Heritage - Carter Military Road History

Carter Military Road

In 1881, the Utah Territory still had only a small population, mostly scattered along the Wasatch Front in towns of orderly Mormon design. Heber City was the eastern edge of civilized territorial settlement, and it was a good two-day ride from the Wasatch Front. Almost no whites lived east of Heber City except a few sheepherders and cattlemen who trespassed on the large Ute reservation set aside by President Lincoln and Congress in the early 1860s.

Most of the Uinta Basin, Colorado Plateau, and the western half of Colorado were virtually unsettled by whites. This area of rich natural resources adequately supported several bands of Ute Indians. The whites, coveting these resources, began to encroach on the Utes' large range, leading to confrontations that became increasingly hostile.

Ranger Campbell stands by a boulder that had to be cut for the road.At the White River Agency (now Meeker, Colorado), Ute bands became resentful of Indian Agent Nathan Meeker's attempts to reform them into an agriculturally- based society. Fearing for his life, Meeker sought assistance from the military in September of 1879. Major Thomas T. Thornburgh and a column of four companies were sent from Ft. Steele, Wyoming, to assist Meeker. Upon entering the reservation the column was attacked by over seven hundred mounted Utes. Sixteen soldiers died, including Thornburgh, and forty-three were wounded. At the same time Meeker and ten other employees were killed at the agency. As a result of these skirmishes, the Ute bands involved and other bands--including Chief Ouray's Uncompaghres from western Colorado--were coerced onto the Utah reservation, joining Chief Tabiona's band from the Uinta Basin.

Ashley Valley residents were concerned about their safety after Custer's defeat in 1876, and the recent fighting in western Colorado. In 1881, Fort Thornburgh was established at the mouth of Ashley Canyon, just northwest of Vernal. The army's mission was to keep the Utes on the reservation. The fort's location was uncomfortably remote, given the recent bloodshed. It was several days march from Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City, and more from Denver or other help in Colorado. Only about one hundred white settlers lived in the Ashley Valley, mostly cattlemen attracted to the area by lush grazing lands on the flanks of the Uinta Mountains.

Judge Carter's Road

Section of road near Solider Park.At Fort Bridger in southwest Wyoming, the entrepreneurial Judge William A. Carter had made a profitable career out of provisioning the army. Described by former Uintah County Historian Mike Brown as "the very image of the Southern gentleman," Carter had been raised in Virginia and fought Florida Indians in the Seminole War. When he did not receive a commission in the army he resigned and became post trader at Fort Lauderdale. In 1858, when Johnston's army was sent west to quell the "Mormon Rebellion," Carter accompanied the expedition as the civilian supplier.

Carter settled at Fort Bridger and quickly amassed a fortune trading with soldiers, emigrants, railroad builders, cattlemen, and Indians. In 1858, he was appointed post trader, post master, and probate judge. He also participated in mining, lumber, and cattle ventures.

Carter's business suffered after troops were removed from Fort Bridger in 1878. He used the growing fears of the local white population to lobby in Washington for a return of troops. Carter also hoped to continue and enhance his relationship with the army by supplying Fort Thornburgh. Carter was successful in his efforts. Troops returned to Fort Bridger and he was awarded a contract to supply Fort Thornburgh.

Construction Begins

Some areas piles of rock had to be moved.During the summer of 1881, General George Crook inspected the old Lodgepole Trail across the Uinta Mountains that had been used by the Uinta Utes. Crook approved this route over an alternate trail as the supply route to the garrison at Fort Thornburgh. Routes from Park City and Heber City had been considered, but the route across the Uintas was chosen to accommodate Carter, and because it was the shortest, if not the easiest.

Minor work on the trail commenced immediately under Carter's direction. Judge Carter died of pneumonia in November, contracted from working on the road in harsh weather. His son, William Jr. (Willie), returned from Cornell University to continue his father's work. In May of 1882, Willie Carter attempted the first freighting across the trail with 22 six-mule teams and wagons.

"It soon became evident that from the character of the past winter at Fort Bridger, we had very erroneous conceptions of what we would encounter in attempting to freight through the mountains so early in the spring. The dugway between Sand Canyon and Lodgepole was blocked with snow and ice, which had to be removed before we could get our outfit up the mountain. At the head of the dugway the road was almost impassable. Ravines filled with melting snow and water nearly up to the wagon beds; bogs in which both teams and wagons were often mired down at the same time; hills so soft that all the teams we could hook on were often required to pull a single wagon to the top; the slopes so sidling that the whole crew, with ropes, were needed to keep a loaded wagon from upsetting; were everyday experiences."

"... In one locality, a separate road had to be cut through the timber for each wagon. The ground at this place appeared dry and firm, but each wagon broke through a thin crust into quicksand beneath, making the road impassable for the next team."

In the summer of 1882, the army sent up work parties, but the primary commitment of the military to road building came in the summer of 1883. Four companies of troops were sent to develop the road under Major I. De Russey. The Major's detachment worked out of a field camp at Burnt Cabins, and it was this force that did most of the work we can now see. Their work consisted largely of corduroying (laying lodgepole logs across marshy sections), clearing large boulders, and constructing dugways (road cuts and fills). The troops also set up a sawmill in Summit Park to supply Fort Thornburgh, and a military telegraph line was strung along the route.

More rock clearing near the summit.De Russey's force worked hard during the summer, and a review of the military records from the National Archive reveals that court martials were carried out almost weekly. Troops were fined several weeks pay for disorderly conduct, drunkeness, desertion and other offenses that indicate the difficulty of the work and lonely social conditions in this remote wilderness.

By 1883, it became clear that the route was a poor choice because of the high terrain and short season of travel. In addition, a Denver and Rio Grande Railroad route was completed, linking Salt Lake City and Denver through Price, Utah. Supplies could easily be wagon-freighted to the Ashley Valley from Price.

Fort Thornburgh was abandoned in 1884, and most of the durable items were hauled back to Fort Bridger. When Fort Duchesne was established in the summer of 1886, some materials were hauled back over the Carter Road, but most came from the new rail depot at Price.

Although, the military utility of the Carter Road ceased, it continued to be important to local inhabitants. The road was used to haul copper, gold, and silver ore from the Dyer Mine area during the last decade of the 1800s. It was the primary north-south wagon route from Daggett County to the Vernal area until the early 1920s, when a passenger car road was constructed along the route of Utah Highway 44. Daggett County historians Dick and Vivian Dunham state that

"While it [the Carter Road] was treacherous for heavy loads, hardy souls could at least get over to Ashley Valley in a buckboard to pick up honey and apples, then as now that district's specialties; or maybe take a sack or so of grain over to the grist mill to be ground into flour." In 1880, Ashley, (or Vernal, as it was called after 1885) became the main government seat. "So to Ashley or Vernal everybody had to go to file on land, pay taxes, get married, serve or answer writ, or any other official business. For these trips the old road came in mighty handy. It was used right up until 1924. Some adventurous souls even managed to get their Model T's part way over it."

In 1936, Willie Carter commented, "To the traveler who comes upon this road at any part of its course through the Uinta Range, it seems to present an unusual example of wasted effort and money, but like many other of the works of man, it served its purpose, and gave way to changes in the development of the country."

Key Contacts

Jeffrey A. Rust