July 6, 2023 in Utah

The Past That Shaped Springdale: A Look at How This Utah Town Came To Be

Early History

The area surrounding Springdale has been inhabited for thousands of years by Native American tribes, including the Southern Paiute people. The first European explorers arrived in the late 18th century, including Spanish missionaries like Silvestre Vélez de Escalante.

Springdale itself was established in 1862 by Mormon pioneers settling the area. The town was originally named Shunesburg after one of the first settlers, George Shunes. Early settlers focused on agriculture and raising livestock to survive the rugged landscape. The small town was very isolated, requiring a long journey by wagon just to reach neighboring communities.

In 1909, the town was renamed Springdale likely due to the many natural springs in the area. Even after the town’s establishment, Native American tribes continued to inhabit and move through the region for decades. Springdale remained a very small farming settlement well into the 20th century.

Pioneer Settlement

The first pioneers settled in the Springdale area in the 1860s, establishing small farms and ranches along the Virgin River. The mild climate and availability of water made the valley ideal for agriculture and raising livestock. Crops such as fruit, grains, and cotton thrived in the rich soil.

Ranchers grazed cattle, sheep, and horses on the open range surrounding Springdale. Pioneers grew to rely on each other for survival and a small community formed. Incorporated in 1863, Springdale was one of the first settled towns in southern Utah. The pioneers persevered despite threats from flooding and conflicts over land and water rights.

The pioneers’ legacy lives on in Springdale today through preserved historic sites and continued agricultural traditions. Within a generation, sleepy pioneer Springdale would transform into a gateway town to nearby Zion National Park. But the small town charm and community spirit harken back to its earliest pioneer settlers.

Zion National Park

Zion National Park was first established as Mukuntuweap National Monument in 1909 by President William Howard Taft to protect the incredible natural beauty of the red and white colored sandstone cliffs and canyons in southwestern Utah. During this time, the small pioneer Mormon community of Springdale was located at the mouth of Zion Canyon and served as a gateway for visitors exploring the region.

In 1919, the National Park Service was created and the monument was renamed Zion National Park. Park tourism began to draw visitors to stay at lodges and campgrounds in Springdale. The Union Pacific Railroad promoted travel to Zion, bringing tourists from across the country on rail cars to Cedar City and then bussing them to Springdale.

As visitation increased over the years, Zion transformed Springdale from a quiet agrarian town into a popular tourist destination. New hotels, restaurants, outfitters and shops catering to park visitors began opening along Zion Park Boulevard. Springdale remains the primary gateway community for Zion National Park, with nearly all park visitors passing through on their way to explore the towering cliffs, narrow slot canyons, and winding trails of Zion.

Great Depression

The Great Depression had devastating effects on the small town of Springdale. As tourism declined sharply due to economic conditions, many businesses were forced to close, leaving numerous residents unemployed.

The Zion Park Company, which operated a lodge, campgrounds, and amenities within Zion National Park, was forced to severely cut back operations. They went from employing over 100 workers to just a handful. This loss of jobs was catastrophic for Springdale.

Many local farms also went bankrupt, as crop prices plummeted and weather conditions led to poor harvests. Some families even lost their homes and land. The population of Springdale declined by over 20% during the 1930s due to people leaving town in search of work.

It was a very dire and desperate time for the community. Town residents came together to provide food, shelter and support for struggling families. Locals still reminisce about the tremendous generosity and camaraderie displayed during those hard times.

Things finally began improving in the late 1930s as the economy recovered and tourism picked back up. The Civilian Conservation Corps built infrastructure in Zion National Park during this period, helping to draw visitors back to the area. Springdale gradually rebounded over the course of the next decade.

Post-War Growth

After World War II, Springdale experienced significant population growth and economic expansion. Soldiers returning from the war sought affordable housing and job opportunities, many of which were available in the small town.

