Springdale History day; from upriver farming community to award-winning national park gateway

Springdale's iconic entrance sign greets over 4 million visitors per year, Springdale, Utah, March 4, 2020 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

FEATURE — If Springdale’s original settlers were alive today, they would barely recognize their town. They could not have foreseen it morphing from a sleeping farming community along the upper reaches of the Virgin River into the gateway community to one of the five most-visited national parks in the United States.

In a nutshell, Springdale’s history is all about farms giving way to tourist accommodations as the driving economic force.

Early Settlement

Settlers first came to Springdale in the fall of 1862 and about 20 families came to spend the winter of 1862-1863 along the Virgin River. To irrigate their crops, they built ditches on both sides of the river to siphon water away for agriculture.

Andrew Karl Larson explained in his book, “I Was Called to Dixie,” that Springdale settlers didn’t have to fight with the Virgin River as much as those downstream.

“The problem of controlling the Virgin at Springdale never reached the proportions it did further down the river. Much of the stream bed of North Fork (of the Virgin) is rocky, and while subject to floods the farmers of Springdale have had a solid foundation on which to build instead of the quicksands that vexed the settlers lower down the river,” Larson wrote.

Still, the river frustrated many would-be settlers, who became so discouraged they moved away. Larson noted that by 1864, only nine families remained. 

The most well-accepted story of how the town got its name was when one of the first settlers, Albert Petty, chose a spot for a house next to some large springs and asked her to name the place, which she called Springdale. 

“Petty had a corn-cracker, which made a coarse flour to supply the needs of the people of Rockville, Springdale, Shunesburg and Grafton,” Larson wrote.

This historic photo shows Springdale as it looked just before the great influx of tourists after the designation of Zion National Park, Springdale, Utah, circa 1915 | Photo courtesy of SUU Special Collections, St. George News

In its early years, Springdale could have been considered a bedroom community to the larger town of Rockville, where Springdale residents went to shop, attend church services and go to the post office and telegraph office. Most of Springdale actually moved to Rockville temporarily during troubles with the local Native Americans in 1866 when Brigham Young, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ordered settlements to consolidate to strengthen themselves against the Indian threat. Even while in Rockville, Springdale settlers still tended to their farms. Petty was one of the few who stood pat in Springdale during the entire Indian threat. They resettled the town in 1869, Larson noted. 

Today, the tables have turned and Springdale is the bustling community with many businesses while Rockville is the smaller, more quaint town.

Life was difficult for early settlers, who fashioned houses out of rough-hewn logs or river willows. Some roofs were fashioned from willows lashed together covered with dirt and bark. Due to its isolation, Springdale residents were nearly self-sufficient, making their own tools, clothes and other essential items. Even before the Indian threat, they dealt with troubles such as floods, malaria and hunger.

A few early Springdale settlers ventured farther up the river and farmed in Zion Canyon. For instance, Isaac Behunin planted fruit trees, cane and vegetables about where Zion Lodge stands today and William Heap had a small farm at the mouth of a canyon that now bears his name, which is also home to the Emerald Pools of the trail by the same name. These farther-flung farms were safe from Indian troubles, Larson explained.

“The Indians were uneasy about going into Zion, even in daylight,” Larson wrote. “They feared injury or death from the evil and capricious gods who dwelt there.”

The John and Eliza Ruesch Home, now restored as the Worthington Gallery, is one of the few pioneer-era homes still standing in Springdale, Utah, March 4, 2020 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

Unfortunately, Springdale has not been lucky as far as remaining pioneer structures are concerned. Few remnants of the town’s first settlers remain – chief among them the old school and church house, which was engulfed by fire in 1929. Fortunately, the John Jacob and Eliza Ruesch home, which had long been the showplace of the ‘up-the-river’ settlements, remains, Mary Phoenix wrote in “Historical Buildings of Washington County, Volume 2.”

According to Phoenix’s account, Ruesch was a master carpenter and coffin maker who was a German convert and joined the Saints on their trek to Zion. First assigned to St. George, then to Toquerville, he eventually settled in Springdale. The story goes that he and his wife enjoyed Springdale because the cliffs surrounding it reminded them of the Alps.

The exact date of the home’s construction is not known for sure, but according to what has been pieced together from reading their diary entries, it is believed to have been finished about 1880.

“The house, with the same basic design as many of that period, had four rooms on both floors,” Phoenix wrote. “An entry hall featured a steep stairway which climbed to the second story.”

The Ruesches were the parents of Walter Ruesch, Zion National Park’s first custodian, for whom “Walter’s Wiggles” on the trail up to Scout Lookout are named.

