During World War II, U.S. military leaders feared the possibility of long-range attacks on critical infrastructure within U.S. borders. Damage to roads, plants, or bridges could harm the country’s military efficacy. To protect these assets, the War Department (now the Department of Defense) declared the U.S. the “Zone of the Interior” and created military police battalions to guard key locations.
The bridge across the Colorado River north of Moab was one such location. Beginning in 1939 three Moab locals—Otto Ellis, Alvie Holyoak, and Neil Westwood—kept watch over the bridge from a guard shack nearby, ensuring safe transport of military supplies and equipment, according to the Grand County Historic Preservation Commission. Ellis, age 52, was killed while on duty when major rockfall crushed the guard shack with him inside.
The rock that killed Ellis is still there. The Historic Preservation Commission is proposing to place a small plaque on the boulder summarizing that history, and Grand County Commissioners voted their approval of the plan at their Dec. 6 meeting.
“It is a unique little tidbit of local history that took a rather mundane program operated by the military to guard internal infrastructure in the US during World War II, and it ended up being a story that was one of the first stories of Moab history that I heard about when I came here about 21 years ago,” said Jodi Patterson, chair of the Historic Preservation Commission.
A 1942 Times Independent article details the rockfall that took Ellis’s life. Ellis had just relieved Holyoak from guard duty at 6 a.m. At around 6:45 a.m., a passing motorist saw that the guard house was crushed and alerted the sheriff and the mayor, both of whom rushed to the scene where they found the guard shack on fire. They extinguished the flames and put a crew to work digging a hole next to the boulder, which the article estimates may have been 50 tons. Using a truck, workers rolled the boulder into the hole and were able to recover Ellis’s remains. Ellis was survived by a widow and five children. Members of the Ellis, Holyoak and Westwood families still live in the Moab area today, Patterson said.
“There are some interesting urban legends that have gone along with [the story], like, ‘the body is still there,’ or ‘it’s haunted,’—it’s this neat little piece of Moab history,” Patterson said.
Commission Chair Jacques Hadler also serves on the Historic Preservation Commission and enthusiastically supported the plaque.
“I think anytime you can bring local history and lore like this into the forefront is a cool thing,” Hadler said.