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Washington County

Washington County

Quick facts
Cool facts
What is the land like?
A bit of prehistory
A bit of history
Water in the county
A bit about the economy

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Quick facts

Area: 2,422 square miles 
Population
County Seat: St. George 
Where it got its name: President George Washington 
Main cities and towns: St. George, Washington, Hurricane, La Verkin, Santa Clara, Ivins, Springdale, Rockville, Hildale 
Economy: recreation, retirees, education, services, trade 
Interesting places: Zion National Park, Snow Canyon State Park, Gunlock Reservoir, Red Cliffs Recreation Area, St. George LDS temple and tabernacle, Pine Valley LDS chapel, Wells Fargo Express building in Silver Reef, Washington Cotton Factory, Jacob Hamblin home in Santa Clara, Brigham Young home and Dixie College in St. George, Grafton

Cool facts

historic aerial photo

The track on Hurricane Mesa where a contractor ran "Project Smart" in the 1950s and 60s. They blasted a rocket sled to the edge of the mesa and ejected "Dummy Sam" (that's him at upper right) to see how the speed and ejection would affect a real pilot.

What is the land like?

historical photo

Sightseers in Zion National Park, date unknown, but pretty long ago!

Red sandstone, red soil, dark pine-covered mountains, lava flows, cliffs and canyons, cottonwood-lined streams and rivers, rolling dry country of mesquite and Joshua trees… these are some of the images of Washington County.

The eastern third of the county, including spectacular Zion National Park, is part of the Colorado Plateau. The western two-thirds lies in the Basin and Range geographic province—but outside of the Great Basin.

The valley of the Virgin River and its tributaries have earned the nickname “Dixie” because it has the highest average temperatures in the state and very mild winters—making it possible to grow cotton there.

The lowest point in Utah, along Beaver Dam Wash (2,350 feet), is near the county's southwest corner. The Pine Valley Mountains in the north rise over 10,000 feet.

A bit of prehistory

historical photo

Paiute children living near the Virgin River. Photo by J. K. Hillers, photographer for John Wesley Powell's expedition, in 1872.

Traces of the Archaic and Ancestral Pueblo cultures remain in this area: petroglyphs etched into rock, above-ground rock structures, and below-ground kivas and pithouses, along with other artifacts.  

Later, Southern Paiute bands lived in the area, knowledgeably obtaining their sustenance from the land. White intruders, who saw them digging for roots, scornfully called them “Digger” Indians.

These people moved around harvesting plants and animals. They made their homes, clothing, baskets, containers, and other tools from plant materials. Sometimes they raised corn, squash, and beans, and ground their corn and seeds with a mano and metate.

The Dominguez-Escalante expedition in 1776 recorded the first description of the Indians in this area.

As elsewhere, white settlers pushed these people from their land. Some of their descendants now live on the Shivwits reservation near Ivins.

A bit of history

historical photo

Settlers built the Pine Valley Chapel in 1868. Ebenezer Bryce, who had built ships in England, built the roof like an upside-down ship, so they say.

As early as 1852 Brigham Young sent small groups into southwestern Utah to test the agricultural potential of the warm climate. Settlers established Fort Harmony in 1852; Santa Clara in 1854; Washington in 1857; Toquerville in 1858; Grafton in, 1859; and Adventure (Rockville) in 1860.

But until 1861, colonization remained mostly an experiment. In that year, Mormon church leaders “called” several hundred families to go to the area to raise cotton, figs, olives, grapes, sugar, almonds, and tobacco. St. George, settled in 1861, became the center of Dixie. The colonists succeeded in producing quite a bit of cotton, wine, and molasses. The demand for cotton lasted until after the Civil War.

During 1875-80 Silver Reef, northwest of Leeds, was a booming mining town, and Wells Fargo reportedly shipped more than $8,000,000 in silver bullion from the mines there. The wine industry grew during this period, but when mining slumped so did the

The boundaries of Washington County, formed in 1852 by the legislature, stretched the entire width of the territory (then some 600 miles). After several changes the county achieved its present size and shape in 1892.

Water in the county

historical photo

Finished in 1909, the Enterprise Dam took 16 years to build out of hewn stone. It still holds back the water!

In dry country like this, the settlers had to give a lot of attention to obtaining water. The first settlements built dams on the Virgin and Santa Clara rivers. But floods kept washing the dams away.

Later, the people of St. George decided to get water from springs on the Pine Valley Mountains--15 miles away. With teams, wagons, and scrapers, a canal took seven years to build, and was finished in 1898.

Up in the north of the county, Orson Huntsman had a vision to build a dam on Shoal Creek. After a lot of effort and sixteen years, the Enterprise Dam was finished.

The settlers of Hurricane also had a hard job to bring water to their fields. They dammed the Virgin River 7 1/2 miles above town, then built a canal into the sheer walls of the canyon: 8 feet wide and 4 feet deep. This one took 11 years, finished in 1904.

Even now water is a big issue, with all the people moving into the county, and all the golf courses that need watering. Quail Creek Reservoir was built in the 1980s--but a dike broke in 1989, causing millions of dollars of destruction. The dam was rebuilt.

Now people are exploring piping water from Lake Powell to take care of the county's thirst.

A bit about the economy

historical photo

A huge cherry tree in Washington County. In around 1935 it produced 1,280 quarts of cherries.

The economic base of the county has changed a lot over the years. Most people lived by agriculture at the beginning. Now, the economy has a much more diversified mix.

Zion National Park (established in 1909 as Mukuntuweap National Monument) has always been one of the state's premier tourist attractions. Snow Canyon, golf courses, and other features also draw tourists.

The trade and service industries have grown steadily—not only for growing flocks of tourists but also to serve the many retirees and others who are moving to the area. Communities such as Bloomington and many condominiums and trailer parks house thousands of winter residents.

Also, two-year Dixie College is a major employer.