Utah Freighters’ Last Haul

The following is a transcript of a 1910 article about Utah freighters, including Bill Luce. Photos and photo captions are omitted.

The year 1868 was known throughout this whole Rocky Mountain region as the big railroad year. The screech of the Union Pacific locomotive was heard upon the plains, and the great road was soon to penetrate the everlasting hills. Prominent Utah men contracted to build about two hundred miles of track, but were unable to proceed until supplies could be brought from the terminus of the Union Pacific, way off in the plains of Wyoming. The spring was wet and backward. The mountain streams, during the break, became raging torrents. Toll roads, toll bridges and ferries were so numerous along the route, that it would have bankrupted the ordinary freighter to patronize them all. Before winter was fairly over, the old-time freighters hitched up their teams and made a break for the railroad terminus, some five hundred miles away to the east of Salt Lake City. There were upwards of three hundred teams in the company, owned by George Crismon, Charles Crismon, Malin Weiler, David H. Cannon, William Streeper, Samuel McIntyre, William McIntyre, Riley Judd, Quince Knowlton, William H. Hooper, Heber P. Kimball, David P. Kimball and others. Each company traveled under the super vision of a wagon boss, or captain. Most of the drivers were experienced western men, not afraid of anything, and in endurance as tough as the proverbial boiled owl.

About the first of May they started on their perilous journey. All went well until they reached Coalville, where one of the boys came near losing his life. Chalk creek was overflowing its banks, and had cut a deep channel around the bridge. As he was fording this dangerous place, his saddle animal lost its footing, and away they went down stream. Had it not been for timely aid, he and his outfit soon would have been floating over the briny waters of the inland sea!

In the afternoon of the third day they arrived at Echo Canyon creek, where was an old-fashioned poll toll-bridge, costing, I venture, less than one hundred dollars. For crossing this shaky old structure, which was almost submerged, the keeper demanded three dollars per wagon, cash down. The bosses refused to pay it, so decided to ford the treacherous stream, if possible. The crossing was just above the bridge, only a few rods from where the creek empties into the Weber river. For the trial trip they selected the best team in the outfit, a magnificent four-thousand-dollar ten-mule team, owned by Hooper and Knowlton. Before the venture was made, a number of the boys gathered around with axes and lariats, to be used in case of trouble. When all was ready, Bill Luce, Hooper and Knowlton’s wagon boss, mounted the near wheeler and started his outfit through this mountain torrent. As the trusty leaders neared the center of the stream, everybody watched with bated breath. The moment the animals reached the main channel, the current picked them up, quick as lightning, and carried them down stream. In less than five seconds, three pairs of mules disappeared under the bridge. In less time than that, the draw chain, that held them to the wagon, was cut, by one of the men on shore. Quick as thought, the animals shot down stream, with incredible rapidity, but before they reached the raging, roaring waters of the Weber a number of expert throwers of the lariat lassoed the heads of the mules, and within a very short time, the six drowning animals were safely hauled ashore. A shout went up from a hundred throats in honor of the boys who performed this heroic act. The toll-bridge keeper stood nearby, a pleasant smile playing over his countenance, thinking, perhaps, that it is better to be born lucky than rich. He collected the toll without further trouble.

[Photo by Ellis & Goodwin. WILFORD LUCE. Hooper and Knowlton’s wagon boss. Born Nov. 7, 1838, Vinal Haven, Fox Island, Maine; died Aug., 1906.]

When the boys arrived at Yellow creek, they faced a similar proposition, except that it was mud to cross instead of water. Here they were compelled to pay another three dollars per wagon, there being no way to avoid it.

Next day they reached Bear river. The first object to meet their gaze was a big sign-board with this inscription: “Toll bridge, five dollars for wagons; fifty cents a head for loose animals. No credit here.” This meant about fifteen hundred dollars toll for the outfit, and the captains’ pocketbooks had already, from previous drains, commenced to crumple at the corners. It had rained every day since they left home, and the river was, therefore, very high. The bosses first scanned their gaunt pocketbooks, then studied the sign over the bridge. They sat down on the river bank to watch the driftwood, as it shot by at the rate of half a mile a minute. After partaking of a hearty meal, they gathered fresh courage, and set about to ford the river. As good luck would have it, in doing this they lost neither man nor beast, a feat nothing short of a miracle.

Next morning they came to another mud stream, with a cheap bridge over it. The proprietor wanted three dollars per wagon for the privilege of driving over this rickety old thing. The boys, however, saw a way around it. They drove about a half mile above, and selected a place where it was believed they could cross. At that place the slough was about one hundred feet wide, and the banks on both sides were almost perpendicular. The mud was so deep that even loose animals could not wade through it. Besides this, a blinding blizzard was raging. With these disadvantages staring them in the face, the boys were yet equal to the occasion. Unhitching a number of their animals, they drove them, single-file, over a rough mountain trail, some distance above, at which place they crossed. Returning to the mud-hole opposite their wagons, they arranged their teams once more for action. In the meantime, the men who remained on the other side drove their wagons very near to the slough, and let them down into it by hand; then, taking long chains, fastened the ends to the wagon-tongues and, wading, carried the other ends over to the boys on the opposite side. The teams were now hitched to the ends of these chains, and so the wagons were hauled over. The majority of the boys worked at this job in mud and water up to their waists, all day long. By five o’clock that night camp was again on the move. At the foot of Quakingasp ridge they found plenty of wood. Here they built bonfires, dried their clothing, cooked supper and went to rest, satisfied that they had outwitted another greedy toll-bridge keeper.

