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The Last Days of the Hite Ferry and the Rise of Highway 95

JFRCalifornia

Escalante-Class Member
Highway 95 between Hanksville and Blanding is one of the most scenic stretches of highway in the United States. It’s also one of the most remote. And yet as lonely as it seems now, it wasn’t long ago that there was literally no road at all, just an inaccessible 125-mile open stretch of desert and canyons, with the Colorado River running through the middle of it. It might as well have been Mars.

In 1940, National Geographic published an excellent map of the southwestern states, and it told the story as well as any words could. Far to the west, Highway 89 provided the main north-south access through the canyon country, just as it does today. And Highway 24 worked its way through Capitol Reef to Hanksville. But that was the end of the road, and much of that road was still unpaved. Anybody living in Hanksville was living on the edge of civilization. There was no road to the north across the San Rafael desert. None to the south either. And the canyons to the east presented an impenetrable maze, except to a few intrepid ranchers and miners who found their own way.

The story was much the same from the other side of the Colorado River. Highway 160 (now 191) dropped south from transcontinental Route 50 through Moab to Monticello, where it turned southeastward toward Cortez, Colorado. Only a minor spur route from Monticello—then called Highway 47—continued south to Blanding. And that’s where the road ended. Here's detail from that map showing this area:

Nat Geo 1940 Map 1.jpg

Natural Bridges National Monument had been designated as a national monument in 1908 after it was publicized by National Geographic in a 1904 article. But Utah’s first national monument remained inaccessible for decades except by a three-day horseback ride from Blanding. In 1935, Utah’s Highway Department designated a new route—Route 95—to connect Blanding with the national monument. This unpaved section was not completed until the early 1940s, but there it ended. Only rough tracks extended west from there, or east from Hanksville.

It was really just one man (and the atomic bomb) that is responsible for eventually closing that gap. Art (or "Arth") Chaffin bought about 140 acres near Hite in 1934, although “ownership” was a loose concept in those days. There he set out to build a homestead and do some farming on the west side of the Colorado River near the mouth of Trachyte Creek. He built a diversion dam off Trachyte Creek to irrigate his crops, but his problem was that he couldn’t get the crops to market, and no one could really reach him to buy those crops. So he went out and graded a rough road down North Wash from Hanksville.

But road building wasn’t cheap, and he needed a way to pay for that, so he got the idea of building a ferry across the river and charging people to use it. And so he built it, just southwest and around the bend from the mouth of White Canyon, in plain sight of Ft. Moki overlooking the river. At $5 car—an enormous sum then—it was still worth it to those needing to make the trip. The ferry opened on September 17, 1946 to a high school brass band celebration, complete with non-alcoholic Kool-Aid and Art’s watermelons. Art’s timing couldn’t have been better, because the new Cold War gave rise to the atomic age, and that meant uranium mining. The new ferry and rough roads made the mines at White Canyon on the east side of the river possible.

Here's a shot of the ferry on opening day, September 17, 1946.

Hite Ferry - 1946 - Sept 17.jpg

Here's a detail from the USGS 1952 Hite 1:62500 quad showing Chaffin's property near the mouth of Trachyte Creek. Note the reservoir near the mouth, the ferry site, and the town of White Canyon across the river, which came into existence after the Chaffin opened the ferry. You can also see Route 95 hugging the west side of the river.

USGS Hite 1952 - detail 1.jpg

The ferry wasn’t much though. It was just a flat wooden platform, powered by an ancient Ford Model A mounted on the ferry, whose engine was linked to a cable across the river. Pretty sketchy, and it sank about a year later in a flash flood in November 1947. Art replaced that with a sturdier setup in the spring of 1948, and that’s how the operation remained through the 1950s, where it provided the crucial supply link to serve the tiny mining town of White Canyon and the few others who might pass through.

Here's another shot of the original ferry, showing the Model A.

Hite Ferry - 1946 - Sept 17 - 2.jpg

And here's a photo of the sturdier ferry that replaced the original one, probably taken in the early 1950s.

Hite Ferry - 1950s small.jpg

Here's an oblique aerial of the area, with Chaffin's property at the lower left. The ferry is clearly visible, and shows how it related to White Canyon on the east side of the river. You can just about see Ft. Moki on the bluff across the river, just to the right (south) of the mouth of White Canyon.

Ferry - White Cyn overview.jpg

Here's a 1964 postcard of the ferry crossing taken from Ft. Moki.

