Dixie Red Hills day: A spring, a quarry and the birth of St. George as a recreation destination

Dixie Red Hills Golf Course, St. George, Utah, Oct. 11, 2018 | File photo by Joseph Witham, St. George News

FEATURE — A source of water. A source of building materials. A source of recreation.

The significance of Dixie Red Hills Golf Course and the surrounding area is lost to many residents and tourists today. However, delving into its history, it is clear that it was important to early settlers, and a century later it became part of the impetus of economic growth centered around its two best commodities – red rock scenery and favorable weather.

A spring and a quarry

A group of settlers was called to the Indian Mission in what became Southern Utah in 1854 and set up their dwellings along the Santa Clara River. During that period they found a reliable water source (which became known as West Spring or Watercress Spring) that emerges beneath the sandstone cliffs on the eastern end of today’s Dixie Red Hills Golf Course in St. George.

This spring became one of St. George’s main sources of drinking water after it was settled in the fall of 1861. Ditches conveyed water from the spring via Diagonal Street, which allowed for a gentle flow of water downhill to town lots, where the water reached on a set schedule.

“The clean, clear and reliable water from West Spring was highly preferable to the muddy, sulfurous smelling water of the Virgin River, which was originally named El Rio Sulfureo de los Piramedes by Dominguez and Escalante,” wrote Washington County Historical Society President Richard Kohler in a document titled “Quarry Blurbs” about the quarry area’s history.

This historic photograph showing a quarry worker appears on one of the historical plaques along the Sandstone Quarry Trail in St. George, Utah, date of photo not specified | Photo courtesy of Tim LeBaron/HikeStGeorge.com, St. George News

By the spring of 1862, these first settlers began quarrying red sandstone just south of West Spring. Stone from the quarry was used in the construction of most of the important buildings of that era, including the St. George Tabernacle, St. George Temple, the Opera House, the Washington Cotton Factory, the old County Courthouse and the Woodward School, among others.

Skilled Scottish quarryman Archibald McNeil supervised the quarry in its early years with Edward Parry as chief mason and a whole slew of stonecutters, fitters, blacksmiths and other helpers.

The interpretive plaque at the old quarry site, fittingly encased in a sandstone monument, details that in 1863 there were about 120 hands at the quarry hauling out 50 tons of rock daily.

“The quarry was a very interesting place to visit, where the fine, smooth seam-face of rock, the sound of the hammer, the thump of the bar, the rattle of the drills, and the click of scores of picks and chisels made music in a business way,” the plaque reads.

At the time of its heyday, the quarry was a 2-mile walk from town, making that one of the most difficult aspects of working in the quarry. Another challenge of working at the quarry was safety with numerous blocks of stone being cut and chipped simultaneously at different heights, meaning falling debris could come from any direction.

“Using only hand tools, and being out in the open with little safety equipment, stonecutters forced sandstone blocks from the rock beds,” another plaque at the quarry site reads. “A common saying was, ‘you would never see an overweight quarryman.’ The hard physical labor of swinging a sledgehammer all day ensured that workers slept well at night.”

The remnants of quarried stone at the site of the old sandstone quarry at the end of the Sandstone Quarry Trail, St. George, Utah, May 2017 | Photo courtesy of Tim LeBaron/HikeStGeorge.com, St. George News

The quarrymen used the “plug-and-feather” method to extract the stone, which involved drilling small round holes every 6 to 7 inches in a line where they wanted to cut, then inserting a wedge, or “plug,” between two shims, or “feathers,” into each whole, then tapping each wedge along the line until hearing a crack, after which they would tap the wedges the rest of the way in or use a crowbar to pry the stones apart.

The massive pieces of stone broken off then needed refining, which was done by cutters who chipped off pieces to make the stones smooth and ready to make the journey via horse-drawn wagon to be placed in the wall of the building in which it would end up.

The constant use of the tools such as chisels on sandstone blunted them, which kept the onsite blacksmith constantly busy sharpening the tools.

Remnants of quarrying activities can still be seen there today.

