Moab Beginnings & Development

Moab Beginnings: Why Moab?

By 1880, 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 butcherings, 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.

Historian Bruce Louthan and Moab Cowboy Kenny Allred shout out "Good Old Moab, Yep".

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Minutes of Grand County Commission’s inaugural meeting in 1890

Minutes of Grand County Commission’s inaugural meeting in 1890

Early in 1890, Grand County was separated from Emery County to become its own governmental entity. A group of appointees met on May 5, 1890 to elect officers and begin the process of establishing a new county government. The minutes from this inaugural meeting are visible, while subsequent entries reveal trends in Moab area crime: alcohol possession in the 1930s, and disorderly conduct during the uranium boom of the 1950s.

Ballot box from Grand County’s first election

Ballot box from Grand County’s first election

This ballot box was used during the 1880s in Grand County’s first election, and by the Miner’s Basin community in the La Sal Mountains

Tobacco Can

Tobacco Can

Mining claims often were made by filling out a Notice of Location form, sealing it in a weather-resistant container, and place it under cover – typically a conspicuous pile of rocks. This well-worn tobacco can contained a Notice of Location and was found in Miner’s Basin in the La Sal Mountains above Castle Valley.

Moab Development: How did we grow?

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.

1908 ... J.N. Corbin ran the first telephone line into Moab and a municipal water system went online. 1909 ... The first automobile arrived in Moab
1912 ... The first bridge crossed the Colorado River; the Moab Garage formed to serve the growing number of vehicles; the Ides Theater opened to show silent movies; and the Cooper-Martin Store, Moab Co-op, and Hammonds Mercantile provided general merchandise to the community.

1915 ... Electrification arrived in Moab
1916 ... First National Bank was established by owners of the Cooper-Martin Store.
1918 ... Scorup-Sommerville Cattle Company was one of the large operations in Utah
1919 ... The Grand Valley Times and The Independent were bought and combined by Loren “Bish” Taylor in 1919 and renamed the Times-Independent.

Courthouse Wash
Halfway Station

Courthouse Wash
Halfway Station

This signed 1905-era lithograph features the Courthouse Wash Halfway Station which was built in 1883. Located half-way between Moab and the railroad station in Thompson Springs, the station provided lodging and meals for travelers and a water break for horses, on the 35-mile journey. Remaining walls of the stone building can be seen in Mill Canyon northwest of Moab. Created and donated by former Museum Board President Pete Plastow.

J. A. “Al” Scorup hat

J. A. “Al” Scorup hat

This well-worn felt cowboy hat with leather band and Grosgrain ribbon belonged to Al Scorup, owner of the historic Dugout Ranch and co-owner of the S & S (Scorup-Somerville) Cattle Company. “The Cattleman of the Canyons” was inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum after managing Utah’s largest cattle operation on land adjacent to what is now the Needles Section of Canyonlands National Park. Donated by Ella Shupe.

Times-Independent newspaper typeset

Times-Independent newspaper typeset

In 1896, just three weeks after arriving in Moab from Colorado, Justus N. Corbin started the Grand Valley Times newspaper (operating today as the Times-Independent). The paper published weekly accounts of Moab region happenings, proudly promoting anything that would boost the town’s infrastructure and commercial potential. The T-I advertised for a town doctor and even called for the formation of a town baseball team. On loan from the Times-Independent.

Uranium Boom:
How did Moab become “Boomtown”?

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.

Uranium Prospecting goes back before the boom: Bob Baldwin remembers his father prospecting uranium by pack mule for Madame Curie.

Charlie Steen's Boots

Charlie Steen's boots

Charlie Steen wore these boots on July 6, 1952, when he discovered the purest source of uranium in Lisbon Valley. His discovery was published in newspapers nationwide, inspiring thousands of prospectors to seek their own fortune. Soon Moab was transformed from a farming and ranching community into a wealthy mining and mill town. Steen’s Mi Vida Mine and processing mill established him as the King of Uranium. Boots on loan from the Steen family.

Buck Rogers Geiger counter

Buck Rogers Geiger counter

This Model 111B is the first portable scintillation Geiger counter. By the 1960s, radiation detection technology had advanced to produce an updated version of the 1950s Babbel Model 600A. Donated anonymously, possibly by Dan O’Laurie, an early investor in Charlie Steen’s mine and major Museum benefactor.

Yellowcake Vial

Yellowcake Vial

This small vial is a sample of processed uranium otherwise known as “Yellowcake.” When the Atlas Uranium Reduction Mill closed in 1984, the population of Moab decreased as people abandoned their homes to find work elsewhere. To replace the economic loss created by the mill closure, the local Chamber of Commerce and the City Government promoted the outdoor recreation industry. Donated by Howard Balsley.

" the richest town in the U.S.A"

McCall’s Magazine: “the richest town in the U.S.A.”

In 1956 McCall’s, a monthly American women’s magazine, reported that Moab had the highest percentage of millionaires of any town in America. The author was intrigued: “You would never know it to look at the town. You can stand all day at its single traffic light and not see a sign of new wealth. No mink coats. No sports cars. No fancy shops. No hot nightspots. No flashy neon signs.”

Gateway to the Canyonlands:
What came after the 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.

Heart of the Canyonlands

But, 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.

 

First Editions of Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang

First Editions of Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang

Pennsylvania-born author Edward Abbey wrote Desert Solitaire, a book inspired by his experiences as a fire spotter and seasonal park ranger at what was then Arches National Monument. Robert Redford said Desert Solitaire “positively influenced many to not only treasure our natural heritage but to fight for its preservation as well.” Abbey’s writings galvanized the early environmental movement, and many believe The Monkey Wrench Gang inspired the formation of the militant group Earth First!

Bates Wilson
NPS hat

Bates Wilson
NPS hat

This iconic National Park Service hat belonged to Bates Wilson who, from 1949 to 1972, served as Superintendent of Arches National Monument (now Park), Natural Bridges National Monument, and Canyonlands National Park. Considered the “Father of Canyonlands,” Wilson was an inspirational and tireless advocate for preserving the southeastern Utah landscape for the public. Donated by Robin Wilson.

Federal Land Management Agency Shields

Federal Land Management Agency Shields

Almost 2/3rds of Utah's land belongs to the American people and is managed by federal agencies with very different purposes. National Park Service (NPS) manages Utah’s national parks and monuments, providing public access to natural and cultural resources while “protecting and preserving unimpaired for future generations.” U.S. Forest Service (USFS) lands are managed for camping, hiking, hunting, timber harvesting, livestock grazing, and watershed and habitat protection. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages wildly diverse ecosystems for recreation, conservation, wildlife habitat and economic purposes.