Hite ferry from Ft Moki - postcard.jpg

And here's Ft. Moki, looking west across the river to the alignment of the original Highway 95 running north (left to right) from Chaffin's property.

Ft Moki - 1950s.jpg

Here's additional detail from the 1952 USGS Hite quad, showing the state of Highway 95 at the time, both east and west of the river. To the west, Art Chaffin's "road" literally ran right up North Wash and must have been a terrible gravel road prone to constant washouts and floods.

USGS Hite 1952 - detail 2.jpg

To the east, Highway 95 followed a tortuous path out of Farley Canyon, crossing to White Canyon, then up and out, crossing Blue Notch canyon farther away from the river. The road still exists today. It joined the modern alignment of Highway 95 where the dirt road to White Canyon now joins the highway. You can see that an airstrip near the head of Blue Notch was actually also part of the "highway".

USGS Hite 1952 - detail 3.jpg

When the decision was made to build Glen Canyon Dam in 1956, Art Chaffin knew his days were numbered because of the coming lake. He sold his property but cut a deal to be paid to keep operating the ferry ($40,000 plus interest to be paid to him over 12 years). At some point in the late 1950s, White Canyon mineworker Woody Edgell got the job as ferryman. The question was, how long would that job last with the coming of Lake Powell? Woody was determined to make it work.

Here's the ferry in 1962, in the waning years of its operation, soon to be doomed by Lake Powell.

Hite Ferry - Oct 1962.jpg

With the coming of Lake Powell, the Utah Department of Transportation got busy trying to figure out the future of Highway 95. After their original concept of building a bridge near the site of ferry (and improving the approach roads) was rejected as too difficult and costly (the lake would be about a mile wide there), they came up with a plan to bypass the ferry site to the north and build three steel bridges— over the Dirty Devil, Colorado River and a less flashy one over White Canyon. As the lake began to rise in 1963, work began on those bridges, even as the ferry continued to operate.

In the summer of 1964, the USBR kept dam outflows extremely low to allow the lake to rise quickly to achieve minimum power pool. After dropping to 3395 by the end of spring 1964, USBR slowed outflow to 1000 cfs all summer, and the new lake rose 95 feet in three months (!), reaching the minimum power pool elevation of 3490 in August 1964. With that incredibly fast rise, operations at the ferry seemed to come to an abrupt end. The last day of official ferry service was June 5, 1964, a day that saw the lake rise 16 inches, reaching a surface elevation of 3443, more or less where the ferry was located.

But the story of the ferry apparently does not end there. In a 1984 interview, Bill Wells of Hanksville, who worked on building highway 95 in the 1960s, remembers the end differently:

“Woody Edgell was running the ferry, and when it got up to Hite he had to unhook the boat from the cables. The reasons they used cables is because there was a current in the river, but when the lake backed up to Hite, then it was dead water—then he would run it across like it was a boat. For us, the problem is that we had to keep making ramps for him…and we did that until the lake got clear up there in the mouth of North Wash.”

So it seems that Woody continued to informally use his ferry for a short time even as the lake rose around him, sometime into the summer of 1964. Soon, as the town of White Canyon disappeared under the water, a new marina was set to open a few miles north. A fledgling Hite Marina opened on July 11, 1964, as the lake reached 3478. It had no access to the west (since there was no ferry anymore), and until the new bridge over White Canyon would be completed, not really any easy access to the east either--though possible via existing gravel roads.

The two new bridges over the Dirty Devil and Colorado weren’t completed until late 1964 and 1965, and the White Canyon bridge not until spring 1966, so for about a year, there was no way to cross the river after the ferry closed. The three new bridges were dedicated with much fanfare in June 1966, with 400 curious onlookers, several dignitaries and a lot of ribbons. Highway 95 was finally open again. But it wouldn’t be paved all the way through from Blanding to Hanksville for another 10 years. In 1976, with the paving complete, it was dubbed the Bicentennial Highway.

Here's a photo of the Colorado River bridge, taken in October 2016.

Colorado River bridge - 2001.jpg

And here's the White Canyon bridge from the canyon below, taken in September 2001. This is the bridge that became central to the plot in Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang, the one that was targeted for sabotage in that story.

01-09-03 White 5 3666 small.jpg

Finally, here's a shot of the White Canyon bridge from the top, much less impressive than from below--you barely even notice you cross it...

White Cyn Bridge - above.jpg

...But the view below from the top of the bridge is impressive though, if you stop to look...

