Jay Meehan: A history of the Heber Valley
It wasn’t that a cloud of imminent danger hung over Heber Valley during my first trip to Park City but I must admit to a certain degree of wariness.
As we topped out Provo Canyon, my culture differential certainly engaged and the associated body language spoke to something between hunched over and invisible. Likewise, the Timpanogos massif kept its own counsel behind thick clouds of impending snow.
The trip had been of the two-lane persuasion most all the way – a mode of travel that lent itself to few straight lines of more than a few miles each. Once the Interstate system dominated maps, you could sense the old subtle zigzag of days gone by.
Dawn had broken without much fanfare as we filled a thermos with surprisingly decent all-night gas station coffee on the outskirts of Levan. January of 1968 was pretty much in the rear view mirror with the Winter Olympic Games opening ceremonies only days away.
So there we were on a circuitous adventure that, before it wrapped, would include a couple of weeks of leisure on the slopes of Park City, the relatively short jaunt to Aspen for a weekend of post-Olympic grudge-match ski racing, a brilliantly executed transit of the southwest via Route 66, and a long bus ride down the west coast of Mexico.
Now that I’ve put in 42 years hunkered down in the aforementioned Heber Valley, of course, it feels much less haunted. The sense, now, is of becoming part of the woodwork. And, I should add, with an overpowering sense of human history and how many notables “almost” became part of local lore.
Although, historically, Native American activity appears to have been much more prevalent around Utah Lake, the Valley was discovered by, most recently, the Timpanogos Utes, although their antecedents most assuredly used it as summer hunting grounds and for producing hunting tools as well.
By 1776, however, company of another stripe entirely would show up on their periphery when two Franciscan Friars, Francisco Atanasio Dominguez and Silvestre Velez de Escalante, and their entourage, attempting to establish an overland route from Santa Fe to Monterey on the coast of California entered the Uintah Basin.
Rather than experience the glories of Heber Valley, however, they would peel off at Strawberry and head up and over what is now Diamond Fork into Utah Valley. Go figure! Later on they would give up their trek and head back to Santa Fe.
Jumping forward to 1824, a French-Canadian fur trader trapping out of Santa Fe and Taos by the name of Étienne Provost enters the picture. His bunch got hoodwinked and carved to pieces by a band of Snake Indians down along the Jordan River.
Managing to escape with his scalp and wherewithals, Provost got patched up and would skirt the Heber Valley on his way to meet a bunch of American trappers rumored to be in the Uintah Basin. This brings us to William Henry Ashley, Andrew Henry, and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.
In the early 1820’s Ashley and Henry corralled one hundred “enterprising young men . . . to ascend the river Missouri to its source, there to be employed for one, two, or three years,” as their St. Louis newspaper ad stated. From this cast would emerge the mythologies of Jedediah Smith, Jim Bridger, Joe Meeks, Hugh Glass (The Revenant) and others.
Once Provost and Ashley hooked up in the Uintah Basin, Povost would guide them along the foothills of the Heber Valley to what would become Kamas and Coalville. Ashley would then lead them to his preordained location for the first Mountain Man Rendezvous at Burnt Fork, Wyoming.
Once the Mormons arrived in 1847, a fort of original Heber Citizens was established in the Valley. Skirting it on the way to somewhere else no longer became an issue.
Other close encounters that piqued my interest would be what I recall as part and parcel to the literature of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. That would be when one or the other or both left Denver not for highway 40 and the Heber Valley on their way to Salt Lake City but via Laramie and along the route of the old Lincoln Highway and what is now I-80.
My spirits were uplifted somewhat when I later learned that Peter Coyote had brought a busload of Digger-Mime Troupe types thru Heber Valley in 1971. As far as I know, they weren’t hoodwinked or ambushed and continued eastward, gawking in awe at the Uintas, to further spread the faith. I am no longer hunched-over or invisible.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social and political scenes for more than 40 years.
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