Courtesy of the Moab Museum
There is rich archaeological evidence that long before Europeans, Native Americans thrived across the Colorado Plateau, developing a complex relationship with its ecosystem and adopting cultural traditions and ceremonies based on a learned respect for the land and its resources. As varied as there are cultural traditions, so too, are the countless tribes with histories rooted in encounters, migrations, and settlements across the Intermountain West and Southwest. We are most familiar with the tribes whose relationships to this land have been shared through written word and oral histories – the Ute (Noochew), Navajo (Dineh), Paiute (Nuwuvi), and Hopi (Hisatsinom).
European and American exploration began in the mid-1700s and continued throughout the 1800s. Routes mapped by the Rivera expedition in 1765 and a Franciscan expedition in 1776 helped blaze the initial route of the Old Spanish Trail. The mid-1850s witnessed an increase in exploration, primarily to map western lands unknown to Europeans. The 1859 expedition led by U.S. Army Captain John Macomb and physician/geologist John Newberry sought a route to transport military supplies from New Mexico to Utah, survey the region crossed by the Old Spanish Trail, assess resources, and locate the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers.
Image courtesy of the National Park Service
The Arrival of the Mormon Missionaries
The Moab Valley is part of the Ute ancestral homeland. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints colonized much of Utah, with faithful missionaries directed to settle in places with water and arable land, regardless of Indigenous inhabitation. In 1855, the church sent 41 men to establish a community where the Old Spanish Trail crossed the Colorado River. When the Elk Mountain Mission arrived that June, a fort was promptly built just south of where the Moab Springs Ranch is today. Conflict between the mission settlers and Utes soon arose and the mission was abandoned in September of 1855. By the 1870s, ranchers and homesteaders began to trickle into the valley.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Elk Mountain Mission
Driven from their communities east of the Mississippi River because of religious persecution, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints settled in the Salt Lake City area of northern Utah and southwestern Wyoming where farming was bountiful. From this base, missions were sent out to surrounding areas establishing communities and wrestling control of the land from the local Native tribes.
One of the church’s final missionary efforts was to establish a community in the Moab Valley. In June of 1855, forty men arrived to establish a settlement, build gardens, and evangelize along the Colorado River near the Old Spanish Trail crossing. Initially, local Utes were friendly, so the Mormons began trading weapons and ammunition. Friendly relations deteriorated when the Mormons built a stone fort-like compound and planted crops in the tall grasslands the Utes depended upon for food and hunting. Armed conflicts occurred and the missionaries were driven out of the Moab Valley by the Natives, abandoning the fort after just four months. This was the first failure of religion-directed settlement in Utah.
The Next Arrivals
When the Mormon pioneers’ settlement in Moab failed to gain a foothold, the valley became a welcoming place for a variety of enterprising and ambitious arrivals. By the 1870s, Americans and Europeans arrived to establish ranches, farms, and fruit orchards. Moab became nationally known for its produce. But, it wasn’t until 1887, when the Ute people were relocated to reservations, that the Moab Valley was relatively open for permanent settlement. In the late 1800s, Moab was typical of a “wild west” town. A prospector who visited Moab in 1981 remarked that it was known as the toughest town in Utah because the surrounding country had many deep canyons, rivers, mountains, and wilderness areas. For this reason, it became a favorite hideout for many outlaw gangs. Among the most infamous of these outlaws were Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch.
The San Juan Mission and Hole-in-the-Rock
Forty-five years after the Elk Mountain Mission was abandoned, the church once again called on missionaries to establish a settlement in southeastern Utah. A caravan of 250 adults, 83 wagons and 1000 head of livestock, headed toward Montezuma in San Juan country, over country described as “nothing but rocks and holes, hills and hollows.” After carving a wagon-wide path through Hole-in-the-Rock, they descended 2,000 feet to cross the Colorado River and settled on a few acres of good farmland they named Bluff (city). Farming was difficult due to frequent floods, so many settlers relocated north in today’s cities of Blanding and Monticello.
