed ground.

In 1856, Latter-day Saint pioneers from the Martin handcart company sought refuge from blizzards and cold in and around the natural shelter provided by Martin’s Cove at the foot of the Rattlesnake Mountains. While they awaited help, a number of Latter-day Saints died.

The House passed the bill that would have allowed the church to purchase Martin’s Cove, but it stalled in the Senate. The potential sale died in 2002.

The church tried another tack the next year, with the help of several people, including Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, a Latter-day Saint who died last week at age 82.

Reid once told Deseret News reporter Dennis Romboy about his work in Congress on behalf of the church.

“First of all, I’ve never been counseled, talked to, threatened, cajoled, admonished, given any direction by any one of the general authorities about what I should or shouldn’t do as a member of the United States Senate or House of Representatives,” he said.

“But whenever there’s an issue that I think is important and I’m contacted, I do my best to try to help. If they think it’s important, I think it’s important.”

Martin’s Cove was important. The cove was a vital landmark on all four major routes west — the Mormon Trail, the California Trail, the Oregon Trail and the Pony Express National Historic Trail. President Gordon B. Hinckley called it hallowed ground in 1997.

With a sale off the table, Reid and others brokered a different solution between the Senate, the House, the Bureau of Land Management and others. In late 2003, as part of an omnibus spending bill, Congress approved the lease of 940 acres at Martin’s Cove to the church for 25 years. The church maintains and manages the cove, Sixth Crossing and Rock Creek and has purchased thousands of acres around the site.

In 2015, it created the Wyoming Mormon Trail Mission.

Since the church launched the visitors’ center in 1997, hundreds of thousands of people have visited the historic site, many of them Latter-day Saint youth on treks that bring them closer to church history and origins.

Reid’s death brought reminders of his contributions to the church, which stretched far beyond the halls of Congress. In addition to Martin’s Cove, he worked with ambassadors of other nations to secure visas for Latter-day Saint missionaries. He also helped the church through the long, complicated process with Jerusalem and the Israeli government to build the BYU Jerusalem Center.

He also was a diligent home teacher (and ministering brother). Utah Sen. Mike Lee recalled him as a friend and blessing.

“As one of the most visible public officials in the nation, he also has been one of the most influential. In every way he has been a force to be reckoned with,” Elder Lance B. Wickman, general counsel for the church and an emeritus General Authority Seventy, said in 2017.

Reid will be remembered at a memorial service this weekend in Las Vegas and another in Washington, D.C., next week.

The White House issued a proclamation in Reid’s honor, with President Joe Biden declaring that flags on federal grounds and military bases will fly at half staff on the day of his interment.

Far away on the plains of Wyoming this summer, Reid’s legacy will be evident when Latter-day Saint youth are expected to resume the treks after a two-year hiatus caused by the pandemic. This spring will be the 25th anniversary of the opening of what now is known as the Martin’s Cove: Mormon Trail Site.

Check out a virtual tour of Martin’s Cove.

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Behind the scenes

President Barack Obama meets with (from left) Senator Harry Reid, Joshua DuBois, Director of the White House Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Church President Thomas S. Monson and Elder Dallin H. Oaks in the Oval Office, July 20, 2009. During the meeting they looked at a five volume genealogy prepared by the Church’s Family History Committee.
President Barack Obama meets with (from left) Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, Joshua DuBois, director of the White House Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints President Thomas S. Monson and Elder Dallin H. Oaks in the Oval Office, July 20, 2009. During the meeting they looked at a five volume genealogy prepared by the Church’s Family History Committee.
Pete Souza, The White House
PHOTO BY BRIAN NICHOLSON / DESERET MORNING NEWS ------ Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf (center) and his wife Harriet and Nevada senator Harry Reid shake hand with friends as they enter the Tabernacle prior to the funeral of LDS President James E. Faust at the Temple Square in Salt Lake City Tuesday, August 14, 2007.
Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf (center) and his wife Harriet and Nevada Sen. Harry Reid shake hands with friends as they enter the Tabernacle prior to the funeral of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints President James E. Faust at Temple Square in Salt Lake City Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2007.
Brian Nicholson, Deseret News