Washington County

A Brief Detailed History of Washington County Utah

To jump to area of interest, please click links below. To return to top of page, please click the "back to top" link.

Native Americans

Until approximately 1300 A.D., the Pueblo people, also known as the Anasazi, inhabited the Washington County area, leaving behind only ruins of their dwellings and petroglyphs. The exact reason for their departure is unknown, but experts speculate that a long drought forced them to move. Later on, the Southern Paiutes arrived in the region. This peaceful tribe lived in small bands and subsisted mainly by hunting and gathering. The Navajos to the southeast and Utes to the north often raided the tribe. The Utes occasionally captured Paiute women and children to sell as slaves along the Spanish Trail.

Explorers and Trappers

In 1776, members of the Dominguez-Escalante expedition, led by two Franciscan friars, were the first European Americans to see what is today Washington County. The party traversed the foot of the Hurricane Cliffs. Their journals from this expedition provided accurate descriptions of the landscape. Trappers and government agents passed through in the early 19th century. Some speculate Jedediah Smith traversed the Virgin River Narrows. Other notable mountain men and explorers that came through include “Pegleg” Smith, Kit Carson and John C. Fremont, in 1844.
- back to top-

Mormon Settlers

In the 1850s, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormon or LDS church, began to establish settlements throughout the Great Basin. The church sent an exploring party, led by Mormon apostle Parley P. Pratt, to explore the area just below the southern rim of the Great Basin to assess its settlement potential. The expedition reached the confluence of the Virgin and Santa Clara rivers before returning to Salt Lake City to report on their findings.

In 1852, Mormon settlers established New Harmony in northern Washington County, becoming their first attempt to settle the region below the southern rim of the Great Basin. A year later, a group led by Rufus Allen established an Indian mission further south and built a good rapport with the Southern Paiutes, who viewed these white men as protectors. Soon after, New Harmony leaders urged LDS president Brigham Young to expand colonization further south, leading to the establishment of Toquerville, Santa Clara, Gunlock and Pine Valley. Later on, settlement reached the upper Virgin with the founding of towns such as Virgin, Grafton, Rockville, and Springdale. By 1860, Washington County boasted a dozen small communities of less than 100 residents, all following the village system, where residents lived in the town instead of on a farm on the outskirts.

- back to top-

The Cotton Mission

The outbreak of the Civil War alarmed Brigham Young and encouraged him to create a self-sustaining economy in order to weather the possibility of eastern supply lines drying up. Fascinated with the idea of growing semi-tropical crops such as cotton, grapes and sugar cane in southern Utah’s warmer climate, Young spearheaded an experiment in cotton growing along the Santa Clara River. A visit to the area in the summer of 1861 proved encouraging to Young and led him to initiate a major colonizing effort. In October of that year, he called 309 families to establish St. George, named for his counselor, George A. Smith, who assisted in choosing the area’s settlers. Young sent apostles Erastus Snow to lead the venture, known as the Cotton Mission.

The group of approximately 1,000 settlers arrived in December 1861 and by spring had laid out a town, formed a municipal government, and began to cultivate the land, both on town lots and at nearby small farms. While still living in temporary encampments, major rains began and continued for a month, causing major flooding that wiped out the village of Santa Clara.


- back to top-

Struggles of Settlement

The flood of 1862 foreshadowed the settlers’ constant struggle with water. It took 30 years for these “Dixie Pioneers” to master the challenge of constructing canals and dams that would enable sufficient water to reach their farms and settlements. Coincidentally, the early settlers’ greatest enemy was too much water since the desert landscape did not absorb the water as well as the mountain valleys of the Wasatch Front. Every major rainstorm caused water to wash out dams and silt up canals, resulting in an ineffective irrigation system for approximately two weeks afterwards.

One of the settlers’ other problems was not enough water. The area received an annual rainfall of eight inches or less, meaning there was not enough water to sustain large farms, nor enough land. Only about two percent of the land was arable. Most pioneer farmers were limited to five acres because of these two factors. Lots in town were usually one acre or less, depending on the amount of irrigation available, and produced the families’ fruits and vegetables and housed their chickens, pigs and goats. Another factor that made settlement difficult was the area’s extreme summer heat, which sometimes reached temperatures of 117º F.

The county was home to only approximately 3,000 residents by 1870. These settlers’ faith and determination led them to succeed in making the desert “blossom as a rose” and in raising a “righteous generation unto the Lord.” They thrived through extreme cooperation – living in planned villages. They attended church services and organized schools together. The women regularly met in small groups to make fabric from wool, cotton and silk. The pioneers also held celebrations together – dancing, singing and playing music.