The population of Springdale nearly doubled from 1940 to 1950, jumping from 378 to 620 residents. This growth continued through the 1950s and 1960s as more families moved to Springdale. By 1970, the town had 1,097 residents.

Several factors drove Springdale’s post-war economic boom. The nearby Zion National Park saw record visitors in the post-war era as Americans began traveling more by automobile. Springdale benefited from the tourism dollars these visitors brought. In the 1950s, new motels, restaurants, and shops opened in Springdale to serve park visitors.

Industrial development also occurred in Springdale after the war. In the late 1940s, the Utah Concrete Pipe Company opened a large manufacturing plant in town. The plant produced concrete pipes and other materials needed for infrastructure projects across the region. At its peak, the concrete plant employed over 100 local residents.

The post-war decades fundamentally transformed Springdale from a small pioneer village into a modern small town. The influx of new residents and businesses created both opportunities and challenges for the community. Managing further growth and preserving Springdale’s natural environment became priorities for town leaders.

Recent Decades

Springdale has seen significant changes in recent decades, driven by factors like tourism, population shifts, and preservation efforts.

Tourism to nearby Zion National Park has expanded greatly since the 1990s. Visitation numbers have risen from under 3 million per year in the 90s to over 4 million annually today. This tourism boom has impacted Springdale, with more hotels, restaurants, and outfitters opening up in town. While tourism has brought jobs and revenue, it has also caused challenges like crowdedness, noise, traffic congestion, and strains on infrastructure.

The resident population of Springdale has also evolved. Longtime ranching families have steadily moved away or sold their homes to new residents. In the 1960s, Springdale had about 100 residents, while today it is home to about 600 full-time residents. Recent decades have seen an influx of retirees, remote workers, artists, and outdoor enthusiasts move to Springdale for its natural beauty and proximity to Zion.

Preservation of Springdale’s history and small town character has become a priority in recent years. In the early 2000s, the town created architectural design standards to maintain its pioneer-era style. The historic pioneer homes and buildings along Zion Park Boulevard have been preserved to retain the town’s rustic western charm. In 2009, Springdale became an official Utah Heritage Town. Ongoing efforts by local government, historians, and preservation groups aim to balance growth and change with preserving Springdale’s cultural heritage.

Historic Places

Springdale has several historic buildings and sites that reveal the town’s unique past. Some of the most notable historic places include:

  • Pioneer Homestead Cabins: Several pioneer-era log cabins remain standing in their original locations around Springdale, offering a window into the lives of early settlers. The cabins showcase rustic frontier architecture using local materials.
  • Springdale Schoolhouse: This historic one-room schoolhouse educated generations of Springdale children from the late 1800s until the 1950s. It represents the town’s early commitment to education. Visitors can tour the restored schoolhouse to imagine school days long ago.
  • Old Church of Springdale Chapel: Built in the 1920s, this rustic stone chapel hosted worship services for decades before falling into disrepair. After extensive renovations, it now serves as an event venue and landmark. The chapel’s stunning Zion-style architecture creates an evocative historic backdrop.
  • Fort Zion: The partially reconstructed fort offers a glimpse into the town’s founding as Mormon pioneers built it for protection from native attacks in the 1860s. It anchors Springdale to its early pioneer history.
  • Pioneer Cemetery: Burials here date back to the town’s earliest years, with generations of Springdale founding families laid to rest. The weathered headstones memorialize the town’s frontier beginnings.

These historic places give visitors a profound sense of Springdale’s past beginnings while highlighting the town’s faith, architecture, education, and culture through the years. They provide an irreplaceable link to the origins of this remarkable gateway town.

Prominent Figures

Springdale has a rich history shaped by many notable figures over the years. Here are some of the key pioneers, founders, and leaders who left their mark on the town:

Benjamin Brown

Benjamin Brown is considered one of Springdale’s founding fathers. He was among the first pioneers to settle the area in 1862. Brown constructed the first cabin and irrigation system in Springdale, allowing farming to thrive in the arid climate. He served as bishop of the LDS church in the settlement for many years.

