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Wanderings From Cable Mountain In Zion National Park

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The headframe atop Cable Mountain in the 1920s/NPS

I scraped one more item off my Things To Do list a couple of weeks ago. I finally made it to the top of Cable Mountain in Zion National Park. If you stand in the parking lot at Weeping Rock or the shuttle stop at Big Bend and look up toward a tall, sheer cliff to the east, you’ll see a square frame pasted to the sky up there. Most people never notice it because it’s awfully small when viewed against the backdrop of red rocks and towering cliffs. But that little thing is part of one of the most fascinating stories in a place full of fascinating stories.

Once upon a very long time ago, I used to give evening talks about Cable Mountain and the Flanigan brothers who built an ingenious cableway that gave the mountain its name. I gave talks, but somehow never managed to get to the top of the mountain to see what’s left of their work — work that once was called The Outstanding Wonder by people who lived in southern Utah.

Mormon settlers were moving into southern Utah as early as 1858 when settlement began in places that would become St. George, Grafton, Springdale, Rockville and a town called Virgin City — named for the river that periodically flooded all of them. These towns were located at low elevations and about the only trees that grew near them were cottonwoods. Cottonwoods don’t make good lumber. Build a house with cottonwood and its boards soon begin to warp and twist as they dry. Even heavy timbers bend and curl over time. Imagine trying to live in a home that was intent upon disassembling itself.

So the settlers began trying to log bigger and better trees from higher elevations — ponderosa pine and a variety of firs and spruce. One problem. It was a long, long way by slow wagon roads to reach those trees. It was an even longer and slower trip back with wagons loaded with all the lumber they could haul. One of the forest's settlers began to log was what is now the East Rim of Zion National Park. At least two rough and winding wagon weeks away from those growing settlements along the Virgin River.

There had to be a better way.

Things were tough along the Virgin River in other ways, too. Drought, sand storms, floods, Indian trouble, disease, houses that fell down, and just plain isolation led families of settlers to abandon their farms. In 1863, Mormon prophet Brigham Young visited what was left of the towns. When he was told of how difficult it was to obtain good lumber, he looked to the towering cliffs and prophesied that the day would come when lumber sailed down from the cliffs “like a hawk flies.”

Heavy timbers and rusted wheels are all that remain today/Lee Dalton

Several years later David Flanigan was 15 when he and some teenaged friends headed out for an adventure. They climbed red cliffs east of Springdale and found themselves in forests of ponderosa. Along the way, they came to the edge of a towering cliff where young David looked down into the canyon below.

David’s father, Tom, had often told the story of Brigham Young’s prophesy, and David began thinking he had just found a place where he might be able to make that prophesy come to pass. He remembered a place not far from Springdale where a mail route ended atop a cliff above a tiny town called Shunesburg. There an inventive post master had constructed a simple pulley system by which mail could be raised and lowered in a box. It saved the mail rider a day’s travel.

David soon found himself working as a logger in forests atop the plateaus surrounding Zion Canyon. He often drove wagons hauling lumber over steep rocky roads, and as he did, he certainly must have been doing a lot of thinking. He became convinced that it could work.

But it would be expensive. Finding backers who might invest money proved very difficult. Ten years passed before David and his brother William were able to start work on David’s dream. They realized that they couldn’t afford cable heavy enough to carry large loads of lumber, but hoped that if they could use lighter wire to prove the concept, someone would help them buy cable that could. And so they set to work.

In 1901, the Flanigan brothers began climbing the trail that now takes hikers from the bottom of Zion Canyon up through Echo Canyon on the way from Weeping Rock to Observation Point. Young men in those days had grown up on hard work. There were no video games or cellphones to amuse and soften them. They were tough. Hard work didn’t phase them. It was just part of life. The story is told that as they carried hundred foot coils of baling wire up the trail — coils that weighed 60 to 75 pounds — they began to compete to see who could make the trip the fastest. It’s said that they were able to make the nearly four-mile, all vertical trip in less than two hours.

They built a head frame atop Cable Mountain and some frame assemblies where Weeping Rock parking lot sits now. Then they tossed a rope down from the top of the mountain to allow them to pull the wire down. One story tells of how the rope hung up in a limb of a tree that grew from a sheer cliff face. With no way to reach the tree, David and William took turns firing a rifle until their bullets finally cut the branch.