- back to top-

Early Economy

Convinced that Utah’s Dixie would someday thrive, Brigham Young initiated a series of construction projects financed by outside capital, partly to provide a needed boost to the area’s economy. This building boom resulted in the construction the Cotton Factory (1867) in Washington City, the St. George Tabernacle (1875), and the St. George Temple (1877) – all of which still stand today. A courthouse, opera house and social hall also sprang up during this time. These projects provided employment for many men, teaching crafts such as carpentry, quarrying, and lumber milling.

After the dedication of the St. George Temple in 1877, it seemed like the outside infusion of capital into the area would cease. Fortunately, at that same time, silver mines opened just northeast at what became known as Silver Reef. While Mormons did not work in the mines because of the raucous lifestyle of mining towns, the mines’ presence provided a market for their fruits, vegetables and meat. The lumber mills used for the building projects provided wood for the mines. During the decade of its existence, Silver Reef proved a godsend that provided settlers with much-needed cash. After the mines closed, local farmers began peddling their products to mines in Nevada, and later on expanded to Las Vegas. When trucks became available in the automobile age, farmers formed companies that trucked produce throughout the region.

Early settlers also raised cattle to supplement their farm income. Some farmers created cooperative herds that grazed in southern Nevada, while still operating farms in Washington County. A few farmers ventured into full-time ranching. When the settlers abandoned cotton as a crop in 1875, farmers shifted to growing alfalfa to feed their cattle.

By 1890, the self-sustaining model of agriculture was finally working fairly well. The construction of more irrigation projects, such as the Washington Fields Dam, finished in 1891 and the Hurricane Canal, finished in 1906, led to the opening of more farming acreage. The construction of the Enterprise Dam, completed in 1909 after 16 grueling years of construction, opened 5,000 acres for cultivation. Agriculture and ranching still continue in the county today. - back to top-


The LDS Church established nearly 20 church academies in 1888 in preparation for Utah statehood – one of them in St. George, first housed in the basement of the St. George Tabernacle. Difficulties plagued the fledgling school from the beginning, the foremost problem being the inability of the St. George stake to commence construction of a permanent building. The academy closed in 1893. In 1901, the completion of the Woodward School on the town square ushered in a new educational era as it replaced the city’s small, one-room schoolhouses. It housed eight grades, preparing its students to move on to higher education.

A few years after the Woodward School opened, prominent resident Edward H. Snow began laying plans to revive the academy. He argued that St. George could not become a regional capital without a college and that local young people had to leave the county to study in Provo, Salt Lake, or Logan if they desired higher education. His efforts paid off when church leadership authorized the expenditure of $35,000 toward the construction of an academy building. Construction began in 1909, and with the help of the entire community, the new academy opened in the fall of 1911. It was essentially a high school until 1917, when a teacher education program began. The church operated it until 1933, when it became part of the Utah’s higher education system. Enrollment was sparse until the 1960s, when a new 110-acre campus opened in the southeastern corner of town. Known as Dixie State College today, the school now boasts an enrollment of approximately 5,200. - back to top-

The Birth of Tourism

President William Howard Taft signed a document creating Mukuntuweap National Monument in 1909. Though the event occurred with little fanfare, it had a huge impact on Washington County. In 1918, the monument was renamed Zion and in 1919, it received national park status. The Union Pacific Railroad built a lodge in the park in the mid 1920s and the late 1920s saw the construction and improvement of roads within the park and leading to it in order to increase access. These road projects and the rise of the automobile democratized travel and greatly augmented visitation to Zion, which created new income and new job opportunities for Washington County residents in the tourism industry. In 1930, U.S. Highway 91 between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles came through the county, prompting locals to create gas stations, motels and restaurants for the influx of motorists traversing the route.

Soon after, local entrepreneurs began developing ways to expand tourism, realizing that, for many, Washington County was only a stop-over on a journey elsewhere. These businessmen looked for ways to encourage tourists to stay longer and enjoy Dixie’s sunshine and scenery. They formed the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce, adopting the slogan: “Come to where the summer sun spends the winter.” Some even offered complimentary lodging if the sun did not shine on the day of their stay. - back to top-


Despite the building of new roads, isolation plagued Dixie from the 1920s to the 1940s because a railroad was never built into the county, due in part because the route down from Cedar City was too steep. As a result, industry never gained a firm foothold and agriculture remained mostly non-commercial. St. George was not completely isolated because U.S. Highway 91 passed through the city, but the route was difficult for large trucks to travel, especially in rain, due to its steep grades and sharp turns.

