December 7, 2023 in Utah

Welcome to Moab: How a Uranium Boomtown Became an Outdoor Adventure Hub”

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Early Inhabitants

The Moab area has been inhabited for thousands of years. Archaeologists have found evidence that Paleo-Indians were living in the region as early as 10,000 BC. These nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes followed mammoth, bison and other game animals across the Colorado Plateau.

Around 1 AD, the Fremont culture emerged and inhabited present-day Utah. Named after the Fremont River, this group lived in pit houses and were farmers, foraging for food and growing corn, beans and squash. They left behind distinctive rock art panels, showing images of bighorn sheep, mountain lions, and trapezoidal human figures.

By the 13th century, Ancestral Puebloans, often referred to as Anasazi, migrated into the area. These early cliff dwellers built elaborate stone and adobe structures along canyon walls and underneath overhangs and alcoves. Puebloans remained in the Moab vicinity until about the end of the 13th century, when climate changes and scarce resources likely forced them to abandon their settlements. Their descendants became the Hopi, Zuni and Rio Grande Pueblo tribes of New Mexico and Arizona.

The Old Spanish Trail trade route connecting Santa Fe, New Mexico with Los Angeles, California brought early explorers through the Moab area in the late 1700s. Traders rested along the Colorado River before crossing over the La Sal Mountains. This route introduced horses and new technologies to indigenous tribes living in southeastern Utah.

Mormon Settlement

In 1855, a group of Mormon settlers established the Elk Mountain Mission in present-day Moab as part of their efforts to colonize the Utah Territory. The mission started with about 30 men who built a fort near the Colorado River and brought some wives and children. At the time, a band of Ute Native Americans lived in the Moab area and relations turned hostile as the Mormon settlers grazed their cattle in traditional Ute hunting grounds. There were a series of raids and skirmishes between the groups throughout the late 1850s. The conflict came to a head in September 1861 when a large band of Utes attacked the fort at Elk Mountain Mission. After a four-day battle, the settlers retreated and abandoned the mission. The Mormon settlers did not permanently return to the Moab area until the 1870s when rhe Latter-day Saints established new settlements along the Colorado River. The conflicts with Native Americans shaped Moab’s early history as Mormon settlers attempted to establish control of the region.

Ranching Era

In the late 1800s, Moab became an important ranching center due to its location along Spanish Trail. The town’s economy was dominated by cattle and sheep ranching up until the early 1900s.

Large cattle ranches were established along the Colorado River and smaller sheep ranches populated the rimrock plateaus surrounding the valley. Cowboys would drive cattle up from the river bottoms to graze during summer months. Popular cattle trails like the Kane Springs Trail were used to move livestock between winter and summer ranges.

The growth of ranching led to a slowly growing permanent population in Moab. In the early 1880s, a stone church and a co-op store were built. The first public school opened in 1891 with twenty students in a one-room schoolhouse. As more ranching families settled in the area, houses and community buildings spread along Center Street, Moab’s main road.

By 1900, Moab’s population reached 166 residents. The town had a blacksmith shop, livery stable, mercantile stores, saloons, and a small hotel. However, Moab was still considered a remote frontier outpost in the Utah Territory. Supplies had to be hauled in over 100 miles away from the railhead in Thompson Springs. But despite its isolation, Moab was becoming an established ranching community.

Mining Boom

The early 1900s ushered in Moab’s mining boom era. Rich deposits of copper, vanadium, and uranium were discovered in the surrounding canyons and river valley. The most significant find was uranium, kickstarting a frenzy of prospecting and claim staking in the 1950s.

The uranium rush brought an influx of miners and mining companies to the region. Charlie Steen’s famous Mi Vida mine southeast of Moab put the town on the map. His discovery in 1952 was one of the richest uranium ore bodies ever found in the U.S., estimated at over $300 million. This massive find triggered a chain reaction, and soon there were more than a thousand uranium mines within 50 miles of Moab.

The population skyrocketed, quadrupling in size through the 1950s from under 1,000 to over 4,000 residents. New motels, cafes, stores, and other businesses opened up to serve the growing community. The economy boomed and the town expanded in all directions.

For a decade, uranium was king. At its peak, Moab’s mines produced nearly 30 million pounds of uranium oxide a year, and employed hundreds of miners. However, the boom went bust in the 1960s as nuclear power lost favor and uranium prices plummeted. When the uranium market collapsed in the 1980s, Moab’s mining days drew to a close.

The Great Depression

The stock market crash of 1929 plunged the United States into the Great Depression and brought an end to Moab’s mining boom. With demand for metals severely diminished, Moab’s mines shut down one by one through the early 1930s. By 1935, uranium mining had ceased entirely in the region.

With the mines closed, jobs immediately vanished in Moab. The population declined sharply as miners left town in search of work elsewhere. Businesses closed their doors, and economic activity ground to a halt. Homes and buildings were left vacant as people moved away.

The Great Depression took a severe toll on Moab as the town lost its economic engine. For over a decade, no new mining occurred. With ranching also declining during the Dust Bowl years, Moab languished with high unemployment rates and poverty throughout the 1930s. The prosperous boomtown of the 1920s had disappeared.

Post-War Era

After World War II ended, Moab experienced a resurgence in uranium mining. New roads were built, allowing large mining equipment to access previously remote areas. The government supported uranium mining as source material for nuclear weapons and energy.

Several major mines opened near Moab in the 1950s, including one of the largest in the country, the Mi Vida mine southeast of the city. Uranium mining brought an influx of new residents and economic prosperity to Moab. The town’s population nearly doubled during the 1950s. New motels, gas stations, and houses were built to accommodate the growing community.

