In this age of automation and aeronautics, an old dirt trail might not seem to have much current importance. But if the trail played a significant role in the settling of the West in the mid-1800s, its preservation not only has current, but national importance – enough to warrant government financial support.
The Mormon Pioneer Trail, a 1,400-mile track that starts in Nauvoo, Ill., and weaves through Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming and into Utah, is the current subject of an endangered-sites study commissioned by the National Park Service, under the Department of the Interior. The purpose of the study is to determine the condition of the historical trail and how the federal government can assist in its preservation."The government is spending money on this because it considers the trail of real importance," explained Stanley B. Kimball, historian of the Mormon Pioneer Trail Foundation and the man commissioned to perform the study. "They're coming to the Church for help and a fine cooperation exists. The government has realized modern progress is destroying Western heritage by destroying the Western immigration trails, one of which is ours. Mormon and Western heritages are thus being preserved simultaneously."
Kimball, a great-great-grandson of apostle-pioneer Heber C. Kimball, is a history professor at Southern Illinois University and has monitored the trail since 1974. In August of this year, he found it to be "in good shape, well-managed, with little vandalism."
The trail was little used after 1869, when the transcontinental railroad was completed, rendering foot-and-wagon travel across the plains obsolete. Thereafter, said Kimball, train immigrants were termed – somewhat condescendingly – "Pullman pioneers."
Kimball has found that interest in the Mormon Pioneer Trail preservation and recognition is vast and wide-spread.
"Since I began trail research in 1963," he related, "I've met scores of non-members who are very interested in and supportive of efforts to preserve the trail. There's actually a new `trail renaissance.' Interest is rapidly gaining in this part of national and religious heritage – Mormon history is now viewed as an essential part of Western history."
One such non-member, Iowa historian Elbert Pidcock, helped Kimball pinpoint within a mile or so the location of the birth of the beloved LDS hymn, "Come, Come, Ye Saints." Kimball, after researching hundreds of pioneer journals, found an April 1846 entry in the journal of pioneer James Smithies that coincided with William Clayton's writing of the hymn:
"We camped on the ridge. On the east and the south there is a beautiful valley of timber. On the north side it appeared to be all rising ground." With Pidcock's help, Kimball was able to match the description in Wayne County, Iowa.
Another non-member, local landowner Paul Gunzenhauser, helped Kimball locate some possible pioneer grave sites in Garden Grove, Iowa, the first permanent camp established in 1846 as a junction point of the trail.
Kimball, who has been over the trail 19 times by foot, car and private plane, has won three awards from non-LDS foundations for his work on trail preservation and research.
In 1990, he will again present a trail survey for the National Park Service, this time focusing on how private initiatives, such as museums and educational groups, affect the trail.