World War II took approximately 1,000 young men (from a population of 9,500) from Washington County to serve in the military. When these young men returned, they foresaw a new vision for Dixie, wanting the area to become more modern instead of merely a collection of agricultural villages. They envisioned Washington County as a destination, particularly if they wanted to settle down and work in the area.

Expanding the Economy

During the 1950s and 60s, the popularity and production of Western movies skyrocketed in Hollywood, becoming a boon to southern Utah’s economy. Motel owner Brown Hail and restaurant owner Dick Hammer formed a partnership that succeeded in attracting moviemakers to come to Washington County. Hail and Hammer and others provided lodging and food and enlisted extras, horses and cattle herds to appear in films. The economic aspect of moviemaking benefited Dixie, but more importantly, it drew a lot of national attention to southern Utah. Moviegoers grew entranced with the area’s red rock scenery and some of them put Zion National Park on their travel itinerary.

Another way locals turned Dixie into a destination was through industrial development in order to diversify its economic base. Chamber of Commerce leaders worked to attract industry to southern Utah. Their first major accomplishment was convincing the Hawthorne Company, manufacturers of camping equipment, sleeping bags, and tents, to establish a plant in St. George in 1961. These businessmen formed the Dixie Development Corporation, which financed the construction of the Hawthorne Company’s factory. This was the beginning of the city’s first industrial park, which over time attracted many other companies to the area and became a model for the establishment of four other industrial parks.

Tourism continued to play a significant role in the local economy. However, even in the 1960s, many tourists still viewed St. George only as a one-night stopover. A group of locals worked to build a golf course aimed at convincing visitors to think of Utah’s Dixie as a full-fledged vacation destination, a place to spend several days touring Zion National Park, golfing, and relaxing at local tourist accommodations. Despite opposition from St. George’s mayor, prominent businessmen prevailed and Dixie Red Hills, located in the southwestern corner of the city, opened in 1965.

After significant wrangling by Utah Governor Calvin Rampton, Interstate 15 through St. George via the Virgin River Gorge was completed in 1972, ending St. George’s isolation. Semi trailer trucks began to pass through in droves. The new freeway was a significant factor in the doubling of the county’s population from 1970 to 1980. One of the first spin-offs of the new road was the development of Bloomington, a golf course community that attracted retirees, golf tourists and second home owners. The development established a pattern of real estate projects in which residential lots surrounded a common attraction, which in most cases was a golf course. Other developments encouraged by increased access to the county were the construction of a convention center and the establishment of the St. George Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, a full-time lobbying organization for conventions and tourism. More hotels also sprung up in the wake of I-15, especially near Zion and the freeway itself.

This growth would not have been possible without the development of new water sources. In 1970, Gunlock Reservoir was completed by damming the Santa Clara River. Attempts to dam the Virgin River in the 1960s and 1990s failed (The Virgin River remains one of the few free-flowing rivers in the nation today). Instead of damming the Virgin, planners decided to build a diversionary canal that would take water from the river into a reservoir, to be treated and used by municipalities. This led to the construction of Quail Creek Reservoir, finished in 1987. The dam failed two years later, but was quickly rebuilt. Sand Hollow, a companion reservoir using the same diversionary methods, was finished in 2003. In addition to providing water storage, these reservoirs have become a recreation mecca for boaters, water skiers and anglers. - back to top-

Retirement Haven

Dixie started to gain popularity as a retirement destination when retirees from southern California, Phoenix and Las Vegas came seeking a place where they could enjoy the southwest climate in a smaller town. The increase of retirees led to the construction of more homes, many of them in developments specifically for those 55 and older. Many such subdivisions also surrounded golf courses. Major condominium complexes for senior citizen occupants also sprung up. - back to top-

Washington County Today

Today Washington County boasts a population of approximately 130,000 residents and a thriving tourism industry, with over 4,000 hotel beds. It has been consistently ranked as one of the fastest growing counties in the nation for the last two decades. It also has become a vacation destination, especially for residents of northern Utah seeking warmer weather during the colder months. In addition to close proximity to scenic areas such as Zion National Park, Snow Canyon State Park, Pine Valley, and Red Cliffs Recreation Area, the county hosts several outstanding events each year, including art festivals, car shows, golf tournaments, the St. George Marathon, and the World Senior Games.

Additional sources:

http://www.media.utah.edu/UHE/w/WASHINGTONCT.html - back to top-