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HISTORIC HAPPENINGS - March 2009

River Bridge Memorial
by Vicki Barker

Moab's old cottonwood tree
Rock at Guard Station

A big boulder that tumbled from the sheer cliffs and crushed a man in a guard shack north of the Colorado River Bridge during World War II is now being considered as a site for a memorial monument.

It was a big story when it happened, and old-timers remember hearing about the tragic event as children, imagining what an awful way that would be to die. Among those children was Verlynn Westwood, who counts her family’s blessings when recalling the story.

“What I remember about it was, my Uncle Neil had that job of watching the bridge every other night, and this Mr. Ellis (Otto) had taken over my uncle’s shift, when the rock fell down,” said Mrs. Westwood, who was born in Moab in 1936.

“I was in Moab back then, and it was important to me, and my uncle wasn’t killed,” she said. “Everybody in town talked about it. The news went around quickly and it was talked about all over town.”

Kenny Ellis, 50, the grandson of Otto Ellis, said family still talks about the incident, which happened when his father, Raymond -- now 73 and living in Sunnyside -- was a child. Now the story is embellished with rumors of a ghost at the river and a possible plot hinting at homicide.

“I was told when I was a kid that my dad was 10, that it was his dad at the bridge, and his job was to keep the Japanese from crossing that bridge,” Ellis said. “They don’t know if the boulder came down by accident, or if it was on purpose. You know how those stories go...and there’s supposedly a ghost that walks the river bridge. Supposedly, they didn’t find the body, so that’s why there’s a ghost out there. It’s the spirit looking for his body.”

During the past year, Westwood began suggesting to local historians and public officials that the tale of the war-era guard shack should be memorialized in interpretive signage or a plaque with the name of the victim and surviving guard, Neil Westwood. The idea has been suggested as part of a larger proposal for improvements to the Lions Park area on the south side of the Colorado River Bridge and development of a nature park with an informational kiosk on the north side of the new footbridge, which is within a stone’s throw of the fatal boulder.

The new steel footbridge, several hundred yards east of the Highway 191 vehicle bridge, was dedicated last May. Since then, the local Trail Mix organization has received grant funds as part of a long-range inter-agency effort to upgrade existing mountain-biking and hiking trails and develop pathways from north Moab to the bridges and up the river road, Highway 128.

“The long-range plan -- having bike lanes from town to Lions Park -- is to link trails further up 128 and eventually (provide) a bike lane all the way to Negro Bill Canyon, in conjunction with a shuttle concept,” said Nick Eason, a longtime member of the Lions Club. About $700,000 of the grant is specially earmarked to develop a trailhead underpass beneath the Colorado River Bridge, and a system of trails on the north side of the river, he said.

The whole system is envisioned as the northern gateway to the southeastern Utah recreational area.

Besides the Lions Club, governmental and other groups engaged in the planning include the City of Moab, Grand County, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the National Recreational Trails and Conservation Assistance program.

Mrs. Westwood said the guard shack that her uncle and the other fellow manned during World War II was built to ensure no disruption in the supply and transport of food and equipment for military ordnance depots, and to prisoner-of-war or internment camps that were established in the Colorado Plateau area around 1942-1945. With gas rationed and a shortage of food, her family felt fortunate because her father, Vere, and her mother, Evelyn, helped haul military supplies and therefore had enough gasoline to occasionally pile the family of nine children into the back of the truck and drive out to the river to see her uncle and haul out the fishing poles.

“I have one memory of one summer when we went fishing, we went out that way and stopped and we took him some candy -- probably hard-tack,” she recalled. “We’d fill that truck full up. We’d go out and catch catfish. We supplemented our food with that.”

 
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