Improvements in infrastructure expanded access to the surrounding public lands. Moab became a popular destination for four-wheel drive enthusiasts in the 1950s and 60s who were drawn to the backcountry roads and trails. The postwar era ushered in Moab’s transition to a tourism-based economy that continues today.

Tourism Emerges

In the 1950s and 1960s, visitors started flocking to Moab to experience the area’s iconic red rock landscapes and wealth of outdoor recreation opportunities. The establishment of Arches National Park in 1971 and Canyonlands National Park in 1964 drew nature lovers from around the world eager to explore the parks’ mesmerizing rock formations and hiking trails.

River rafting on the Colorado River also emerged as a popular tourist activity during this time. Outfitters and guides offered adventurous visitors the chance to experience the river’s world-famous rapids while taking in stunning desert scenery along canyon walls towering thousands of feet high. Commercial river trips through Cataract Canyon and other iconic stretches of the Colorado brought a surge of rafting enthusiasts to Moab.

Moab also became a globally renowned destination for off-roading and 4×4 trails. Challenging backcountry jeep expeditions like the White Rim Trail, Kane Creek Canyon, and the Hell’s Revenge Trail tempted 4-wheel drive enthusiasts seeking technical driving and breathtaking canyon views. Outfitters rented specialized vehicles and guides offered tours through Moab’s seemingly endless network of iconic slickrock jeep trails.

By the 1960s, tourism had emerged as a vital part of the Moab area economy. The national parks, river trips, and jeep trails transformed Moab into a worldwide hub for adventure, making it one of Utah’s most popular destinations.

Modern Moab

Today, Moab is known around the world as a top destination for outdoor recreation. The area’s stunning red rock landscapes, along with the Colorado River and thousands of miles of trails, draw over 3 million visitors each year. From mountain biking and 4×4 trails to whitewater rafting and rock climbing, Moab has become an adventure playground for thrill seekers.

While tourism drives much of the local economy now, Moab has not forgotten its past. Remnants of the old uranium mines and cowboy culture can still be found scattered throughout the area. However, it is outdoor recreation that brings most people to Moab today.

In the 1960s, Moab began attracting four-wheel drive enthusiasts to its backcountry trails. By the 1980s, Moab was gaining fame as a top mountain biking destination. Trail systems like the renowned Slickrock Trail put Moab on the map for fat tire fans. In the 1990s and 2000s, Moab solidified its status as an outdoor recreation mecca. From hosting world-class events like the Jeep Safari to the boom in outfitters, guide services and gear shops, the town embraced its new identity.

While the landscape remains the main draw, Moab has built up the amenities and infrastructure to support its outdoor tourism economy. Visitors will find a wide range of lodging, restaurants, shops, outfitters and other services tailored to adventurers and families alike. However, Moab still retains its small town charm and Holy West feel. The iconic red rock vistas serve as a beautiful backdrop to all the high-octane activities.

Key Figures

Moab has been shaped by many interesting historical figures over the years. Here are some of the most notable:

John Wesley Powell – Powell was a one-armed Civil War veteran and geologist who led the first recorded passage through the Grand Canyon in 1869. He was fascinated by the geology of southeastern Utah and studied the area extensively, naming many of the famous landmarks. His expeditions put Moab on the map for scientists and adventurers.

Local Historians – Various local ranchers and settlers have helped preserve Moab’s history over the generations by recording stories, taking photographs, and collecting artifacts. Notable historians include Elizabeth Dalton, who wrote some of the earliest books about Moab in the 1960s. More recently, historians like Laura Kamala have continued researching and publishing on Moab’s past.

Ranching Families – In the late 19th century, ranchers like the Daltons, Hurts, and others settled the Moab valley and developed cattle ranches. They built homesteads and established communities that formed the foundations of the town. The ranchers brought Anglo culture and permanence to the previously transient Native American lands.

Miners & Prospectors – With the discovery of radium, uranium, and vanadium in the early 1900s, prospectors flooded the area hoping to strike it rich in the mines. Characters like “Seldom Seen Slim” left their mark on Moab’s mining era. Though short-lived, the mining boom put Moab on the map and brought economic activity.

The people of Moab have shaped its unique culture and identity through the years. Key figures like these have made the town what it is today. Their stories are an important part of understanding Moab’s complete history.

Historic Sites

Moab is home to numerous historic sites and landmarks that offer a glimpse into the area’s past. Some key historic sites in Moab include:

Moab Museum

Located in a historic home along Main Street, the Moab Museum contains exhibits on the area’s paleontology, geology, indigenous cultures, Mormon settlement, mining, ranching, and river exploration. Highlights include ancient artifacts, vintage photographs, and dinosaur bones. Visitors can take a self-guided tour to learn about Moab’s fascinating history.

Sorrel River Ranch

This historic ranch property along the banks of the Colorado River has been transformed into a luxury resort. The original Homestead House, built in 1901 by cattle rancher David Sorrel, has been preserved on-site. Guests can imagine what life was like during Moab’s ranching days while enjoying the resort’s upscale amenities.

Dalton Wells

Dalton Wells was an important stopover for stagecoaches in the late 1800s, providing water in an otherwise arid landscape. Remnants of the well system and a memorial dedicated to pioneer settlers can be seen off Highway 191 near the entrance to Arches National Park. Dalton Wells offers a taste of Moab’s pioneer roots.

Newspaper Rock

This impressive rock art panel contains over 300 petroglyphs and pictographs left by Native American tribes like the Ancestral Puebloans, Fremont culture, and Utes. The centuries-old rock carvings depict human figures, animals, and designs, providing insight into Moab’s earliest inhabitants. The site is located in Indian Creek Corridor near Canyonlands National Park.

Moab has done an excellent job preserving its historic buildings, landmarks, and sites for visitors and residents to appreciate and learn from. Exploring Moab’s rich past is an enlightening part of any trip.

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