This is where the Lincoln Highway, following Interstate 80 and the former Mormon Trail and Pony Express Trail, begins its descent into the Great Basin and Salt Lake Valley by heading into Echo Canyon, a stunningly beautiful stretch of territory flanked by towering red cliffs and rock formations.
For those familiar with the Oregon Trail video game, the path to the promised land in the Willamette Valley has already turned northwest from Fort Bridger in Wyoming toward Fort Hall in Idaho. Today’s U.S. 30, which carries the majority of the Lincoln Highway all the way from Philadelphia, similarly has left Interstate 80 in western Wyoming and roughly follows the old Oregon Trail westward.
If a similar video game were ever made of the Mormon Trail, Echo Canyon would be the final leg in completing the great overland journey. If the game also involved some military strategy, this is where the Mormons in the Salt Lake Valley would have fended off federal troops in the mid-to-late 1850s.
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In an often forgotten conflict prior to the American Civil War, President James Buchanan — I visited his home in Lancaster, Pa., earlier on my Lincoln Highway journey — sent military forces in 1857 to restore order in the Utah Territory, where the local Mormon leadership was openly flouting federal authority.
Buchanan wanted to replace Mormon leader Brigham Young as governor and bring order to the territory, which included ending the practice of polygamy.
The Mormon militia built fortifications in Echo Canyon to keep federal forces from entering the Salt Lake Valley. Driving through, you can get a good sense for the strategic value for this important passage. To make a long story short, the Mormon militia menaced the federal troops and their supply caravans approaching Echo Canyon from South Pass, burned Fort Bridger in Wyoming and otherwise halted the federal advance on northern Utah.
It’s easy to imagine Echo Canyon as the setting for some sort of mid-19th century Thermopyale. But it never came to that. In 1858, a truce was mediated between the Mormon leadership and an emissary sent by Buchanan, Thomas Kane. A new federal governor was installed and despite a period of high tensions, the conflict was bloodless.
According to Jean H. Baker’s biography of Buchanan:
By 1858 the president was taking credit for his successful handling of the Utah crisis. In the West the president had not hesitated to assert the military power of the United States. Two years later some Americans wondered why he did not do so in the South.
For generations, the tiny settlement of Echo has been an important junction for any traveler heading west. In the modern era of the Interstate Highway System, this is where Interstate 80, which turns south and then west into Salt Lake City, and Interstate 84, which heads west to Ogden and northwest into Idaho, meet.
When the Lincoln Highway came into Utah a century ago, it sparked war between the cities of Salt Lake and Ogden over its route.
Approaching Echo from the east, the shorter route to Salt Lake City was to the left, via Coalville and Parleys Canyon. But Ogden leaders and Gov. William Spry didn’t want their favored city to be left off the highway and wanted the route to turn right. At Echo, a historic marker retells the story, which involves Ogden leaders threatening to destroy a rival sign pointing travelers to the Coalville route with dynamite. That sign was later found sawed off laying in the middle of the road. A compromise sign pointing to both the Coalville and Ogden routes was later erected.
For my trip, I decided to take the Coalville route into Salt Lake City. I hope modern-day officials in Ogden forgive me for skipping their city.