By the 1930s, the home was showing its age and its most striking feature, the hand-hewn gingerbread trim was falling apart. 

“When the Ruesch family removed this, everyone felt that without this ornamentation, the house lost its air of aristocracy and much of its charm,” Phoenix wrote.”

Thankfully, the house has been restored to its former charm and is now the Worthington Gallery. Any visitor can now visit and enjoy it.

Two other known remnants of Springdale’s pioneer era that survive are the old Gifford home south of the new Zion Canyon Lodge as well as an old bishop’s storehouse currently on display next to the town offices.

Springdale’s iconic entrance sign greets over 4 million visitors per year, Springdale, Utah, March 4, 2020 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

Scenery: The New Important Commodity

The town was a small, Latter-day Saint agricultural community until just after the turn of the 20th century, when the town’s surrounding scenery started becoming its most lucrative commodity. In 1909, the President William Howard Taft administration designated the nearby breathtaking landscape Mukuntuweap National Monument. By 1917, a decent road reached the community. With the national monument receiving national park designation in 1919, things started to change in Springdale as tourism became the driving force of its economy, with gas stations, stores and tourist accommodations springing up.

Improved transportation, with the construction of the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway and tunnel and the paving of the roads in the 1930s attracted more and more visitors. By the mid 20th-century, Springdale began to boom. The town officially incorporated in 1959, and as time passed, the old Mormon pioneer features gave way to contemporary structures catering to tourists. 

“Even with such changes, many of the core values of its pioneer settlers still endure,” Springdale’s town website assures. “Throughout the town, the pioneer architecture incorporating native sandstone and other design features from its past are clearly evident. Most importantly, Springdale remains a friendly, safe and clean community, the home of residents who are committed to providing stewardship worthy of a place unique in the world for its beauty.”

A Partnership Forged From Adversity

The political climate in Springdale today is much different than it was approximately 30 years ago.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Springdale residents marked their calendars for municipal meetings, hoping for some irresistible entertainment. 

Back then, town council and planning commission meetings were contentious with strong words and near brawls the norm. County sheriff’s deputies were regular attendees at the meetings in order to ensure nothing got out of hand. 

The former Zion Canyon Giant Screen Theatre, whose construction caused controversy in the early 1990s, is no longer in operation and is now 26 more rooms for the Cable Mountain Lodge, Springdale, Utah, March 4, 2020 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

At the time, Springdale residents could not agree on what course their town should take in the future. They had to decide whether to preserve the town’s quaint image made up largely of mom-and-pop shops or to give way to large-scale development, becoming another Gatlinburg, Tennessee – the gateway community to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which has become the prime example of tourist-trap tackiness. The pressure for development was rife. The first such instance in the onslaught was the development of a giant-screen theater proposed next to Zion National Park’s southern entrance. 

In a Los Angeles Times article published on May 13, 1991, journalist Maura Dolan reported that the National Park Service itself was not opposed to the theater project, it just didn’t want it right at the park’s entrance

“Zion officials complained that the development would increase congestion at the park’s entrance, where long lines of cars back up for miles in the summer,” Dolan reported. “A proposal to build the complex in a style that was supposed to resemble the surrounding canyons, complete with crags and curves, also triggered considerable dismay.”

As a concession, the theater developers “agreed to adopt the architectural motif of the National Park Service,” Dolan wrote.

Some townspeople felt like approving the theater would send the message to other developers that large-scale projects such as theater were welcome in Springdale. Dolan reported that letters from Zion lovers, including famous actor Robert Redford, funneled in decrying the development would ruin such a serene setting. Town officials liked the project because it would bring in much-needed tax revenue.

The theater was ultimately approved and finished in 1994. But that alone didn’t turn the tide. It took two outsiders and traffic congestion to put Springdale on a much better trajectory.

It was this same time period that efforts began ramping up to develop and implement the Zion Transportation System and two ideal leaders came onto the scene to turn what could have gone south in a hurry into an opportunity to forge a partnership.

Phillip Bimstein, Springdale’s recently-elected mayor at the time, and Don Falvey, Zion’s Superintendent from 1991-2000, formed an alliance that began open communication between the two entities and helped them both realize they needed to solve their problems together. Through that communication, they were able to listen to all sides peaceably and resolve the concerns of former adversaries of the shuttle system.

Bimstein saw the partnership between the two entities as a natural way to weld the missions of both the park and the town, which he said was to preserve and protect our natural and community resources. He also said it was to make those resources available to the park and the town’s  visitors “in a high-quality, enhanced experience,” the author wrote in his Master’s Thesis, “Shuttle to Serenity,” which details the history of the Zion Transportation System. Bimstein felt the shuttle would help the town’s economy and envisioned people would stay longer when they were able to walk the town or ride the shuttle rather than constantly relying on their cars.