From the top of Cable Mountain you can look down onto Angels Landing/Lee Dalton

It’s a story much too long to tell here, but after a lot of trial, error, and a whole lot of very hard work, the brothers and some friends who had helped them were finally able to demonstrate that their cableway could, indeed, carry lumber from the top of the mountain to the canyon below. (You may read much more of the story in an excellent book, The Outstanding Wonder, which is available from Zion’s cooperating association.)

By the end of September 1901, the cableway was actually carrying loads of lumber as it flew down from the cliffs as if on wings. Local people took it as fulfillment of Brigham Young’s prophecy.

The cableway soon became a curiosity. Some people wondered about trying to ride on it. The first living thing to ride the cable was the Flanigan family dog, Darkey. William tells us that Darkey rode the cable 2,000 feet straight down while perched atop a load of lumber, and when the dog reached the bottom “he was real scart.”

Another story tells of how one of the teenagers who worked in lumbering stood at the bottom of the cable and, holding up a watermelon, shouted to a friend above, “Hey, want some cold watermelon?”

“Yeah, send it up,” shouted his friend from the top.

“Come and get it,” responded his buddy.

So he did. Riding on a load of lumber.

Thus it began. Riding the cable became an adventure as many folks traveled from towns along the Virgin River to see The Outstanding Wonder; and some of them rode it.

My favorite cable story is of an 11- or 12-year-old boy who wanted to ride. I’m sure boys haven’t changed much since the early 1900s. I can hear him trying to persuade his mother: “Please, Ma? Please? I promise I’ll clean the stable every day without you having to ask me. I’ll even weed the garden. Please?”

Finally mother relents. The boy climbs into an empty lumber box and men at the top yell down, “How much does he weigh?” They load what they figure is an appropriate weight to bring the boy safely up. They release the brake. Gravity takes over and begins pulling the load down as the boy begins rising through the air while mother covers her eyes. Halfway up, however, a small problem arises. There’s not enough weight to pull the boy all the way up and the two loads balance, leaving the boy swinging in the box a thousand feet above the valley floor.

Panic. You can imagine the mother’s screams echoing around between Angels Landing, Cable Mountain, and Overlook Mountain. Then one of the men atop the mountain grabs a strip of heavy leather. He tosses it over the cable and hangs on to slide down to the boy and take him safely back to mother.

And people think today’s amusement park rides are wild . . . . ?

The cable system was finally purchased by some others. It was struck by lightning and burned down at least twice. It carried many thousands of board feet of good lumber before it was finally abandoned in about 1927. Mainly because all the good lumber on the plateau had been cut. Some of the lumber it carried was used to build the original Zion Lodge and some of its cabins. In fact, if you stay in a lodge cabin today, its wood may have come down on the cable.

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It’s an easy hike across the East Rim from Ponderosa Ranch trailhead to what remains of the cableway’s headframe. Only about seven miles round trip, and mostly pretty level. No permit is required for a day trip, but an overnight requires a backcountry camping permit. Finding the trailhead is not easy. It’s surrounded by private land crowded with luxury developments and less luxurious cabins — many that appear to have been under construction for years.

Signs are nearly nonexistent. So if you’re planning on a day trip, it’s a good idea to scout your way to the trailhead the day before. Parking at the trailhead is very scarce, and right at the park boundary is a short section of road that definitely requires high clearance. Some visitors park in a few rather awkward spots along the road outside the park where signs make it clear that local owners are not very welcoming of people who park in their driveways.

While Zion is incredibly crowded these days, East Rim trails are still quiet and nearly unpopulated. I met a total of 12 others on the trail. Two men from Hungary came to join me as I sat at the headframe to eat lunch. One of them told me that this was his 15th trip to Zion. The younger man has been here six times. Then came a couple from Britain. A couple from Florida joined us next. I had a great time telling them the old stories of Cable Mountain. I just wasn’t wearing a ranger hat this time.

It’s really awesome to stand and look down a thousand feet to the top of Angels Landing. Zion Overlook is about the same elevation as the top of Cable Mountain and about 3/4 of a mile away. Sounds echo around in Zion, and I could hear voices from the overlook and its trail. I was tempted to try shouting down to see if people below at Weeping Rock, 2,000 feet below me, could really understand what I might holler. But I didn’t.