“Today, the cutter’s work can be inspected to see the distinctive marks of each craftsman,” one plaque reads. “Old timers claim that they can attribute specific stones to each cutter by their distinctive tool marks.”

Apparently, according to Kohler’s blurb, the Shivwits band of Paiutes regularly camped near West Spring during their visits to St. George. Additionally, water from the spring was used for a copper smelter which operated at the end of the 19th century.

During that time period, a pond was constructed north of the smelter to hold water required for use in the smelter’s water-jacketed blast furnaces. The pond became a little recreation spot for boating and swimming.

The spring also provided water for the St. George Ice Company, which was incorporated in 1907. In the 1930s, the area was home to St. George’s Civilian Conservation Corps camp.

The golf course

Until the 1960s, St. George was mostly a sleepy stop along old Highway 91 for most travelers. The city only had one stoplight, which was installed in 1958. Even though billboards read that St. George was “where the summer sun spends the winter,” the main tourist season was from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

On April 16, 1931, an article on the second page of the “Washington County News” was prescient, but didn’t even cause a ripple at the time. It said:

A golf course is the first step toward making St. George a winter resort. People from the North who generally spend their winters in California say that our greatest asset and opportunity lies in this direction.

The article went on to say that the climate of the area is “unexcelled” and that there were at the time several places that would make a good golf course.

Dixie Red Hills Golf Course, St. George, Utah, Oct. 11, 2018 | File photo by Joseph Witham, St. George News

“As it is now we have nothing to hold the vacationist,” the article purported. “He stops for a few minutes or stays overnight, goes to a picture show, gets a glimpse of the surrounding scenery and is gone the next morning.”

If the town had a golf course “and other like amusements,” the article said tourists would stay longer, St. George would become better known, and some would even establish winter homes in the area.

In the 1930s, Heber J. Grant, President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Utah Governor George Dern as well as former St. George mayor Anthony W. Ivins all suggested building a golf course in St. George but nothing came to fruition then.

In the 1950s, Washington County Attorney and Utah State Senator Orval Hafen, who was a huge proponent of selling Utah’s Dixie as a recreation mecca and was integral in establishing Snow Canyon State Park, urged for the construction of a golf course as a way to attract more visitors in the winter.

“But frugal Dixie farmers had no time to play golf,” Kohler wrote.

Still, Hafen was tireless in his promotion of St. George as a destination.

“I want to do something about getting a golf course established so that we can begin to attract people in the wintertime,” Hafen once wrote. “If my building plans ‘catch on’ I would like to go on with my project and help the town grow in a planned way.”

Visitors of the era helped keep the issue alive, asking why St. George didn’t have a golf course yet, Douglas Alder and Karl Brooks wrote in their book, “A History of Washington County: From Isolation to Destination.”

Dixie Red Hills Golf Course, St. George, Utah, April 5, 2013 | File photo by Alexa Verdugo Morgan, St. George News

Most assumed building a golf course would have to be a private venture and several sites were discussed, including the current site of the Southgate Golf Course, one in Washington City, a property east of St. George and another proposed parcel southwest of town.

“The discussions never quite started the capital accumulation though,” Alder and Brooks wrote.

It wasn’t until 1960 that the process to construct a golf course actually got moving. At that time, professional golfer Jim Colbert contacted Sid Atkin, president of the local chamber of commerce and proprietor of the Sugar Loaf Cafe, asking Atkin what he could do to help St. George construct a golf course. This conversation, apparently, lit a fire in Atkin, who had participated in previous conversations about a possible course.

Sid Atkin then teamed up with his uncle, former mayor Joe Atkin, and local businessman Neal Lundberg, who approached golf professional Ernie Schneiter to help them put a plan into action.

Schneiter asked the team if the city owned any property, and after working with the city office, they identified the area near West Spring as an ideal spot for at least nine holes.

“Atkin argued that the first nine holes was the real challenge,” Alder and Brooks wrote. “If they could get nine in, someone else would build the next nine.”

Atkin convinced the City Council to provide the public land for a nine-hole course and to finance construction through revenue bonds to save taxpayers money on something few of them would probably even utilize. A feasibility study determined how many rounds a day they’d have to sell and at what price to charge to cover their expenses.

