Under the direction of Brigham Young and other LDS church leaders, 12 men set out to establish a major control point on the Old Spanish Trail in southeastern Utah. The group intersected the Old Spanish Trail northwest of the Green River crossing. They followed a rocky descent into Moab Canyon until they reached a steep escarpment of the Moab Fault near the present entrance to Arches National Park. At that point, their five wagons had to be dismantled and lowered by rope down a 25 feet "jumping off place." The pioneers left their wagons cached in Spanish Valley and proceeded southeast toward the Colorado line. The next year, 1855, 41 men were called by the church to establish an outpost in Spanish Valley, which had been reported as a beautiful valley with rich soil, good timber and abundant water. In the summer of that year, the Elk Mountain Mission was established. The valley had served as a common gathering ground for Navajo and Ute Indians. A major Ute leader counseled Native Americans to keep peace with the missionaries. A fort was constructed and a steady stream of Indians kept trading in the valley lively. The peace was always tenuous and by September events exploded into a tragedy. Within a month a confusing and unplanned battle occurred between the American Indians and the Mormon settlers. Two missionary hunters were killed and the decision was made to abandon the Elk Mountain Mission. Few people ventured into Grand County during the period from 1855 to the mid-1870s. Cowboys and ranchers became more interested in Grand Valley and by the 1880s, the area became settled. A post office was established and the town named "Moab."
The Name "Moab"
A number of theories about how Moab got its name float around book stores and coffee shops. The most accepted is the biblical derivation. In the Bible, the name Moab occurs frequently referring to a dry, mountainous area east of the Dead Sea and southeast of Jerusalem. This etiology seems to fit in both its geographical relationship to Salt Lake City (and the Great Salt lake) and the geologic characteristics of the area. Another less accepted derivation of the name is that "Moab" comes from a Paiute word meaning "mosquito water." Mosquitoes were abundant near the Colorado River. Wherever the name came from, it stuck, but not without challenges. In 1885 the postmaster attempted to change the name to Uvadalia. Later a petition to change the name to Vina also failed. Prior to the completion of the railroad in 1883, most of Moab's supplies were brought in by wagon from Salina or Richfield. Moab was isolated and its settlers became self-reliant and self-sufficient. Home industry was the norm in Moab including gardening, soap-making, medicines, repairs, clothing and tools. In 1885 the first motel was constructed in Moab. Two years later there were enough travelers passing through to warrant construction of a second motel. The Darrow House, unlike the luxurious Maxwell House operated by Moab's first businesswoman Addie Taylor, attracted outlaws who were crossing the territory.
Incorporation and Recent History
Moab town was platted in 1884. By 1890 Grand County was created by the Utah Legislature and on December 20, 1902, Moab became incorporated as a town. Mining has historically been the major local economic activity. Vanadium was first identified in 1912 near Cisco. By 1920, the southeastern Utah area had produced up to 2.4 million dollars in uranium; however, this was only the first of a boom/bust cycle for uranium mining. Potash and manganese mining have also played a role in the mining industry in Moab, along with oil and natural gas. By the end of World War II, the area was also getting a small amount of attention in the media as a tourist destination and a fair amount of use from the film industry, but the real economic boom was still to come. In the early 1950s, fueled by the Cold War, the uranium industry exploded. Charlie Steen, a down-on-his-luck prospector, made a dramatic uranium strike south of town and Moab became the center of activity for uranium mining. By 1964, however, the demand for uranium had decreased. The largest mine closed and the mill laid off hundreds of workers. Beginning in the 1970s, the community began seeing tourism as the only salvation for Moab's economy. I-70 was completed between Floy Wash and Crescent Junction making access to this part of the country easier. In 1975 there were 313,000 visitors to Arches National Park. In spite of the promise of an economic safety net on the horizon, Moab saw a 15 percent unemployment rate in 1984 as local mining companies continued to cut back. At the same time, Moab's population decreased by 23 percent. By the end of the decade, tourism was viewed as the future of Moab and a whole-hearted effort was made to promote Moab as a tourist destination. Today, resource extractive industries such as oil exploration may continue to boost the local economy, but Moab is predominantly a tourist based economy. It is estimated that over a million people visit Moab each year.
Moab's population in 2001 is approximately 5,000.
Moab's Natural Features
Moab is located on the Colorado River nestled in a linear valley lined with precipitous red rock cliffs. The town is an oasis surrounded by an extremely rugged and beautiful terrain, with predominantly desert features. Moab has an elevation of about 4,000 feet above sea level and covers an approximate 4-square mile area. The City is approximately eight miles away from Arches National Park and 32 miles away from the Islands in the Sky entrance to Canyonlands National Park making it a major tourist destination. Moab is surrounded by major faults which are geologically young. Hillsides, wetlands, perennial creeks and flood channels are the most environmentally sensitive areas in Moab, plus there are many sensitive areas that have a high water table and high shrink-well potential. Approximately one-third of the City of Moab is located within the 100-year flood plain.
The desert is a land of extreme and Moab's temperature range attests to that. Temperatures have been reported as high as 113 degrees Fahrenheit and as low as -20 degrees F. In spite of the intense heat which visits Moab each summer, the climate is generally categorized as "temperate." The frost-free period in Moab averages 184 days per year. Rainfall averages only eight inches per year with October being the wettest month followed by March, July and April. During the summer, Moab is prone to sudden brief, violent thunderstorms that often result in flash floods. Plant life in Moab is typical of that in a high or sub-desert (primarily Upper Sonoran) life zone and includes sagebrush, rabbitbrush, saltbush, serviceberry, mountain mahogany, and other desert natives at the lower elevations. Juniper and pinion occur with desert shrubs until about 7,500 feet elevation where a mountain ecosystem of aspen, spruce, and fir takes over.