Solving their transportation issues together meant that instead of enlarging the park’s parking lots, visitors could choose to park in town and ride a bus to the park’s south entrance, where they would cross a bridge and then board another shuttle that would take them up the canyon.

History has shown that national parks and their gateway communities often haven’t gotten along very well and sparred over key issues. 

Zion and Springdale became an exception, coming together like no other park and gateway community had before to make the park and town shuttles work. Beating seemingly insurmountable odds, the two entities turned from bitter rivals to staunch allies thanks to the unique project.

The partnership also paid dividends in helping secure federal transportation grants that went towards paying for shuttle stops within the town. The shuttle system in both the park and town started in 2000.

“Zion and Springdale, along with UDOT and the Zion Natural History Association (ZNHA), won awards from national organizations, including the National Park Partnership Leadership Award, for their involvement in the transportation project,” the author wrote in his thesis. “Springdale was so supportive of the transportation system – helping the park develop it and providing shuttle stops – that the National Parks Conservation Association awarded the mayor, the town council, businesses and residents of Springdale its first National Parks Achievement Award, which recognizes outstanding efforts to protect parks.”

Formerly an anathema for many Springdale residents, the Zion Canyon Giant Screen Theater became an essential ally in implementing the transportation system, agreeing to allow part of its parking lot to become the terminus of the town shuttle and donating half of the funds needed to construct a pedestrian bridge for shuttle passengers entering the park. Today, the theater building is there but there is no theater in it anymore. Instead, it is now 26 guest rooms of the Cable Mountain Lodge.

Springdale residents enjoy what no other small Utah town has – a public transit system. Springdale residents utilize it for daily errands and going to church. Even school children use the shuttle to get to the library and other destinations. 

Forty-year Springdale resident and Springdale Historic Preservation Commission Chair Lila Moss said the town shuttle has been a godsend for her. She said her car often sits unused for weeks at a time because she uses the shuttle to get around town and only uses her car when she has errands in St. George.

Preserving Springdale’s History

One of the remnants of Springdale’s rock-lined ditches near Meme’s Cafe is now filled with rocks, Springdale, Utah, March 6, 2020 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth. St. George News

In 2015, Springdale formed a Historic Preservation Commission and approximately a year ago, plans started coming to fruition to create a Springdale History Center. That history center, which will be housed in the former offices of the Canyon Ranch Hotel (no longer in business), will include a museum. 

Moss said that museum will not merely focus on the Latter-day Saint settlers as many other local museums do. Its major focus will be the hospitality industry, which has become the main force of Springdale’s economy. It will also feature Native American history as the Paiute tribe will have input into museum displays as well, Moss explained.

Slated to open next spring, the history center will have public restrooms and be a place to pick up brochures. Moss was proud to explain that the history center will have some bits and pieces of Springdale history in it. The lumber to build the structure came from the Cable Mountain draw works, and rocks from some of the old ditches torn out when the road was widened, currently stored in the town maintenance yard, will be integrated into the center in some way as well. There is one section of the intact rock-lined ditch still on display near Meme’s Cafe, Moss pointed out, but it is now filled with rocks.

Another bit of Springdale history that will be on display at the site will be the old bishop’s storehouse, currently sitting near the city offices.

Moss said her organization has been gathering oral histories that will be available at the history center. It is slated to open in the spring of next year.

Visiting Springdale

Today there is constant development in Springdale, especially more lodging with annual Zion visitation now more than four million a year – up 1.5 million from just 20 years ago when the shuttle was implemented.

Springdale does have some evidence of obsolete place names as the Steamboat Mountain Pioneer Trail, whose trailhead is just across a bridge over a wash from the town cemetery. Known today as West Temple, the highest peak in the park, old timers still refer to it by that name because of its resemblance to a Steamboat. Visitors hiking this trail have the chance of not seeing another hiker, unlike most of the trails within the borders of Zion.

The Watchman, the most prominent monolith along the city’s eastern skyline, could have been known as Flanigan Peak for the original family who farmed the land at its base. Instead, it’s known by the metaphorical moniker because it stands guard at the south entrance.

In addition to its surrounding scenery, bordered by Zion National Park on three sides, Springdale is home to some fun festivals and annual events, including its St. Patrick’s Day Parade, its music festival in late September and the Butch Cassidy 5K in early November.

It is also home to the O.C. Tanner Amphitheater, owned by Dixie State University, which hosts a variety of concerts and other performances throughout the year.

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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.

For regular historic tidbits in your news feed, as well as previews of upcoming stories, please “like” Wadsworth’s author Facebook page.

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.

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