White Cyn - from bridge.jpg

*******

One last thing. Here’s the transcript of a New York Times article from April 1964, which discusses the last days of the ferry, written as the lake began to rise but had not quite reached the site of the ferry. When the piece came out on April 19, the lake was at 3402, or just north of the mouth of Ticaboo Creek. The article is a great window into the earliest days of the north end of Lake Powell, and what it was like to traverse the area in those days…


HISTORIC UTAH FERRY GETS NEW LEASE ON LIFE
April 19, 1964

HITE, Utah ‐ Vacationists in the Western canyon country this spring will find the Colorado River's lone ferryboat still in operation, the craft having been reprieved by a shortage of bridge‐building funds.

While the ferry at Cass Hite's old gold‐panning station would hardly impress those commuters from New Jersey or Staten Island who cross the North River or New York Bay to Manhattan, it is the only “vessel” of its kind on the 1,000‐mile‐long Colorado and its tributaries.

The road it serves, State Route 95, is the only one reaching the canyon‐girt stream for some 90 miles in either direction, thus making the ferry a highly necessary adjunct to wayfarers crossing one of the West's largest non‐populous regions.

The craft itself, a wooden raft mounted upon a quartet of chunky steel pontoons, is guided by a steel cable crossing the 500‐foot‐wide stream. A gasoline motor culled from a truck of ancient vintage provides power; the skipper is a weatherbeaten gentleman named Woody Edgell, and the ferry is owned and operated by the Utah State Department of Highways.

Termed “The Dandy Crossing of the Colorado” by the area's oldsters, the ferry has existed in one form or another since the days when Hite, a dour, mustached individual who served with Quantrill's raiders during the Civil War, first panned for gold at the river's edge in 1870. His lean‐to shack stood at one of the few spots along the silt‐laden river where cliff walls drop away and make a crossing possible.

Long a doddering example of mine‐country free enterprise, the ferry declined in usefulness years ago, when uranium mines nearby began closing down. The state took it over to insure steady operation, but business is hardly thriving.

Despite an upturn in patronage by sightseers, the boat carried only 1,012 cars—fewer than an average of three a day‐in 1963, plus a total of 3,748 passengers. The charge is $5 a car.

However, an estimated 2,000 additional non‐paying passengers were carried aboard state and Federal vehicles. Among them were the engineers whose labors will soon doom the old ferry.

Glen Canyon Dam, 100 miles downstream across the Arizona line, is backing up the Colorado River's waters, forming broad, clear‐blue Lake Powell by flooding more and more side canyons, as well as the river's main channel.

At Hite, river banks, willows, rusting gold dredges and the remnants of Cass Hite's house will be inundated in 1965, along with the ferry piers and approach roads. Route 95 is to be made into an all‐weather, well-paved road linking Natural Bridges National Monument and Capitol Reef National Monument.

Utah's highway engineers are finding that a replacement for the puny ferryboat will be a much more complex and expensive project than had originally been suspected. Because of the mile‐wide width that Lake Powell will attain when Hite is flooded, constructing a new bridge at the old ferry site is now ruled impractical.

Instead, a new highway routing has been surveyed, calling for construction of a 738‐footlong steel arch span across the Colorado at a point approximately 20 miles north of the ferry, plus a 620‐foot steel arch span across the picturesquely named Dirty Devil River below Capitol Reef.

Since the need for the two big bridges, plus rebuilding and hard‐surfacing upward of 100 miles of desert road, will mean an expenditure of $10 million in state and Federal funds, and since the Utah Highway Department's coffers are presently not filled to any degree, the ferry will keep operating until flooded out.

However, its existence helps make a crossing of this spectacular, isolated region something of an event. Even in Salt Lake City, 350 miles away, a Hite ferry ticket is something of a status symbol, and quite a few bets have been won, or lost, on the existence of a state-operated ferryboat in Utah.

Natural Bridges National Monument, 369 miles south and east of Salt Lake City, is the usual jumping‐off point for sightseers planning to ride the Hite ferry. State Route 95 is paved part way from Blanding to the monument area.

Motorists should take note that service stations are as lacking as pavement for the next 100 miles of upland country, although Mr. Edgell keeps a supply of gasoline at Hite.

Owachomo Bridge, a sandstone span 108 feet high; the more massive Kachina Bridge, with its 186‐foot‐long arch, and Sipapu Natural Bridge, the largest of them all, are the prime features of the monument. Sipapu rises 222 feet above a canyon floor at the center of its 261‐foot span, and some visitors say it is even handsomer than the more famous Rainbow Bridge. The latter is downstream, near the Arizona line.

