Safety in High Walls and Civilization
On January 14, 1850, Parley P. Pratt and his band of 50 Mormon men trudged over tall mountains and through deep snow to make camp at what would later be called Cove Creek. It snowed all the next day and Pratt & Co. stayed in their tents on the 15th, miserable. It was 24 degrees that morning, wrote Robert Campbell, the company's clerk and diarist, and windy. '10 A.M. nearly all Camp bed,' he wrote, 'not a fire light 12 noon continues, some few get up to cook. Captn Brown round seeing if men enough up to go after the Cattle.'
Pratt and his company were on an exploratory mission to southwestern Utah to locate possible townsites and identify mineral and natural resources like timber, water and places suitable for crop growing. The expedition was ordered by Mormon church president Brigham Young, who envisioned a Mormon empire to be called Deseret, with a string of towns one day's ride apart leading from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles. Within years towns like Parowan had been settled; 17 years later a fort at the Jan. 15 site had been erected.
Though it never became a permanent settlement, Cove Fort was for years an important way-station for travelers headed south. In 1867 Ira N. Hinckley, an ancestor of current church president Gordon B. Hinckley, build a massive structure here, one with six rooms, 13-foot walls and a wide view of the deserts and mountains beyond the lonely site. Though the site was abandoned for years, today it has been restored and is open seven days a week for guided tours.
In response to what was then escalating tensions with local Indians, Brigham Young in 1867 called Ira Hinckley from his farm in Coalville to build the fort at Cove Creek; Hinckley and his family left Coalville, which is near Park City, in just days. In addition to its location by the creek, Cove Fort was a natural location for a permanent encampment since it was a day's walk from Filmore to the north and Beaver to the south. But despite its proximity to the locations, it was still a hostile wilderness. Snow fell 8 months of the year, and the short summer sun shone with vengeance. Snakes abounded, and the soil away from the creek was hard and rocky. Beginning in March, Hinckley and some helpers built a fort from volcanic rock with 18-foot walls which had gun turrets and lookouts. There were six living rooms on the north side and six working rooms on the south; in the courtyard, Hinckley planted three black locust trees, trees that provided valued hard woods.
The six rooms on the north each had a fire place and were connected through inner doors. The six working rooms on the south were also connected and served as a telegraph room, post office, kitchen, gathering room, weaving area and stagecoach office. Passing travelers were accommodated at the fort and served a first-class sit-down meal; Brigham Young kept a private bedroom here, too, for the several nights each year when he passed through while inspecting his budding empire. Every day, one coach passed through on its way north, and one on its way south.
Contemporary with the period, Cove Fort was furnished with ingenious if spare hand-made furniture. Mormon furniture is well-known today for its quality, durability, simple beauty and usefulness; sofas converted to beds, tables to baby rockers. (Young himself was a carpenter.) When soft woods were all that were available, Mormon carpenters actually painted on a hard wood stain to mimic what nature would not provide.
The fort was also home to a cattle ranching operation, and farms spread out below the structure. Hinckley, a blacksmith, had working quarters just beyond the fort's walls.
But unlike other towns along the mountains on the road to California, Cove Fort never made it. Cove Creek, really, was small enough that it would not support a sizable population and the fort itself, which never actually had to defend itself from Indians, made less sense. After 20 years, the fort was sold, and the Hinckleys moved. Eventually, the fort was abandoned, and it fell into disrepair.
After the turn of the century the land and the fort was sold to the Otto Kesler family. Nearly 100 years later, in 1988, the Hinckley family purchased the fort from the Keslers and gave it back to the Mormon church. Six years later, Mormon church President Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated the restored historic fort.
I showed up on a cold, windy day in March, a day what was punctuated by passing snow showers and plenty of spring break traffic out on Interstate 15, which is just a mile or so from the fort. Elder Tucker, a retiree from Kanab was there with his wife on an adult mission for the church, gave me a personal tour, but told me it was actually his last day of his mission.
More than 82,000 visitors a year turn off of I-15 at exit 135 to see the fort, which is open every day. Indeed, Cove Fort never made it as a permanent settlement. Exit 135 sports a gas station, while exit 132 is the junction with Interstate 70, which heads east first into the Tushar Mountains and then across the desert, but other than that and the homes used by missionaries here for 18-month stays, the site is little different than it was during the elder Hinckley's years. The entire site covers 11.5 acres and includes the fort and outbuildings, which are generally closed in the winter.
On this cold day, weak sun shone down on the three black locust trees, the same ones that Hinckley planted inside the fort's walls. Tours proceed at a leisurely pace through the six rooms, which these days are heated not by fireplace but instead by electricity. Outside, the Tushar Mountains gleam hard white against a sky mixed with clouds, snow and sun. A breeze stirred up a tuft of snow. Elder Tucker told me he believed this was a sacred place.
Though Cove Fort in the 1860s and 1870s was 'beyond the frontier,' as Tucker said, residents and visitors had a cultured environment to retreat to. Atypical of classic Western towns, Mormon settlements were generally sedate and law-abiding, and the residents worked hard making the land support them. Inside the work rooms and bedrooms, period furniture, much of it authentic and priceless, sits as it would have when occupied by the settlers. It is undoubtedly a beautiful and interesting place.
Elder Tucker offered to show me Hinckley's workshop, but the building is set off from the fort and I was not in shoes suitable for walking in the snow. Instead I thanked him and got back on the interstate, heading into darkness.
Can be accessed from either exit 132 or exit 135. The site is isolated, and only has one gas station. Accommodations and other services can be found 32 miles to the north, in Fillmore, or 20 miles to the south, at Beaver. Camping can be found 17 miles up I-70, at Fremont Indian State Park. The site is open generally 9 a.m. to sunset, seven days a week, and is free.
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