More than a century ago, Mormons based in Nauvoo, Ill., trekked to a place they called “Zion,” in Utah.
The wealthiest among them traveled in horse-drawn wagons, like many pioneers traveling west at the time, along what is now called the Mormon Pioneer Trail. The rest hauled their earthly possessions in handcarts, walking on foot across Iowa along a path known as the Mormon Handcart Trail.
Both paths are fairly well known, thanks to pioneer journals and the Church of Latter Day Saints’ desire to document its own history. But, there are historic sites along the trail in Iowa that have not yet been properly identified, and no efforts have been made to preserve them.
Golden Hills Resource Conservation and Development, in partnership with the Iowa Valley and Pathfinders RC&D organizations, has received a $14,500 grant from the Iowa West Foundation in Council Bluffs to do just that. The goal is to eventually preserve and interpret the important role Iowa played in the Mormon westward migration.
“The trail study will be conducted using a combination of historical document research and (Light Detection and Ranging) data analysis,” Golden Hills RC&D Executive Director Liz Birkel-Leddy said. “[It] is a popular technology used to make high resolution maps that can see land contours through heavily forested areas or areas with dense vegetation. For this project specifically, the technology will be used to discover trail ruts, historic structures and other features of the trails that are in danger of being lost to development or the elements.”
The study will also include a natural resources inventory and cultural resources inventory. The results of the study will be used to develop preliminary plans for the acquisition, preservation, enhancement, and interpretation of historic Mormon Trail sites.
The Iowa Department of Transportation and the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation have also awarded grant funds for this project. Polk, Jasper and Poweshiek counties are part of the study area.
The Mormon Handcart Trail followed generally along the path of U.S. Highway 6 prior to parts of it being re-routed to Interstate Highway 80 in Central Iowa. In recent years, some historical tourists have attempted to trek along the trail’s route through Iowa.
Linda Bacon of the Newton Convention and Visitors Bureau welcomed the investment in development of the Mormon trails.
“Trails and recreation are a large part of the tourism industry and continues to gain momentum as our population becomes more health conscious and looking for ways to enjoy the outdoors,” she said. “With these grants that are being made available, the land that is going to benefit from the dollars gives people greater accessibility for recreation, but also the opportunity for more historical preservation.”