Santa Clara history day; a legacy of too little water (or too much) and tremendous resolve and cooperation

From the sycamore-lined streets, to the relief society house to architecture that seems designed by history, it doesn't take long to be charmed by Santa Clara. | Photos courtesy Santa Clara City, St. George News

FEATURE — Too much water or not enough. 

That, in a nutshell, is a summary of the history of Santa Clara. Both the early settlers and today’s residents have overcome these obstacles, and others, and become stronger as a community because of them.

Early settlement

In December 1854, early pioneer leader Jacob Hamblin brought a small party from Fort Harmony to establish an American Indian mission along the Santa Clara River. Their initial habitations were cabins fashioned of cottonwood logs, which the local Native Americans helped them build, Andrew Karl Larson wrote in his book “I Was Called to Dixie.” In February the next year, they built a dam for irrigation, again assisted by the local Paiutes. They brought livestock with them and cleared land for planting gardens and wheat.

The next spring, these early settlers planted the first cotton in what became known as “Utah’s Dixie” from a quart of seeds obtained from a settler in Parowan who hailed from the South. They “cultivated it with care,” Larson wrote, and the first crop harvested in the fall of 1855 yielded enough cotton lint to produce thirty yards of cloth. An Indian agent from Virginia declared that the cloth was as good as any he had ever seen.

“This demonstration of the adaptability of cotton to the soil and climate of Santa Clara started church authorities to thinking in terms of establishing a cotton mission on the Virgin River,” Larson wrote.

A historical marker stands today where Fort Santa Clara, destroyed by the 1862 flood, once stood, Santa Clara, Utah, Dec. 15, 2017 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

During the winter of 1856-57, settlers built a fort at Santa Clara for their protection with Cedar City stonemasons making the journey to help.

Lack of water was a real challenge for the early settlers of Santa Clara and Washington County in general. Larson wrote of times when during the hot summers, the water in the Santa Clara River would practically dry up. Larson mentioned one occasion when Hamblin told the natives there would be sufficient water if they would plant corn. But when the water failed, they called upon Hamblin to make good on his promise. Larson quoted Hamblin’s journal after the exchange:

“The next morning I prayed … that the heavens might give rain; that we could have water, irrigate the portions of the earth that were cultivated and have an abundant harvest. While on my knees, the water fell in large drops around me. I rose and felt that all was right. The next night but one, the rain came and filled the stream with water. We had an abundance of water during the remainder of the season; and the greatest production of the earth that I ever saw.”

One of the problems with water is that the settlers in Pine Valley, upstream, had first dibs it. The year of 1857 proved a tough one as a drought ensued, but the next season was less dry and the crop was significant. These settlers began to notice early on that melons and grapes grew well in the area, but others such as potatoes and peas, did not, Larson wrote.

Brigham Young — president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the time — along with a party of church officials visited the settlements along the Virgin River “undoubtedly to make a final decision about the feasibility of reinforcing the struggling colonists below the rim of the basin,” Larson explained. The party’s scribe wrote glowingly of Santa Clara, particularly of its agricultural production. The scribe wrote that at the time, Santa Clara was home to 34 men, 30 houses and 250 acres under cultivation. His report also included a warning from Young to move to higher ground. 

That warning, however, went unheeded as “the people did not feel they had the time to relocate and rebuild their fort and homes immediately, but whatever the reason for their failure to follow President Young’s advice, they did not make the necessary changes, and the little village was soon to undergo her greatest trial at the hands of unpredictable nature,” Larson explained.

One settler described the January 1862 flood as a “thief in the night,” coming in what is the coldest part of the winter when the danger from floods is considered low. 

Larson described the flood this way:

“[The Santa Clara settlers] had been able to accumulate a considerable amount of property after their six or seven long years of toil, and they had to stand helplessly by and see their homes and the fort (where a number were still living) demolished and carried away by the angry waters.”

One family spent a harrowing night taking refuge in a tree as they watched as the maelstrom engulfed their dugout. 

“All day long, the people watched the fruits of their six years’ labor go,” Nellie McArthur Gubler wrote in her chapter on Santa Clara included in the Washington Utah Chapter of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers book, “Under the Dixie Sun. “Tree by tree, their largest orchard went, each one bending slowly as if bowing to the will of the river.”

The Jacob Hamblin Home is the most prominent reminder of Santa Clara City’s early history, Santa Clara, Utah, Dec. 15, 2017 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

Hamblin himself was nearly swept away during the rescue of people and provisions in the fort, being saved by a rope thrown to him. Thankfully, the settlers were able to rescue food they had stored to give them sustenance during the cleanup and rebuilding.

“Much valuable farming land was washed away,” Larson noted. “The Great Flood … had the effect of reducing the first settlers almost to the position of new beginners.”

By most accounts, the flood happened in mid-January 1862. There are discrepancies on the exact date. Showing their resolve, these stout settlers began to rebuild immediately and, according to a short history of Santa Clara compiled by Joyce Whittaker, by March 16 they had completed the construction of a dam and a canal to the new townsite.

