In 1995, the Burlington-Santa Fe Railroad had a problem, a big problem. Rebecca Winters, a Mormon overland emigrant, died of cholera near Scott's Bluff in 1852. Her grave, marked by an iron wagon tire engraved with her name, had become a shrine. According to legend, the Burlington Route diverted its tracks to avoid desecrating the site, and now thousands of Nebraska schoolchildren trek to her grave by the side of the railroad tracks.
The city of Scottsbluff's historic preservation society regularly decorated the grave with flowers, as did visitors all year long. Besides her many admirers in Nebraska, Winters had thousands of descendants in Utah. Her granddaughter Hilda Augusta was the second wife of LDS President Heber J. Grant. Her family was devoted to her memory and made pilgrimages to her grave. Trouble was, the grave was on the wrong side of the tracks from the highway. Visitors to the site had to cross the tracks, creating a safety nightmare for the Burlington-Santa Fe Railroad. After a few close calls, the railroad's safety officials decided they had to take action to avoid a fatal disaster.
The job fell to district safety officer Charlie Klutts. It was a challenge fraught with peril, for the solution, moving the grave to the highway side, could raise charges of desecration and stir the outrage of Winters' many descendants and admirers. The railroad ran ads in The Salt Lake Tribune to contact descendants and alert them to their plans. They asked for the family's support and advice on moving the grave to a safer and more attractive location. With the family's consent, the Burlington moved ahead.
In early September 1996, hundreds of relatives, historians, scientists and journalists witnessed the solemn moment of opening the grave. After decades of experience with pioneer burials, the local sexton knew that if the grave were undisturbed, removing the topsoil would expose the silhouette of the burial. As the crowd watched, Klutts broke the prairie, and just as the sexton predicted, the perfect outline of the grave appeared.
The iron wagon tire was still in an unbroken circle, buried so deeply that workers could not pull it out by hand. The marker and the grave had never been moved. The grave was well over six feet deep, confirming the tradition that the burial party had worked hard to ensure that no animal disturbed it. They had carved steps to let them dig the grave deeper. University of Nebraska and state archaeologists carefully brushed away the last inches of soil. Some thought none of the remains would have survived, but this careful work revealed a fully articulated skeleton in excellent condition, with Winters' arms carefully folded across her chest.
The family reverently placed the bones on a quilt in a casket provided by a local funeral home. For the Winters family, it was a profoundly spiritual and historical moment. Nathan Winters said it was like meeting her 144 years after she died. His 94-year-old father, who had talked with people who knew his great-grandmother, attended with great-grandchildren of his own. As a Christian, Klutts is a humble man, but he is an American hero. He faced a daunting challenge and pulled it off with sensitivity and courage. He recalled an especially moving moment when a six -year-old Utah girl peered into the grave. Clutching a bouquet, she said, "We love you, Grandma."
This week marks Utah historian Will Bagley's first year writing for The Salt Lake Tribune. He wants to thank his readers and the newspaper for their support of history.