Wandering the West
As a Western history buff, I find some unsung places that people whiz by in their cars to be absolutely amazing, and absolutely overlooked. Consider Echo the town and the canyon.
If you’ve ever headed northeast out of Utah on I-80, your route took you through Echo Canyon. Its towering red sandstone cliffs by themselves are worth a look. They make you think you made a wrong turn and ended up somewhere near Moab. But what’s most remarkable is not the scenery, but what Echo means to the settlement of the West.
Since Homo Sapiens first walked upright in this part of the world, they’ve traveled through Echo Canyon. It is the natural funnel to the West and Southwest if you’ve headed across the plains. Some day long ago a Native American found it a walkable, gently sloping path through the mountains. No doubt that walker was following game trails from critters who first pioneered the route.
This is the path of human history in our part of the world. Indians carved petroglyphs. The fur trappers came through and a few scratched their names on the rocks as early as 1814.
As the fur trade was coming to a close, pioneers in wagon trains rolled down the canyon heading first to California, like the Donner Party which pioneered a wagon route, followed a year later by the first Mormon emigrants bound for the Salt Lake Valley.
When the Pony Express was set up, riders stopped at Echo to change horses and ride through the canyon. Express riders were soon made obsolete by the coming of the transcontinental telegraph. The Overland Stage brought passengers like a young Mark Twain through after that, and then the stage also became obsolete in 1869. That’s when Union Pacific track crews raced down Echo Canyon to meet the Central Pacific track layers working their way east.
the early 20th century, adventurous drivers of newly invented automobiles wanted to drive west and they too found Echo Canyon. The pioneering Lincoln Highway came through first, followed by the interstate highway system in the ’50s and ’60s. At the base of Echo Canyon, two interstates I-84 coming out of the Northwest and I-80 coming from San Francisco merge to become I-80 the rest of the way east to the Atlantic.
The mouth of the canyon was a logical place for a town, so that’s where Echo took root. Frank Cattelan remembers when about 400 called Echo home, but he says now, "I’m the only one left." Actually, about 75 people still live in Echo, but they all commute out of town for work. Frank’s Echo Café and gas station, though, keep him in town and in business.
With its position at history’s crossroads, Echo is a fascinating place to nose around. You’ll see trains roaring by frequently. The 1869 railroaders got it right. In 2008, Union Pacific trains use the exact same grade up the canyon to Wyoming. As for the town itself, most of it is gone, but a few interesting places remain, like the 1876 church and cemetery. Get there on a Saturday by Labor Day and you can go inside. A grant from the Summit County RAP tax fund has allowed someone to be on hand to keep an eye on the place. The church, with a museum in the basement, also served as Echo’s school house.
There, or at Frank’s Echo Café, you can pick up a brochure guiding you to other local sights. There’s the Echo Post Office, monuments to mark the location of the original Pony Express and stage station, and monuments marking the passage of the Donners, the Mormons, other pioneers and the telegraph and railroad. Take a ride up the I-80 frontage road into the canyon and you’re on the old Lincoln Highway. Along it you’ll see a sign telling of the Mormon breastworks built to repel an invasion by the U.S. Army. In 1857, the federal government marched an army to Utah to keep an eye on the Mormons. Pioneers, expecting violence, built rock walls, or breastworks, in the sandstone cliffs as firing positions to repel the army. Cooler heads prevailed and no shots were ever fired, but the walls remain.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
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