First, let me apologize about the fact my column has only appeared infrequently the past few weeks. Sometimes it was because the editor did not have space to run it, and lately it’s because I’ve been tied up on a big project out here in Thompson Springs that has consumed all my time. I like to have my stuff printed every other week in The Times-Independent, but it just can’t always work out that way.
I’ve had a number of folks let me know they appreciate the old stories I share. I certainly enjoy hearing that what I’m doing is interesting to many of you. That makes it all worthwhile. I’ll try to keep them coming a little more often.
In my last story I was telling you about my uncle, Nate Knight. I mentioned several incidents from his childhood in Sego, and some of his stories from World War II. I ended the column on a down note regarding the fact that I had heard most of those stories while parked next to my uncle’s hospital bed or his wheelchair while I was growing up. I’ll get to that later, but first let me tell you a few more of the stories I remember hearing or overheard from others.
To tell these stories right, I’ve been squeezing old memories from the mind of one of my other uncles, Lee Stocks. I’ve mentioned him in a previous column in relation to an airplane wreck downstream from the portal. Uncle Lee and his twin brother, Larry, worked with my Uncle Nate on several projects in the years after WWII. Lee is coming on 90 years of age and has a wonderful memory. He’s a great storyteller and does so in a very matter of fact manner with few embellishments.
I just spent two hours on the phone with him today getting my facts straight. I learned that the way I heard and remember stories from 50 years ago ain’t necessarily how it really was. Lee is helping me a lot with facts and timeframes. Uncle Nate and Uncle Lee were brothers-in-law to boot. They knew each other very well.
Nate once told me about working the coal mine his dad and he had above Crescent Junction in the Book Cliffs rims. Uncle Lee does not have much knowledge of that, so we assume it was prior to WWII when Nate was 19 or 20 years old. Nate told me about it one afternoon when I was visiting him. That was probably more than 50 years ago. He said he used to drive an old truck from Moab up to the mine above Crescent every morning. He’d park the truck against a bank level with or maybe below the portal, then go into the mine with a scoop shovel and wheelbarrow.
He’d shovel a load onto the wheelbarrow, push it quite a ways to the outside and dump it into the truck. He’d then return for another load until he had the truck filled to the gills. He was generally out of loose coal by that point, so he’d spend the next few hours hand drilling the face. Then he’d place dynamite charges, light them, and get out of there. Nate would wait to count the explosions so he could be sure there was not any bootleg left unexploded before hopping in the truck and descending the steep narrow road down to the highway and on to Moab where he would sell his load of coal to one of his customers. The next day he’d do it all again. That sounds like pretty good duty to me though a tad strenuous, I’d say.
Many stories have been told about the building of the Shafer Trail from the top of Island in the Sky down to the White Rim of the Colorado. Many folks figure Nick Murphy was the man behind building that amazing road, which loses thousands of feet of elevation with a series of crazy switchbacks.
It’s true that Nick was the one who really pushed to get the road built, but it seems he never actually did any work on it. Felix Murphy was supposed to run Nick’s big International TD-24 on the job, but apparently did not do so much, if at all. Basically, it was Uncle Nate who did all the cat skinning. Nate had a D-7 Cat cable dozer which was smaller than Nick’s machine and was easier to maneuver in the tight cliff side corridors between switchbacks.
Originally, the trail was supposedly an old American Indian path which became a cow trail, and I’m sure it was a scary son of a gun anyway you looked at it. Nate’s brother-in-law, Norm Hetman, was one of the few good welders in the area at the time, but he was also a good man on a jackhammer and spent many days drilling and blasting so Uncle Nate could keep pushing the narrow road farther down through the cliffs and ledges of the nearly vertical canyon wall.
For those who don’t know, this is a few miles down the Colorado River from Dead Horse Point. After getting a reasonable passage dozed out for a distance, Nate would sometimes use Nick’s larger dozer to widen it a bit here and there. It took several months to get down to the bottom and it must have been absolutely hair-raising at times.
Uncle Lee helped with the drilling and blasting during a portion of the Shafer Trail job. He is the only surviving man to have actually worked on the job, as far as I know. Having been there and owning a great clear memory make it impossible to believe any other story about who truly built the trail.
My Aunt Peggy and my cousin, Sharon, have told of camping at the top during the summer while Nate was doing the dozer work. After Nate and his brothers-in-law had finished the road to a point that it was passable by jeeps or small trucks, they went on to other projects. Others have made many improvements over the years.
Uncle Nate said that when he had finished his part you had to drive down to most of the switchbacks, pull forward to the drop off, then back your vehicle a long way down to the next switchback, where you could once again proceed forward until the next one. Nerves of steel were needed in that situation, for sure.
After talking to Uncle Lee today I have more stories about Uncle Nate I feel I need to tell, and not enough room left in this column. I’ll continue in the next one.