Three Corners of Earth, Part 3 of 3
They Came Looking For Gold ...
It is generally believed that Fray Francisco Atanasio Dominguez and his exploration party, which included Fray Francisco Silvestre Velez de Escalante, were the first white persons to enter Utah and journey towards southwestern Utah. Starting in Santa Fe in the early summer of 1776 the party made its way through northern New Mexico, southwestern Colorado, across the Green River and into Utah Valley. Their goal was to find a route from Santa Fe to the Spanish missions in California, but one that circumvented both the Grand Canyon and the blistering deserts of southern Arizona and California. However, once into western Utah the group ran into a heavy mid-September snowstorm and wisely they turned back.
Though they were unsuccessful in finding an overland route to California, the Catholic fathers did likely make the first scuffles in what would become the Old Spanish Trail, the main route of passage from Utah to Los Angeles - and one still in use today in the form of Interstate 15. (It is worthy to note, however, that some believe hordes of Spanish gold-seekers illegally ventured into Utah and Colorado well in advance of the Dominguez-Escalante expedition, beginning in about 1540. This tantalizing theory, however, has little academic support.)
Following Dominguez-Escalante came trappers and fur traders, but intense exploration of southwestern Utah did not occur until the winter of 1849-50. Under the command of Mormon church leadership in Salt Lake City, a group of 50 men, led by Parley P. Pratt, spent four months en route from Salt Lake City down Utah's great central valley to the Virgin River then around the Pine Valley Mountains. They stumbled back, sometimes through several feet of snow, on what by then was the well-worn track of the Old Spanish Trail. Traveling with relatively sophisticated equipment, the party identified nearly 30 habitable spots for settlement along the route. Today, scores of settlements, from Santaquin at the southern end of Utah Valley and south through Nephi, Fillmore, Beaver, Parowan, Paragonah, Cedar City, Toquerville, Harmony and Washington, owe their existence partly to Pratt's expedition. Within a half-year of the Pratt expedition's return, Young had sent settlers to these areas. By the mid-1850s, many of these towns were settled, though hardly thriving.
Things are a little different today.
... But Ended Up Planting Cotton ...
Locals in St. George acknowledge it was the Mormon church's prophet who decreed a town would be built here along the rocky banks of the Virgin River, but it was really two things that made St. George the oasis that it is today: air conditioning and golf. Oh, and I-15 didn't hurt, either.
The far southern corner of the state, today home to the cities of St. George, Washington, Ivins and Santa Clara, was not actively settled until the early 1860s. Brigham Young, the Mormon church's leader at the time and its second prophet, wanted Mormon self-sufficiency. One valuable commodity standing in the way of that goal was cotton. During the Civil War the stream of cotton out of the south nearly dried up and what little that made its way West was prohibitively expensive. Starting with a party of just over 300 and guided by George A. Smith, Young established what would later be called the St. George cotton mission (the St. George name coming from Smith, though Mormons do not grant saint status) - a potential boon to the cash-poor colony. Pioneers dammed the Virgin River and planted cotton, then silk.
Cotton and silk farms were great ideas, but both flopped. The Virgin River is wild, prone to disastrous flash floods, and the whole southwest corner of Utah is hot and dry. Make that very hot and very dry. Temperatures topping 110 are common in July and August, and most of the region receives less than 10 inches of precipitation a year, much of it coming in torrential downpours that rage briefly and fill dry washes with churning flood waters.
Brigham Young, recognizing this problem, decided to temporarily subsidize these settlements of far southwestern Utah by paying them - with food - to build the St. George Tabernacle and the St. George Courthouse. This work - each project took years - supplied local residents with enough food to make it through the rough times.
... But Now Everyone Just Relaxes in the Sun
I've been camping in the mountains and desert for two days. I literally smell like the desert I was in last night, my hands smelling like creosote and dirt under my fingernails. On St. George Blvd., the main drag, it is hard to imagine that this place once tried to make it as a cotton town. Today, it is a snowbird town. St. George is where northern Utah comes to escape winter. When it's blowing and snowing in Salt Lake City, St. George is sunny and dry, with green grass (Green! That color is missing from my winter repertoire!) and Frisbee afternoons in the parks. St. George is four-hour drive on interstate the whole way. And actually, it is not just snowbound Utah that makes it here on long weekends. Caravans of cars and trucks, their sides encrusted with winter's telltale salt, cruise by sporting Wyoming and Idaho license plates, the occupants inside looking rather unbelieving that they can, on this first week in March, roll the windows down and leave their jackets behind. Ah, winter is truly a multi-faced creature.
Besides the warmth, nearby draws such as Zion National Park, several reservoirs, the Tuacahn outdoor theater and, well, Nevada and its casinos and buffets, are big draws. Zion has an IMAX theater, and there is an outlet mall in town. On the way to Zion is Grafton, a ghost town, west of St. George is Snow Canyon State Park - where it rarely snows, but there is a lot of cool red rock cliffs - and even the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is close enough to see in a day.
St. George now ranks as one of the most desirable cities in America to retire to and surrounding Washington County is one of fastest growing areas in the country. The county's population is now close to 90,000 - which , believe me, is a lot for Utah. Retirees come for the sunny dry weather and the golf. Several of the valley's eight courses are world class and greens fees are as low as $25 for 18 holes in the winter (the high season). At all of them, the scenery is unbeatable: greens often wind between deep red cliffs, and as snowcapped peaks hover far above, palm trees grace the fairway.
Well, there's an Italian place here someone told me to check out. I forgot the name, but I know about where it is. But what to do with the rest of the day? I could cruise the main drag here, but my truck is much too dirty to make much of an impression. I could go to Zion, but I need a full day for the sorts of things I want to do there. I'm not much of a golfer, to put it mildly. Looking down at my fingernails and up at my ratty hair, I know what it is I will do now: check into a hotel and take a shower!
St. George golf stats (all prices are winter high season):
St. George Golf Club: (435) 634-5854, 18 holes, par 73, 6,765 yards, $25
Sunbrook Golf Club: (435) 634-5866, 18 holes, par 72, 6,800 yards, $46 for 18 holes with a cart
Twin Lakes: (435) 673-4441, 9 holes, par 27, 1,001 yards, $6.50 year round
Entrada: (435) 674-7500, 18 holes, par 72, 7,200 yards, $60 for 18 holes
Dixie Red Hills Golf Course: (435) 634-5852, 9 holes, par 34, 2,564 yards, $15
Green Spring: (435) 673-7888, 18 holes, par 71, 6,717 yards, $32
Southgate Golf Club: (435) 628-0000, 18 holes, par 70, 6,093 yards, $25
Bloomington Country Club: (435) 673-2029, 18 holes, par 72, 6,948 yards, $60 with cart
Sky Mountain Golf Course: (435) 635-7888, 18 holes, par 72, 6,312 yards, $16
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