The Colorado River
major part of
Moab’s History and Heritage
by Jeff Richards
Moab is the only Utah town
along the Colorado River, which winds for over 1,450 miles from
the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California.
Long before the first permanent settlers arrived in the Moab area around 1878,
Native Americans had used the place as a natural river crossing for hundreds
of years, since the valley was one of the few places in the area where the Colorado
River could be easily and safely crossed.
The portion of the Colorado River above its confluence with the Green River (further
downstream from Moab but still in Grand County, Utah) was actually known as the
Grand River until 1921, when it was changed to the Colorado River. Even though
the Green River (which originates in Wyoming), is actually the longer tributary,
officials from the state of Colorado (which had been named thusly as a territory
in 1861) managed to persuade the U.S. Congress to change the river’s name
to Colorado, which comes from the Spanish word for “red-colored,” an
apt description of the river’s frequently silty waters, sometimes jokingly
described as “too thick to drink, too thin to plow.”
Even so, both Grand County, Utah and the city of Grand Junction, Colo. are both
named after the river’s original name.
The river and its tributaries comprise the Colorado River Basin. The basin drains
some 242,000 square miles in the United States, or one-twelfth of the country’s
continental land area. Seven western states – Arizona, California, Colorado,
Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming – are members of the Colorado River
Compact, which was signed in 1922 The Colorado River provides water to some 25
million people, in addition to numerous recreational opportunities.
Mechior Diaz is believed to be the first European to explore the river, doing
so in 1540, although his exploration was primarily confined to what is now California.
Late in 1765, a man named Juan Maria Antonio de Rivera reached what is now the
Moab area with an expedition sent north from New Mexico. He reportedly carved
an inscription on a poplar tree near the point where he crossed the river, but
the exact location is unknown. In 1776, two Franciscan friars (Dominguez and
Escalante) also explored the area, which later became a popular route for fur
By the 1830s, the river crossing had become a critical part of the famous Old
Spanish Trail trading route, which stretched from Santa Fe to Los Angeles.
In 1855, a group of 41 men sent by Mormon leader Brigham Young established the
Elk Mountain Mission, building a rock fort on the south side of the river, near
where the Motel 6 is located at the northern part of present-day Moab. The Elk
Mountain settlement was short-lived, however, as skirmishes with Native Americans
drove the Mormons from the area only a few months later. More than 20 years would
pass before permanent settlers (led by a group of cattle ranchers) would return
to the area and begin to build the community that became today’s Moab.
Meantime, explorer John Wesley Powell and nine other men made extensive expeditions
down the Green and Colorado Rivers in 1869 and 1871.
In the early 1880s, Norman Taylor, one of the first members of the fledgling
Moab community, started the first ferry service across the Grand River, piloting
a 28-foot rowboat back and forth across the river. A larger boat built around
1884 was able to carry a wagon and a team of horses or oxen. After operating
the ferry himself at first (and charging folks up to $4 a trip), Taylor then
leased the operation to several different people over the years until the county
finally took over the ferry in 1897 (after which the fee was reduced to 50 cents
per person). That same year, townspeople in Moab began spearheading efforts to
construct a bridge over the river.
Meantime, there were continued efforts to improve the level of ferry service,
including a short-lived attempt to ferry a 60-foot steamboat (named the Undine)
across the river; the boat tipped over and wrecked during a test in May 1902
and was never repaired. In 1905, another steamboat, called City of Moab was launched
at Green River to much fanfare, but the 55-foot craft (which had twin gas-powered
got stuck and ran out of fuel. It was repaired and renamed Cliff Dweller and
launched again the following year, but its use as a river boat was soon abandoned
after it continued to get stuck on sand bars.
Another ill-fated boat of that time was the propeller-driven Black Eagle, whose
boiler exploded shortly after being launched from Green River in 1907.
Finally, in the spring of 1912, a 620-foot-long triple-span steel bridge was
built, at a cost of around $43,000 (it was located just a few dozen yards east
of where Highway 191 bridge crosses the river today). Four years later, in 1916,
a 520-foot suspension bridge at Dewey (another favorable river crossing point
about 25 miles upriver from Moab) was built, thereby connecting the towns of
Moab and Cisco. The historic Dewey Bridge, restored a few years ago by the Grand
County Historical Preservation Commission, still stands today and can be crossed
on foot or non-motorized vehicle.
Nowadays, one of the best ways to experience the Colorado River locally is to
take a river trip. One of the most popular river trips is Westwater Canyon. The
route, which includes several sections of difficult rapids, runs from the Westwater
ranger station (near Dewey) to the now-ghost town of Cisco (although some river
tours continue on to Moab). For more information, contact any of the local river
rafting companies or the Moab River Office of the Bureau of Land Management (259-7012).
For those who like to explore the world by car, Scenic Byway - Highway 128 begins
just 3 miles north of Moab at the Colorado River Bridge and offers beautiful
views of the river as it meanders through the breathtaking red rock canyon walls.