At present, there are campgrounds and fairly passable roads inside Natural Bridges National Monument, but no overnight accommodations. Visitors planning to explore the monument's prehistoric Indian ruins, or to spend much time clambering upon and photographing the 10‐million‐year‐old bridges, stay in Blanding, Monticello, Mexican Hat or other nearby hamlets. Or, they tote their own camping gear.

North and west from Natural Bridges, Route 95 descends from high, cool plateau country down to the Colorado River by way of White Canyon. The district is pockmarked with uranium mines and the road, although not hard‐surfaced, is maintained as a service to truckers, if not sightseers.

The forests of the Abajo Range, north of Blanding, give way to juniper, pinon, greasewood and desert plants as the road winds down‐canyon to the Hite crossing. Coyotes can often be seen trotting along Route 95; deer come down from the high country on occasion, and the region is reported to shelter a few of the West's last bighorn sheep.

The state‐employed ferryman and his few local passengers spin yarns about local wildlife during most river crossings and, although the trip consumes scarcely five minutes, a traveler will probably absorb a few “true facts” concerning gold mining and uranium mining in the area.

Gold dredges worked the river sandbars as recently as 1912, the Robbers' Roost country across the San Rafael Swell sheltered the West's last outlaw bands just 50 years ago, and uranium millionaires ‐ were spawned and went broke by the dozen in White Canyon as recently as 1952. This was a region in which the Old West died hard.

North of the ferry, Route 95 spans nearly 60 miles of unbroken desert country in which it is advisable to stay on the hard‐packed road. At Hanksville, a tiny settlement boasting an airstrip as well as a store, things green up a bit, with water from the Fremont and Dirty Devil Rivers helping to irrigate a few fruit trees as well as hayfields, ranches and dooryards.

The latter stream reputedly got its name from early settlers who built irrigation works, only to have them washed out periodically by the “flooding dirty devil of a river.”

River Road
After following the Fremont on a westward course for another 25 miles, travelers renew their acquaintanceship with pavement near the entrance to Capitol Reef National Monument. There is a lodge for overnight guests near the monument boundary. New pavement runs through the Federal preserve, within sight of the 20-mile ridge of rock or reef forming the monument's backbone and, all in all, the place is quite civilized.

However guides can readily steer visitors to a waterless back‐country of arches, pinnacles, domes, petrified forests and deep gorges in which it is hard to believe a ferryboat existed not far away. Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks are a few hours distant on well paved roads, with the plush resorts at Las Vegas just beyond.
 
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JFRCalifornia

Escalante-Class Member
I vote JFR as honorary Glen Canyon member of this site. These armchair entries make for great reads. (Glen Canyon member is the new PhD category I just invented). Truly a wonderful getaway.
That’s very nice, Dougie. Not sure that degree is transferable, but it’s much better than 10 degrees below zero.
 

topoman

Member
THANKS!! for the history lesson Dr. JFR...Great Stuff. When you go out there today it looks like nothing ever happened there. It's important to remember that people spent their whole lives in a VERY fantastic spot on our planet! There are a bunch of interesting artifacts scattered in the desert above the Old Ft. Moki that we intend to explore this winter that should be fun. I hereby convey the coveted "Doctor of Hite" degree to JFR by the authority vested in me by the school of "Topoman"! Congratulations! Keep the drumbeat going!
 

JFRCalifornia

Escalante-Class Member
I really appreciate the comments. The lost history under all that sediment is pretty amazing--hard to wrap your head around some of it. For example, the idea that the lake could rise 95 feet in one summer. Or that Hite Marina existed when the lake was 80 feet lower than it is today. Or that anybody in their right mind would try to maintain a road in the streambed of North Wash. Or that you might drive a passenger car on some of those early roads (there's a great shot I didn't post of a VW Bus on that ferry, and having grown up in a house with a '63 VW Bus, that car was not designed to go on roads like these.) But mostly, that not so long ago, if you drew a huge rectangle connecting Hanksville, Escalante, Blanding, and Kayenta, you would not find a single paved road in there....

The people in the 1940s and 50s who settled in that remote area for one reason or another were truly pioneers, every bit as much as those who came west in the 19th century...
 
