An interview with Melvin Gaines
By Brandt Hart
After much contemplation, it seemed fitting to choose this photo for this special relaunch edition of the Canyon Echo. I still don’t really know why but for some reason, to me, this photo says, “Welcome to Bluff” and “Welcome to our reborn newspaper.” Perhaps it’s the way the 1950s Ford sedan is parked next to the “Entering Bluff” sign that conveys a sense of excitement, new beginnings, and adventure a road trip brings.
While this historic photo of Bluff only captures a slice of our spectacular cliffs, it likely illustrates the beginning of a new era in our town, the era of tourism. Spawned by the uranium and oil booms of the 1950s, the freshly paved highway would make the area more accessible to travelers. It is easy to imagine a traveler in their ’50s Ford stopping to take a photo to document their vacation just like visitors do today.
Below is an edited transcript of a short conversation I had with Melvin Gaines about this photo while sitting at his dining table on Christmas Eve. Melvin has been a resident of Bluff since about 1932 when, at the age of one, he was brought to Bluff in the back of his father’s mule-drawn wagon.
Brandt: This is a Salt Lake Tribune negative from the state archives, and I don’t know if the photo went with a story about the new highway or what.
Melvin: Now I laid that highway in ’57.
I thought maybe so. And this was Utah State Highway 47? Is that right? And people just called it U-47?
U-47. U-47, chuckholes every 50 feet. That’s what it was before it was oiled.
Was this the first pavement in town?
It was the first pavement, yes. It went right down through town. Nothing has changed much there.
Yes, not much has changed. Locomotive Rock is in the background and most of the boulders in the foreground are still there.
You see, one thing, this highway was smoother out there then. It’s a rough son-of-a-bitch out there.
[Laughter] When did you start working for the highway department?
I first started working for them when I was 15 . But it was just part-time. Back then when you were 15, you could usually outwork most men completely. You might work two weeks and they’d lay you off. We didn’t have to have flagmen then, or anything, you know. You only got about two cars a day, and sometimes they were lost. They didn’t know where the heck they were going.
What I would do was go down on Comb Hill and take a jackhammer and swing off Comb Hill on ropes and drill that rock, and then we’d put powder in it, blow them off down the road and clean the road out. That Comb Hill, there was always rock falling down. Heck, sometimes we would blow that off and it would take a day and a half to clean the rocks off with a cat. Hell, two Jeeps couldn’t pass on it. It was too narrow. That hill was 8 percent, pretty steep.
Do you remember what that sign used to say? All I can read is “Entering Bluff…”
Hmmm… Entering Bluff, Elevation four thousand some feet, that’s what it was.
Do you know what happened to that sign? I hope it’s in somebody’s garage at least.
We probably ended up removing that sign because about every ten years the highway department would change signs. We just tore down signs and took them to the state shed and piled them in a pile. See this is a redwood post. They were all 4 x 6 redwood posts then.
In the background of the photo there is a big flatbed truck parked in your driveway.
That was mine. I had a Dodge truck, a great big son-of-a-gun, a logging truck, back then.
Did you ever use your old truck for logging? What did you use it for?
I used it to haul wood. I used to take that truck, my dad and I, and go up the old Mormon trail. That thing had a five-speed transmission. You’d put it in low gear and you couldn’t hardly see it move. Anyway, we’d go up the old Mormon trail [The Hole in the Rock Road through The Twist west of Bluff, now commonly referred to the Snow Flat Spring Road] up to where the school section has been bought [on top of Cedar Mesa]. We’d get a load of wood, come all the way back.
Now the radiator leaked pretty bad and I had a big saddle tank on one side and an extra gas tank on the other. When it would get a little bit too warm, I’d refill the radiator and pour me a little Bull Durham [tobacco] in it to stop the hole up. And I’d get it back here to Bluff. The tires on that truck, if they went flat, would still hold the truck up.
Before the Moki Dugway?
The Moki Dugway wasn’t built then. When I came back out of the service I helped build the Moki Dugway, some of it. That was about ’53.
That was a homemade truck. It had a Diamond T cab on it but a Dodge 6-cylinder motor. That truck came out of Oregon. My old man sold me that truck for $150. Back then I was always fixing something, and I got it running.
–End of edited interview–
The arrival of electricity occurred in 1957, too, thanks in large part to the power needs of the uranium mill in Mexican Hat. Kenny Ross would start Wild Rivers Expeditions the same year, and a new Recapture Lodge would be open for business just two years later. Within a decade, the highway would be realigned and the highway section in this photo abandoned, Cottonwood Wash would have a bridge, and the dirt road through Comb Ridge to Mexican Hat and beyond would be paved.
–Brandt Hart has been living in Bluff and the surrounding area since 2004. His historic interests include old photos of Bluff and the San Juan River, constructed stock trails, historic inscriptions, and vintage Volkswagens. He is also a member of Bluff City Historic Preservation Association and is thankful Canyon Echo Editor Zak Podmore has taken on the enormous task of reviving our small-town newspaper.