I did take my binoculars and try to count people on top of Angels Landing. I counted 43. At the Overlook, I was surprised to see a lot of people there, too. I counted 19 and another eight traveling along the Z-trail on the north side of Echo Canyon.

Two-thousand feet below me, Weeping Rock parking lot was empty and the only traffic on the red road that winds through the canyon were shuttle buses.

Then it hit me. The World Trade Center buildings were just equal to the height of the sheer north face of Angels Landing. They were only half the height of Cable Mountain’s face. Plunk one of them into the canyon and it would be nearly swallowed by the immensity of Zion.

I finished my sandwich, took a few more pictures, then shouldered my pack and began hiking out. If anyone were to ask me why someone would travel 15 times from Hungary to visit Zion, I would know the answer. But I wouldn’t be able to explain it.

For some things, there are simply no words.

And that is why we need our parks . . . . . .

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Comments

Lee, this is a wonderful article!  Provided nothing unforeseen occurs, I will be staying in Zion NP next June/July 2018 in a cabin near the lodge.  I'll think about this story as I look at the cabin construction. Your photo looking down on Angels Landing almost gave me vertigo (grin).  You are so right - for some things, there are no words adequate to describe the thoughts, feelings, experiences or reasonings people have when visiting national parks, and that is, indeed, why we need them.


I have to agree, Lee. Wonderful story, and well told. Told well enough that I, too, felt that little anxious thrill of vertigo.


Great article, Lee.  It's amazing the contraptions these pioneers came up with to serve their needs. One account written by a visitor to Zion in 1914 mentions that the cable was joined in several places with bailing wire. No OSHA then!


Thanks for sharing your experience and the story.  Although I've not looked at the original of the first picture you used, I suspect it is from the group of pictures that include others showing several children sitting near the sawmill associated with the cable works.  That picture of the sawmill includes several of my relatives and I have several stories about the cable works, including when the lightning struck the cable and killed a couple of youth - cousins of my Mom, a Grafton/Rockville girl.  There is one story about one of my Mom's brothers who headed, being homesick and thinking his parents were ahead of him, headed down the trail alone causing lots of panic for his parents who in fact were still up top.  Thanks again.


Fred, you're right about the photo of the headworks.  All the other stories you mention are included in the folklore and recorded history of the cable.  There are so many stories associated with the cable that it would take a very big book to try to tell even a few of them.

I was very privileged to have a chance to meet and spend some time working with J. L. Crawford.  I'm not sure, but think that photo was taken by his father.  Sometime, one of us needs to write an article about J. L. and his family's story of Zion.  That's one more tale in the incredible collection of legends that surround Zion.

I've met a lot of incredible people, but J. L. Crawford stands out.  He was a walking Zion history book because he LIVED it.

 


Really interesting article about the history, Lee. I hiked to Cable Mountain in April, 2007. It was a cold day with snow flurries; I can only count 4-5 hikers atop Angels Landing in my photo.

Not sure what you mean by "Zion Overlook". You mentioned the "Z" trail, which I think leads to Observation Point. Is that the "Overlook", or are you referring to the Canyon Overlook Trail, which I would think would be more than 3/4 mile from Cable Mountain, but I'm not sure. Just curious.

Thanks again for writing this.


An outstanding article Lee.  Thank you.  In 1969 I met a German tourist in Zion walking her German Shepherd dog off the leash.  I was a park ranger-naturalist at the time, and I was in uniform.  I enforced the rules about dogs, then invited this lovely lady to my campfire program.  The next day we hiked to Cable Mountain In 104 F. degree temperatures.  She helped type the SF171 form that got me accepted for a full time, year-round seasonal position as a ranger-naturalist in Yosemite (where you and I first met).  

Two years later we were married.  It's now been 48 years since our first hike to the top of Cable Mountain.  The park was much less crowded in those days.  I'm so glad I had the privilege of working there then.  Your article brought back many fine memories.  Oh and by the way, the "Zion Overlook" you mentioned, is indeed "Observation Point" at the upper terminus of the East Rim Trail.


Arrrrgh!  Observation Point . . . . . of course.

At least I got the capital O right.  I keep forgetting where I left my memory.


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