It's the time of year when families traditionally gather. With COVID-19 raging through the country, instead of flying, some of us may be driving to those gatherings, and in so doing, will pass more than one roadside historical marker. Do you ever pull over and read them?
These plaques, often seen on rock cairns at roadside pit stops, are pages ripped right out of Utah's history books. In fact, the Division of State History is tasked with creating and maintaining an inventory of markers and monuments within our borders. The DSH describes them thusly: "Historical markers may contain valuable information about Utah history, but they are also historical artifacts, reflecting the particular point of view of the placing organization. They show how segments of society viewed historical events at the time the markers were placed."
Nowadays, you can even go to the state database and click on a map to read historical facts that appear on the markers which emanate in all directions from our Capitol City: south to Birdseye on Highway 89, where you read about the site of a marble quarry and a Mormon settlement; east to Scofield's city cemetery where a plaque remembers Utah's worst mine disaster on May 1, 1900, killing at least 200 men; north to Garland, where a public library was built in 1914 with money donated by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (there are 2,509 of these in the country); and west on Interstate 80 toward Wendover to Knolls, where a sign commemorates the 81-member Donner-Reed Party and the Cedar Mountains Wild Horse Range.
If you want to explore Utah's off roads, take the old Pony Express Trail in the west desert and discover plaques from the 1940s that highlight stations where riders exchanged horses to speed off on to their next stop.
I've been on that trail south of Tooele to Wendover, and while accessible by car, it often feels like you're driving over corrugated cardboard—the trip will jiggle the teeth around in your mouth. Pay attention to the weather if you head that way as there are no gas stations or convenience stores along the route. You'll feel much like those riders back then whose only companions were wild horses and jackrabbits.
The database was originally created in 1996 and is now hosted on a GIS-compatible platform. Even though not all the markers are there, it's a great resource for information on Utah's historical and cultural sites.
Some of the history is grim: places where lynchings occurred, where whites killed Indigenous peoples and vice versa, and where starvation and even cannibalism were recorded. Other plaques point out architecture and how sites/vistas received their names, and whom/what they commemorate.
So, if you're taking a road trip and need to change out sleepy drivers or simply need a break, pull over at one of these markers or monuments and learn some historical trivia you can share with the folks over your turkey/tofurky dinner.
For more information, visit history.utah.gov