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topoman

Member
I really appreciate the comments. The lost history under all that sediment is pretty amazing--hard to wrap your head around some of it. For example, the idea that the lake could rise 95 feet in one summer. Or that Hite Marina existed when the lake was 80 feet lower than it is today. Or that anybody in their right mind would try to maintain a road in the streambed of North Wash. Or that you might drive a passenger car on some of those early roads (there's a great shot I didn't post of a VW Bus on that ferry, and having grown up in a house with a '63 VW Bus, that car was not designed to go on roads like these.) But mostly, that not so long ago, if you drew a huge rectangle connecting Hanksville, Escalante, Blanding, and Kayenta, you would not find a single road in there....

The people in the 1940s and 50s who settled in that remote area for one reason or another were truly pioneers, every bit as much as those who came west in the 19th century...
Hi Dr. Hite, We just spent a week camping down there and saw ZERO people! In the "Big" picture not much has changed. Does anyone know if the NPS still has a buoy attached to Cass Hite's grave? Also if LP doesn't ever go back up, what's going to happen to the unbelievable amount of junk below the 3700 foot contour? Cans, Bottles, fishing poles, paddles, coolers, wheels, boat parts, Rolex watches ( still looking for that!)...There's junk everywhere!! I wonder if the government put a cleanup figure in their LP budget? Life goes on! Time to go down there and pan for gold at Cass Hite's bank!
 

Tiff Mapel

Well-Known Member
Hi Dr. Hite, We just spent a week camping down there and saw ZERO people! In the "Big" picture not much has changed. Does anyone know if the NPS still has a buoy attached to Cass Hite's grave? Also if LP doesn't ever go back up, what's going to happen to the unbelievable amount of junk below the 3700 foot contour? Cans, Bottles, fishing poles, paddles, coolers, wheels, boat parts, Rolex watches ( still looking for that!)...There's junk everywhere!! I wonder if the government put a cleanup figure in their LP budget? Life goes on! Time to go down there and pan for gold at Cass Hite's bank!
Topo, I don't believe the buoy is there. NPS has a hard time keeping up with the channel buoys, much less the historical buoys. Yes, there is a lot of exposed trash, wrecked boats, etc... and we've been without the Trash Tracker for TWO years now. Shut down due to covid.... So hopefully *keeping fingers crossed* the Trash Tracker will be back with volunteers starting in April of 2022. But, many Lake Powell vacationers are already aware of Leave No Trace ethics, and clean their areas. It's just the slobs we still need to convince to do the same. ;)

Tiff
 

Rainbowbridge

Well-Known Member
Hi Dr. Hite, We just spent a week camping down there and saw ZERO people! In the "Big" picture not much has changed. Does anyone know if the NPS still has a buoy attached to Cass Hite's grave? Also if LP doesn't ever go back up, what's going to happen to the unbelievable amount of junk below the 3700 foot contour? Cans, Bottles, fishing poles, paddles, coolers, wheels, boat parts, Rolex watches ( still looking for that!)...There's junk everywhere!! I wonder if the government put a cleanup figure in their LP budget? Life goes on! Time to go down there and pan for gold at Cass Hite's bank!
I agree Topoman that there's a lot of garbage, but isn't that what people do, leave their garbage wherever they've been?
Even the Anasazi left their garbage and took all the good stuff.
We know this for an undeniable fact because not one Rolex was found in ANY Anasazi ruin.
:unsure:
 

fstop

Member
Thanks for the write up JFR. I really enjoy history, especially early Lake Powell history. My first trip was in 1972 or 73. I haven't missed a year since. Your insight has me coming back to Waynes Words weekly to see what you've dug up.
 

drewsxmi

Well-Known Member
When I have visited the Hite Marina site at low water I've been appalled at all of the formerly floating "stuff" left behind when the water receded. It would be nice if the NPS could clean up the old breakwaters and docks that are now embedded in the sediment there, but I would put that after pumping out the floating restrooms on my priority list. There is still a lot of extra trash in that part of the lake since everything that floats and gets tossed or washed into the rivers in the western half of Colorado and parts of Wyoming and Utah end up in the lake.
 
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Tiff Mapel

Well-Known Member
We organized a beach clean up at Wahweap back in March of this year. It would be fun to organize a clean up for the Halls/Bullfrog end. Even Hite! Unfortunately, I do not have a boat up there, but if someone wanted to organize a weekend soon, or even early spring of 2022, I'm game! I think the citizens need to take control and organize, because NPS has their hands full and trash is a low priority for them.

Tiff
 
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