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The Handcart Trail: Part 9 - Five More Nights and Counting

Posted in Events on August 30, 2013
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The Hodgett Wagon Train camped on the banks of the Bear River on the first night after leaving Fort Bridger on December 10, 1856, along with hundreds of other pioneers. There were nearly 1,000 people when the winter storms first hit them two months earlier, but that number had been significantly reduced. The weather was still freezing cold and everything was covered in a blanket of snow.

This is the end of our series following Butch Cassidy’s mother from England to Salt Lake City when she was only 9 years old. Annie Gillies was traveling with her parents and siblings in a covered wagon as part of a wagon train that left the “end of tracks” in Iowa City four months earlier. By the time they reached Fort Bridger, the Hodgett Wagon Train, the Hunt Wagon Train, and the Martin Handcart Company were all traveling as one. Many dozens of fellow travelers were buried along the trail behind them. The hundreds more who survived only had to endure six more days of travel and five more nights without shelter to reach the Salt Lake Valley.

In this century, most travelers use I-80 to get from Fort Bridger to Salt Lake City. It takes a slightly different path than was used by the pioneers in 1856. The trail used by the wagons has been replaced by county roads that can be traveled to stay very close to the original route. We began by following those roads from Fort Bridger to the Bear River where the Hodgett wagons spent the first of the last five nights they would endure on the Handcart Trail.

A historical point along the way is a roadside park beside the Piedmont Kilns built in 1869 to supply smelters in the Salt Lake Valley. A railroad was used to transport the charcoal until the rails were rerouted farther north.

The ghost town of Piedmont is a short distance past the roadside park. It is on private property so study it from the road. Founded in 1867, the town’s original purpose was to supply railroad ties for the Union Pacific Railroad. It was primarily a tent town, housing workers who were building a railroad bed up a steep grade over Aspen Mountain. Completing that portion of the railroad was essential to the 1869 driving of the Golden Spike at Promontory Summit. That spike joined the two ends of the first Transcontinental Railroad.

Of course, none of that existed when the Hodgett Wagon Train passed through the area in 1856. For those wagons, getting past Aspen Mountain was just another obstacle to overcome.

The Piedmont Kilns were built in 1869 to supply smelters in the Salt Lake Valley. The Piedmont Kilns were built in 1869 to supply smelters in the Salt Lake Valley.

Four More Nights and Counting
Mother Nature welcomed the pioneers to a new day on December 11 with another snowstorm. The wagons and handcarts trudged along the trail covered in 18 inches of new snow. They only had five days and four nights to go and that knowledge helped keep them moving. By the end of the day, they had entered Echo Canyon.

From the Bear River Camp, the trail takes a northwesterly direction and connects to I-80. We entered the highway in Evanston and followed it to Exit 178 at the top of Echo Canyon. From that point on, we were able to follow alongside I-80 on the access road. Several historical markers can be found on that road with information about the history of the canyon.

Three More Nights and Counting
December 12 was a new day for the pioneers, but there was no sunshine to provide any comfort. Their diaries mention another snowstorm that reached them early in the day and stayed with them all day long. They only had four days and three nights before they would reach shelter in the Salt Lake Valley. They had been on the trail from Iowa City for nearly five months. Dozens of their brethren were buried on the trail behind them. With only a few days to go, the survivors were determined to complete the journey. On that night, they camped on the banks of the Weber River.

The I-80 splits into two parts at the banks of the Weber River in a town called Echo. The new branch of the highway becomes I-84, but we were still using the service road. The town of Echo has some informative markers at the historical post office.

Two More Nights and Counting
December 13 was a cold Saturday morning, and the snow from the previous day was drifting so badly it covered the travelers’ tracks as soon as they were made. Every step got them closer to the shelter of homes in the valley. The challenge was to survive long enough to get there. Many of them had frostbite so badly they could no longer feel their fingers, toes, and feet. The camp they chose was on the side of Big Mountain at an elevation of more than 5,000 feet.

We followed the Weber River to a crossing at present-day Henefer. Along the way, we passed Witch Rocks; this natural formation was just a nameless landmark in 1856, but that changed in 1858 when an Army captain described them in his journal as witch-like figures in long skirts and steeple-hats.

From Henefer, we followed the trail up Main Canyon. The current road to Big Mountain takes a different route than the original trail used by the pioneers. A side trip can be taken to Mormon Flat and a hiking trail can be used from that point to follow parts of the original road. The top of Big Mountain offers a scenic view of the valley below.

town of piedmont

One More Night and Counting
Sunday, December 14, 1856, was another very cold day. Getting over Big Mountain required trudging through deep snow and enduring high winds that covered their tracks within minutes. Nightfall caught up to them in Emigration Canyon within 10 miles of Salt Lake City. It is not likely many of them got much sleep. Their last night without shelter against the freezing temperatures and blowing winds would pass by very slowly.

