More than a century ago, a race car driver helped connect the communities of Utah by pioneering roads for automobiles.
Lisa Michele Church, a Salt Lake City-based author, attorney and historian, spoke to the Cache Valley Historical Society about Charles Bigelow and his impact on travel in the state. The presentation, entitled “Red Rocks and Race Cars: Charles Bigelow and the Arrowhead Highway,” was delivered Monday at the Historic Cache County Courthouse.
“She’s a great speaker and it’s a very interesting topic,” said Courtney Cochley, president of the Cache Valley Historical Society.
According to Church’s research, Bigelow played an integral role in the building of the Arrowhead Highway, the road that connected many Utah towns to one another before Interstate 15 was built.
“Until Bigelow and the Lincoln and Arrowhead Highways, roads connecting Utah towns were primarily wagon roads connecting adjacent towns,” said Scott Bushman, a Cache Valley Historical Society board member. “With the introduction of the automobile, these small dirt wagon roads became hopelessly inadequate for interstate travel and high speeds.”
Bigelow also set numerous records as a race car driver, driving great distances in his 1907 Reo roadster. Bigelow competed in the first ever Indy 500, coming in 15th place.
Bigelow wrote hundreds of nationally published articles about his travels throughout the West, drawing some of the first automobile tourists to the area. All of his news clippings were compiled into an old-fashioned scrapbook, which resides at Dixie State University.
Church doesn’t believe that Bigelow received enough credit for his life’s work. “I would love to see a historical marker along the old highway that Bigelow worked so hard to build,” Church said. “He really changed the American West.”
Although Bigelow and his wife, Hattie, owned a home in Los Angeles, Bigelow was so enamored with the Southern Utah landscape that he purchased burial plots in the St. George City Cemetery, where the couple is buried today.
“In knowing Bigelow, we are inspired by his vision and his energy,” Bushman said. “He seemed a man bigger than life and well suited for the challenges of his time.”
Bigelow’s Utah connection may be on the other end of the state, Cochley said, “but it tells the whole Utah story in travel and transportation.”
Church agreed, saying she thought Wednesday’s event had good turnout — probably due in part to a strong interest in the history of Utah roads.
“I love to find people willing to listen to these fascinating stories of early road builders,” Church said.