One major issue, not surprisingly, was water. A canal company owned the water rights to the nearby spring, so it was not available. Luckily, future home developer Jay Ence was drilling for water on land just to the west, and if he succeeded he said he would be willing to provide the water. Thankfully for the golf course visionaries, Ence was successful and negotiated a deal with the city to supply the course’s water.

The view of Dixie Red Hills Golf Course from the Sandstone Quarry Trail, St. George, Utah, May 2017 | Photo courtesy of Tim LeBaron/HikeStGeorge.com, St. George News

The golf course committee started making the rounds to civic clubs to start drumming up support. But as things got moving, St. George Mayor William Barlocker urged to postpone, saying he could close a private deal to put a course on the current Southgate site within a few months. However, Sid Atkin and Lundberg, argued that they needed to capitalize on the momentum,

Proving successful in their efforts to convince the major players of the benefits of a golf course, the golf course boosters received the approval of the City Council for a $60,000 revenue bond and the use of city property through a 3-1 vote on Aug. 3, 1964.

The council appointed Lundberg to take the lead on construction of the course. Lundberg enlisted the Elks Club and the Lions Club to donate labor to build both the holes and the clubhouse, on which city employees assisted.

Ernie Schneiter’s son, Gene, was even appointed the golf pro.

Seven holes of the course opened on July 4, 1965. The two other holes were completed a few months later.

“Though the Red Hills Golf Course was soon surpassed by many other ventures and other courses, its creation served as a turning point for St. George,” Alder and Brooks wrote. “Here, finally, the dreams of many had been realized. Washington County was reaching out to tourists … Here was evidence that sunshine, scenery and tourism could make things happen in Southern Utah.”

The success of the Dixie Red Hills Golf Course spawned the development of other golf courses, most notably the Bloomington Country Club just a few years later when Salt Lake-area developers Ellis Ivory and Frank Johnson planned to build a luxury resort community with the golf course as its centerpiece. The city of St. George itself established several other courses over the years, including Southgate, St. George Golf Club and Sunbrook.

St. George’s first condominium project, Sunstone, sprang up in 1974 immediately south of Dixie Red Hills, a 64-unit project with a clubhouse and swimming pool in California contemporary style.

The course has a little claim to fame as one of the only native Utahns to play regularly on the PGA tour, Jay Don Blake, grew up playing on Dixie Red Hills.

The golf course and quarry today

Despite its age, the golf course is still a favorite among many, hosts the annual Dixie Red Hills Amateur in March and was even rated the 24th best nine-hole golf course in the nation by Golf World Magazine in 2010. Other good news for the course is a new clubhouse that replaced its dilapidated original clubhouse in 2019.

The sandstone pillars marking the trailhead of the Sandstone Quarry Trail at the end of 700 West, St. George, Utah, May 2017 | Photo courtesy of Tim LeBaron/HikeStGeorge.com, St. George News

The new clubhouse includes restaurant facilities, a lounge area and an overhanging deck for spectators.

In 2016, the old Sandstone Quarry came back into public consciousness with the opening of a trail and the interpretive plaques detailing its nearly forgotten history thanks to the efforts mainly of Dr. Wayne Pace, a retired BYU professor and founding president of the Dixie Encampment Chapter of the Sons of Utah Pioneers, an organization which mobilized the resources to make the pathway to the old quarry a reality.

Integral to the construction of the trail in addition to the SUP Chapter was the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, which manages the tortoise habitat portions through which the trail meanders, Dixie Red Hills Golf Course, which abuts the trail area, as well as the city itself.

Along the ⅓-mile trail, hikers will be oriented on the quarry’s history through the plaques and can sit on benches along the way to linger and enjoy the panoramic views.

The trailhead is located at the north end of 700 West, which connects to the north end of Diagonal Street. Where 700 West dead ends, there are a pair of sandstone pillars marking the trail.

Photo gallery follows below.

About the series “Days”

“Days” is a series of stories about people, 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.

Read more: See all of the features in the “Days” series

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

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