Today, the drive down Emigration Canyon is a pleasant trip down a paved backcountry road. It is heavily used by mountain bikers and the pace is slow. Homes line both sides of the road at the lower levels and take on the appearance of a small village.

The Last Day
The long string of pioneers began entering Salt Lake City by noon on December 15. Wagon after wagon and cart after cart entered the city with their owners walking beside them. Many had died along the way, but the survivors would go on to help establish the state of Utah and beyond.

The canyon opens into the valley at the place where Brigham Young saw it for the first time. His words were, “This is the place.” Those words are now engraved in concrete at a park with that name. The park contains numerous markers telling the history behind the pioneers who settled the Salt Lake Valley.

The Gillies family moved into Woods Cross on the north side of Salt Lake City and stayed there a few years. Robert Gillies was a skilled carpenter and was called to settle in Beaver, Utah. Annie Gillies met Maxi Parker in Beaver. They were married in that city on July 12, 1865. Robert LeRoy Parker (Butch Cassidy) was born on April 13, 1866.

Robert LeRoy was about 13 years old when the family moved to Circleville, Utah. He lived there for five more years until he left for Telluride, Colorado, in June of 1884.

We hope you have enjoyed this series about the Handcart Trail. We welcome your comments, as well as your suggestions for another trail you would like us to consider. Visit 4Wheel Drive & Sport Utility Magazine at, or on Facebook at For more information about this trail, watch for new additions to the eBooks at Questions about the trail should be directed to

We used numerous sources for this series, but our primary sources for this issue were, the travel logs left by Jesse Haven and others, and the book titled My Brother Butch Cassidy.

Navigation: GPS Positions
Fort Bridger is now a park that charges admission. An effort is ongoing to determine exactly how it was laid out in its early years. From the park, go back east to a sign for the cemetery. That road is County Road 219.
Trip Meter Latitude North Longitude West Comments
0.0 N41 18.9983 W110 23.0693 Turn south on County Road 219.
1.1 N41 18.0901 W110 23.0640 Pass the cemetery and turn right.
4.3/0 N41 16.3636 W110 24.7652 Turn right on County Road 212.
6.7 N41 17.6553 W110 31.5045 Jog to the right and continue west.
10.7/0 N41 17.4738 W110.35.9056 Turn left across the cattle guard toward Trout King Lake.
1.6 N41 16.1383 W110 36.1927 This is the historical marker for Muddy Creek Camp.
5.3 N41 13.2037 W110 37.1999 This is the roadside park for the Piedmont Kilns. The ghost town of Piedmont is a short distance past the park. After the ghost town, take the right fork on County Road 173.
15.0 N41 9.6962 W110 45.1018 Stay right on County Road 173.
21.5/0 N41 8.4610 W110 50.5738 This is Highway 150. The route continues by turning right. There are several information panels if you turn left.
1.3 N41 9.4682 W110 51.0484 These are the Bear River City Panels.
2.4/0 N41 9.9579 W110 52.1563 This is a marker for when Brigham Young first passed by on July 12, 1847, on the way to the Salt Lake Valley. Use the Diamond X Ranch entrance to get to it, but turn before the ranch property marked by a fence.
10.8 N41 15.7708 W110 57.2046 The trail connects to I-80 in the town of Evanston. Take westbound I-80.
0.0 N41 4.0722 W111 16.3709 Take Exit 178 on westbound I-80 and use the access road.
11.2 N40 58.3609 W111 26.3060 This is the historical marker for the Weber Station Pony Express.
11.7/0 N40 58.7049 W111 26.6181 This is the town of Echo. The post office building is still here.
2.9 N41 0.7380 W111 28.9028 Historical panels. Follow the highway through Henefer.
4.5/0 N41 1.2282 W111 30.0829 Turn left on Highway 65.
0.4 N41 1.0045 W111 30.5550 This is Henefer Park.
5.6/0 N40 57.2232 W111 32.9845 This is Hogsback Summit.
1.7 N40 56.1078 W111 34.0403 Note the Broad Hollow marker.
2.3 N40 55.5903 W111 34.3714 Turn left on Highway 65.
7.8/0 N40 51.3882 W111 35.3701 Turn left at the sign for Mormon Flat for a side trip, and then return to this waypoint.
12.0/0 N40 49.6763 W111 39.2363 Big Mountain Pass.
6.0 N40 46.7061 W111 41.9804 Turn right on Emigration Canyon Road.
7.4/0 N40 46.4954 W111 43.0985 This is Little Mountain Summit.
8.4 N40 45.1374 W111 49.2844 This park is called “This is the Place.” Lots of history recorded at this site.

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