Lorenzo Wesley Roundy

Lorenzo Roundy was an early pioneer and settler who helped establish Springdale in 1862. He worked alongside Benjamin Brown to build cabins and irrigation ditches to bring water from the Virgin River. Roundy served in many leadership positions in the young settlement and was a skilled stonemason.

Nephi Johnson

Nephi Johnson was a prominent early settler and civic leader in Springdale. He constructed the first church and school buildings in the 1870s. Johnson farmed successfully along the Virgin River and was elected the first mayor of Springdale when it became an incorporated town in 1909. He helped draft the town’s charter.

Mary Gifford

Mary Gifford was an influential civic leader who helped establish Zion National Park. She played a key role in the early 1900s lobbying federal officials to protect the magnificent natural landscape around Springdale as a National Monument, which later became Zion National Park. Her preservation efforts left an immense legacy.

Fred W. Taylor

Fred Taylor was an important figure in Springdale’s early tourism industry. In 1923, he opened the town’s first lodging for travelers with Zion View Lodge. This launched Springdale’s transition into a gateway community where visitors stayed while exploring Zion Canyon. Taylor promoted the national park’s wonders to guests from all over.

Cultural History

Springdale has a rich cultural history shaped by its natural landscapes and artistic residents. As an enclave next to Zion National Park, Springdale has long attracted creatives inspired by the area’s iconic sandstone cliffs, canyons, and natural springs.

The town hosted an Artist-in-Residence program starting in the late 1980s, bringing painters, photographers, sculptors, and writers to live and work in Zion for weeks at a time. Their artworks captured unique aspects of the park and shared its beauty with the world. Over 30 artists participated before the program ended in the late 1990s.

For over 20 years, Springdale has hosted an annual Zion Canyon Music Festival in September. This multi-day event features performances from local musicians of various genres, including bluegrass, folk, rock, and native artists. The festival celebrates the region’s musical talents and provides entertainment to residents and park visitors.

In recent years, artists have opened galleries along Springdale’s main street, selling landscape paintings, nature photography, pottery, and jewelry inspired by the area. The galleries exhibit works by local artists and host workshops for visiting photographers and plein air painters who come to capture Zion’s scenery.

Annual events like the Zion Canyon Theater’s production of the outdoor musical Satisfaction, Canyon Community Center’s Earth Day celebrations, and the library’s Utah Winds concert series have highlighted Springdale’s arts and cultural heritage. The community continues to foster artistic talent drawn to this dramatic natural landscape.

Future Outlook

Springdale continues to balance progress and preservation as it plans for the future. The town has experienced rapid growth in tourism, especially with the nearby Zion National Park drawing over 4 million visitors per year. However, residents aim to maintain Springdale’s small-town charm and unique character amidst this influx.

Major initiatives are underway to manage the growth and its impacts. The Zion Regional Collaborative brings multiple agencies together to plan transportation, infrastructure, and visitor capacity for the area. Springdale adopted a new General Plan in 2020 with a strong focus on strategic development, multi-modal transportation, and design standards that fit the town’s red rock landscape.

New lodging and dining venues catering to tourists have appeared in recent years. The city plans to direct future development mainly to the central commercial core, preserving the residential neighborhoods and natural surroundings. Strategies involve enhancing walkability, increasing affordable housing, and rezoning for mixed-use development.

Protecting Zion and promoting sustainable tourism remain top priorities. Springdale works closely with the National Park Service to emphasize quality over quantity of visitors, address overcrowding, and minimize environmental damage. The community takes pride in providing an exemplary gateway experience leading into one of America’s most iconic national parks.

Overall, Springdale seeks to thread the needle between welcoming guests from around the world and retaining its small community roots. With cooperative planning and smart growth policies, the town can continue thriving while still feeling like a peaceful village nestled against the towering red rock cliffs.

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