Next morning the snow was a foot deep, and the wind still blowing. The boys got a late start, and it was nearly noon before they reached the summit of Quakingasp ridge, the highest pass between Salt Lake City and the terminus of the railroad. The roads were some what better from this point on, and it was down grade most of the way to Green river. However, it was almost impossible to get around the numerous toll-bridges that continued to block their progress. To cross such streams as Green river and the North Platte on ferries cost five dollars for each wagon, to say nothing of the risk taken in swimming their animals over.

The Indians were hostile that season, committing depredations all along the road. Reaching Bitter creek, the boys were compelled to get out their breech-loaders. Thus equipped they were prepared to defend themselves against their dusky foes. Being experienced Indian fighters, they were well acquainted with the cunning ways of the lurking redskin thieves. On the plains, a few hundred yards away, one cannot distinguish an Indian from a white man, which fact gave the Indians a great advantage. Scarcely a day passed, after they left Bitter creek, but their teams were stampeded, for the animals were quick to catch the scent of the red man. Sometimes the animals ran several hundred yards before they could be stopped. Several of the drivers came near losing their lives in these run-aways. The wagons were empty, hence easily drawn. The teams often started to run without giving the slightest warning. After Elk mountains were reached, all were supplied with fresh meat, since from there on plenty of elk, deer and antelope were encountered.

Just twenty-nine days from the date the boys left home, they arrived at Big Laramie, the terminus of the railroad. It had stormed every day up to this time, consequently they had slept in damp bedding the whole distance. The Big Laramie river was very swollen. The bridge across it had been carried away. The tie con tractors, however, had built a boom at this place, which answered the purpose of a foot bridge for those who dared to cross it. It consisted of green logs coupled together with log chains. The river was about one hundred and fifty feet wide with a strong current. The boom was completely submerged. A streak of white foam, caused by the rushing waters beating against the logs, being the only visible guide. The whirling waters made the boom dance like a jumping-jack. It was as much as a greenhorn’s life was worth to undertake to cross it.

Laramie City was on the opposite side of the river, and about two miles from camp. As soon as darkness brooded over the land, every driver in camp crossed the boom, and even jollied one an other in dare-devil fashion as they went, by churning the logs up and down in the surging waters. Reaching town, they remained until midnight watching the sights—no tame affair. Hundreds of desperate characters were gathering at this place for what they could get out of it. They often killed a man for a dollar, and if he hadn’t the dollar, they were apt to kill him for not having it. Shootings were so common that only little attention was paid to them. Every surething-game ever thought of was brought into requisition at Laramie City, which at that time was the “Sodom” of the plains, sure enough.

After nearly a month, the delayed goods, for which the Utah boys had been waiting, arrived. Then there was “something doing.” The goods consisted of plows, scrapers, wheelbarrows, powder, and every other thing in the line of sup plies for building the railroad, Nearly every wagon had a cart hitched behind it, and some wagons had two or three. With their wagons loaded, the boys were soon homeward bound. The rich bunch grass was now knee deep, and their animals became as fat and sleek as seals. The roads being in splendid condition, good ’.time’f was made. Uncle Sam, by this time, had stationed soldiers along the road, and the Indians were pretty well subdued.

Reaching Bitter creek, the freighters found it lined with railroad graders of the lowest type. The sluggish creek was nearly a hundred miles long, and thousands of workmen were sporting in its waters in the July weather and, besides, washing their dirty clothing in it. While this did not improve the taste of the water, it made but little difference to the graders, as the water they used for culinary purposes was hauled from Green river and other far off p‘aces. The freighters, however, were compelled to drink Bitter creek water, or go without. By the time they reached the mouth of this filthy stream, the water was so thick and slimy that Riley Judd, in a fit of rational humor, declared that after he started drinking the water he could not let go until he had clipped it off with his scissors. It was so full of alkali and other poisonous substances that it came near killing some of the toughest mules in camp—but the boys escaped.

Arriving at Bear river, the majority of the returning freighters went to work on the Naunnan contract. This job completed, they went to work on President Brigham Young’s one-hundred-mile contract, remaining there all winter. Crismon Brothers had a thirty-six mile contract which occupied the most of their time that season. That winter hay could not be purchased at any price, and their animals were fed solely on shelled corn. Often in the morning the boys found several dead animals lying around camp. Crismon Brother alone lost about fifty head. Had it not been for the exhorbitant prices the railroad people paid for their work, such losses could not have been sustained. As soon as the rail road reached Ogden, early in May, 1869, the occupation of the Utah freighters was gone. They sold their outfits to the highest bidders and invested their means in other enterprises. Thus ended the big railroad year of 1868, and forever the days of freighting over the plains.

More Information

  • Solomon F. Kimball, “Utah Freighters’ Last Haul” in Improvement Era, Volume 13(May 1910), No. 7, pp. 597-603. Photos omitted.
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