A group of Swiss settlers sent to Santa Clara for their agricultural expertise had only been there a month before the flood and had barely put up rudimentary shelters — some of them willow wigwams — and dug irrigation ditches. 

“Their introduction to Dixie was dismal indeed,” Larson wrote. “The few improvements they had made were washed away, and they were given a thorough soaking with little relief for more than a month from the cold and wet. A lesser breed might have given up hope right there, but not the Swiss. Yet if their plight was desperate, they knew there was no alternative; they simply had to bear it as best they could.”

These Swiss settlers arrived with very little. Most could not speak or understand English. To say they came to a place much different than their native land is an understatement.

“If a number of them came to Dixie without means, it can be said of them that they possessed an asset that quite counter-balanced all their handicaps: they knew how to work, they had the will and stamina to achieve, and they possessed an ingrained sense of thrift born of long necessity,” Larson eloquently wrote.

Both the original settlers and the newly arrived Swiss immigrants salvaged what they could from the flood and started over on higher ground. 

“As soon as possible, the dugouts, covered wagons and willow shanties were replaced with adobe houses,” Whittaker wrote. “They made their own adobe bricks with clay found in the area, sand from the riverbed and water. The mixture was poured into molds, dried until set and turned onto the ground to bake in the hot sun. Lumber was hauled from Pine Valley Mountain.”

At first, there were tensions between the original settlers and the Swiss — first because of different cultural backgrounds and second, due to the original settlers’ roaming livestock eating the gardens of the Swiss settlers, who were without means to build fences around their little plots. 

The Santa Clara City Cemetery is home to the remains of early settlers and more recent residents alike, Santa Clara, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Santa Clara City, St. George News

To help resolve these problems, LDS Apostle Erastus Snow, one of the church leaders in charge of the development of “Utah’s Dixie,” called Toquerville resident Edward Bunker to preside over the Santa Clara ward. Bunker started a fencing program that led to each garden plot encircled by a fence to keep the grazing livestock, so important to residents’ livelihood, out of the Swiss settlers’ produce.

Scourges such as grasshoppers, intermittent summer floods and diseases such as malaria plagued early settlers, but they soldiered on. The settlers did have the wherewithal to realize that standing water in a nearby swamp was associated with malaria, but did not realize its connection with mosquitoes. However, when they dug a trench to drain the swamp, Santa Clara became a healthier place.

Food shortages were another challenge, especially in the period of 1863-1865. Larson wrote of a Swiss settler telling about living on pigweeds and “pout” berries, which when sweetened with molasses made a “fine stew.” According to Larson’s account, things got better after the advent of alfalfa, which solved the problem of a shortage of animal forage.

Not surprisingly, water shortages continued to be a challenge. For some reason, the Territorial Legislature granted St. George the right to control the waters of the Santa Clara River with the stipulation that the rights of those who were already were utilizing the water before the decision was made would not be put in jeopardy. This didn’t completely work out as St. George residents felt they had equal rights to the water.

“The inevitable result was that in the dry seasons there simply was not enough water for both fields, and each suffered,” Larson explained. “This condition brought about an exodus of the Santa Clara people, about half of whom moved west to Clover Valley and Panaca.”

Conditions did improve in the years following this exodus, but still the Santa Clara River seldom met the needs of all the farmers downstream who depended on its water. The settlers set up an irrigation district in 1872 that ultimately settled disputes over water, showing the settlers’ cooperation in resolving disputes. In addition to the agreement over water, the same year the community organized the Santa Clara Co-op so residents had a place to trade their goods. First, a store was set up in the home of John G. Hafen and later a proper store was constructed and operated by his family, Whittaker wrote.

By 1873, the state of Santa Clara was good, as evidenced by a letter of Young to the presiding bishop, Edward Hunter:

“The Clara settlements consisting of 20 families, 12 of whom were sent there by the Perpetual Emigration Fund without a dollar, have all got houses, land, vineyards, horses, wagons, and cattle and are sending 100 children to school, besides having a number too small to go. The donations they handed in to Bishop Bunker, he sent to the poor in St. George, they having no poor.” 

In 1877, it was reported that Santa Clara boasted 368 acres under cultivation.

Early Santa Clara residents loved to dance and sing. In fact, one of the early Swiss settlers received 10 musical instruments a few years after arriving from the settlement of an estate in Switzerland. These instruments became the impetus for the formation of the Santa Clara Brass Band. “George Staheli wrote the music and taught settlers to play over 100 songs,” Whittaker wrote. “This band played for dances in Santa Clara and neighboring towns. They even played at the St. George Temple dedication.”

The Santa Clara Relief Society House served as everything from a venue for meetings to a medical clinic to a post office, Santa Clara, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Santa Clara City, St. George News

Relief Society building

In addition to the Jacob Hamblin Home, the Relief Society building is another prominent reminder of the town’s early history still standing today.