A Town Called Moab
The settlement of Moab grew slowly over the years, its economy largely built on farming and ranching. During the 1890s, as mining surged and the railroad was built, the valley’s population grew to about 19 different communities and villages. The tiny village had grown into a bustling community in need of a Post Office. To be authorized, however, the community needed a name. A committee was formed, and William Pierce, a local farmer, and occasional dentist suggested the name of Moab. In its biblical reference, Moab was a dry, sandy wilderness whose climate mirrored the arid climate of the Utahn settlement. Once the name secured government approval, Pierce became the first postmaster of the newly named town. Within five years of its naming, Henry G. Crouse, also a postmaster, tried to change the name, arguing that the Moab in the Bible was the location of the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, therefore an inappropriate name for the community. Each time it was brought to a vote, the name change failed.
Early entertainment in Moab often resulted from communal work such as hog butchering, quilting bees, and fruit peeling gatherings. These events brought people together by necessity but often turned into huge social gatherings. Early settlers liked to dance, transforming utilitarian events into all-night affairs, usually held in private homes. Initially, fiddles and accordions provided accompaniment, but in 1898 the first piano arrived by rail and wagon from Boston, and a new dance hall was constructed to house it and the parties that followed.
The Fourth of July and July 24th (Utah’s Pioneer Day celebration) also were prominent party days that began with several local women roaming the streets at dawn, serenading the community. This was followed by horse races, a picnic, and skits put on by the children.
By the early 20th century, Moab had become a vibrant town. A telephone line and municipal water system were operating, automobiles arrived, and a bridge over the Colorado River paved the way for the Moab Garage to serve vehicles and travelers. Electricity arrived and the Ides Theater showed silent films. The Cooper-Martin Store, Moab Co-op, and Hammond’s Mercantile offered a wide variety of merchandise, the Maxwell House Hotel began hosting out-of-towners, and business leaders established the First National Bank. Ranching remained a major economic force with large livestock operations in the region, including the Scorup-Somerville Cattle Company guided by its legendary owner, J.A. “Al” Scorup.
Although prospecting for valuable minerals had attracted ambitious and world-weary men to southeast Utah for decades, it wasn’t until 1952 when Charlie Steen discovered one of the country’s richest uranium deposits. Inspired by nation-wide coverage of Charlie’s rags-to-riches story, thousands of prospectors and their families streamed to Moab. In just a few years Moab’s population grew from 1,200 to 6,500 and “Boomtown” Moab crowned itself the uranium capital of the world.
Yet the boom created new challenges for Moab; its basic infrastructure was inadequate to support the new arrivals. Residents rented out rooms and their backyards for camp trailers because there wasn’t sufficient housing stock. Increased demand caused water shortages in parts of town and the sewer system often backed up. Schools had to operate with multiple shifts and there was a waiting list for making phone calls. Despite the problems, most Moab residents remember the boom fondly as an exciting, prosperous time with plenty of work and parties to attend. The boom changed Moab forever; it emerged with improved infrastructure, more businesses, and prospecting roads over much of the surrounding country, poised to capitalize on the next boom.
Charlie Steen’s discovery brought the uranium boom to Moab with a bang. However, the bust was a slow decline with several steps. The first step came in 1958 when the Atomic Energy Commission [AEC] announced they would only buy uranium from reserves developed by that year. The announcement ended prospecting overnight. Uranium prospectors coined the phrase, “57 you’re in heaven, 58 you’re too late.”
Government contracts to buy uranium lasted until 1966. The federal government hoped private nuclear power interests would replace national defense purchases. A government program allowed uranium producers to “stretch-out” their contracts to 1970, which resulted in more layoffs in the mines and the mill. The resulting loss of its major customer and primary financier caused the industry to shed jobs and people to seek new opportunities elsewhere. In 1960, even the opening of a new $25 million potash mine and mill had minimal effect.
Tourism and Beyond
By then the economic potential of tourism promotion began to take hold. In 1963, a year before the creation of Canyonlands National Park, the Moab Chamber of Commerce changed the town’s slogan from Uranium Capital of the World to Heart of the Canyonlands. Nuclear energy did cause a minor increase in uranium production during the 1970s, but the Three Mile Island incident in 1979 ground the growth of nuclear energy to a halt. The uranium mill closed in 1984, ending the industry’s period as Moab’s major economic force.
Today Grand County is working to diversify its economy by targeting light manufacturing, tourism and recreation, the fine arts, educational programs, television and motion picture production, agriculture, and the development of natural resources.
Adapted from the Moab Museum at www.moabmuseum.org
For more information, please contact or visit the Moab Museum at 118 E. Center Street