In the early 1870s, the Santa Clara Relief Society purchased a city lot, where the Santa Clara Mercantile (built in 1928) is now, and planted mulberry trees with the intention of raising silkworms. The society built a two-story adobe structure and raised silkworms in a large upper room. Divided into three rooms, the ground floor included a room for storing wheat and two other rooms used for Relief Society meetings.

The silkworm project only lasted 22 years, abandoned because it was not profitable. They dug up the mulberry trees and planted grapevines. For a short time, the adobe structure served as a school for the younger grades and living quarters for a family.

In 1906, the Relief Society bought a plot on the southwest corner of John Gubler’s property to build a new building using materials from the old one, which was at the time very dilapidated. It had the stipulation that when the Relief Society no longer needed the building, it would be returned to the Gubler family.

Dedicated June 5, 1908, the small, one-roomed structure served many purposes. In addition to its use by the Relief Society, it was used for Sunday school, primary and youth classes since the one-room chapel built in 1902 was too small to accommodate all of the meetings as the population grew. It was used as a school classroom until 1913, when a new school was built. It even served as a makeshift medical clinic and hospital at times, as well as a post office.

It became obsolete in 1949 when a new church building was dedicated and given back to the Gubler family as originally stipulated. Thankfully, it is preserved today to remind residents and visitors of the town’s earlier history.

The Frei fruit stand has been a staple on Santa Clara’s Main Street for a long time, Santa Clara, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Santa Clara City, St. George News

Recent history 

During the town’s first century, it consisted of one main street running east to west with a few side streets. That main street became part of Highway 91, the main thoroughfare between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. When Interstate 15 opened through the Virgin River Gorge in the early 1970s, most Santa Clara residents welcomed the decrease in traffic, Whittaker wrote.

Also during its first century, Santa Clara’s population remained small with less than 500 residents. It was incorporated as a town on January 4, 1915 and only three years later, residents started homesteading on the Santa Clara Bench, which later became the town of Ivins. In the mid-1940s, residents planted the sycamore trees that still line the city’s Main Street. Another staple along the main street over the course of its history has been fruit stands, such as Landon and Wanda Frei’s. Starting in 1969, several landowners began developments off the main highway, the first being the Shady Lane Subdivision developed by Jay Ence, leading to a greater population increase that has continued today.

More recently, the city has experienced a major trial that connects the city’s early settlers to today’s residents: a January flood. On January 9, 2005, as a result of high snowpack and melting rains throughout the river drainage, the river’s flow began to balloon from five cubic feet per second to 6,500 cubic feet per second. 

“Over the next few days, no one could have imagined the volume of water, the magnitude of power, or the intensity of horror that would be generated as all the right elements aligned to transform the serene Santa Clara into a monster,” a plaque in the city explaining the flood reads.

The extreme flood undercut the banks and swept away many homes. More than 50 families in the Santa Clara-St. George area either watched their homes get swept away in the raging torrent or were displaced since the flood rendered their homes uninhabitable. 

Santa Clara children dress in traditional Swiss costumes during the city’s Swiss Days in late September, Santa Clara, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Santa Clara City, St. George News

Just as the first settlers showed cooperation to eek out an existence in hot, dry conditions, Santa Clara residents came together to help each other in the aftermath of the flood.

“During the crucial first days, city staff, private experts, and property owners met early each morning to coordinate the efforts of hundreds of volunteers to save lives, homes and property,” the plaque explains. “That effort continued for many weeks thereafter as the needs of the flood victims were met in every detail. This terrible tragedy, reminiscent in many ways of the historic flood of 1862 … became a symbol of the wonderful spirit of Santa Clara.”

Floods also came in 2010 and 2012, but not to the extent as the one in 2005.

Today, the town is proud of its Swiss heritage. Residents and visitors see many reminders of that heritage around town, including a glockenspiel on the City Hall building and statues and interpretive plaques on the City Hall grounds. In 1992, the city started its annual city celebration, “Swiss Days,” held the last weekend of September on the grounds of the City Hall and its immediate environs.

For more information on, pictures of and artifacts from the history of Santa Clara, visit the Samuel R. Knight Santa Clara History Museum and the Washington County Historical Society web page on Santa Clara history.

Click on photo to enlarge it, then use your left-right arrow keys to cycle through the gallery.

About the series “Days”

“Days” is a series of stories about people and places, industry and history in and surrounding the region of southwestern Utah.

“I write stories to help residents of southwestern Utah enjoy the region’s history as much as its scenery,” St. George News contributor Reuben Wadsworth said.

To keep up on Wadsworth’s adventures, “like” his author Facebook page or follow his Instagram account.

Wadsworth has also released a book compilation of many of the historical features written about Washington County as well as a second volume containing stories about other places in Southern Utah, Northern Arizona and Southern Nevada.

See all of the features in the “Days” series.

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