After Many Boom and Bust Cycles Moab Just Keeps Pedaling

Jeffrey D. Nichols
History Blazer, June 1995

Like so many other western towns, Moab, Utah, has experienced prosperous times followed by harder times. The various boom and bust cycles in and around the town have involved mineral products, agricultural products, and recreation. The town’s up-and-down economic history has reflected national and international events and concerns from the Cold War to the fitness craze.

The town site, originally settled by Mormons in 1855, was abandoned after fierce resistance from local Indians. In 1876 the area was resettled and became a relatively prosperous, though tiny, agricultural community. The first real local boom involved the discovery of small amounts of gold in the nearby La Sal Mountains in the 1890s. Although these deposits did not prove substantial, other “riches” helped make Moab noteworthy. By the 1910s well-established local orchards were benefiting from the region’s 325 days of sunshine, producing prize-winning apples, grapes, pears, and peaches. In 1910 J. P. Miller’s orchard produced an Alberta peach 12 inches in diameter, weighing 13.5 ounces.

At the same time, another local product was contributing its share to Moab’s economy. Small quantities of uranium ore were in demand as dye material for the European ceramics industry. In the early decades of the 20th century radium was in demand for its phosphorescent qualities as well as its alleged medical benefits. Uranium’s real boom (and bust), however, would have to wait until the 1950s. Meanwhile, the discovery of oil and natural gas deposits led to the sinking of numerous wells throughout the 1920s, sparking another minor local boom.

The dawn of the nuclear age and the Cold War tensions that developed in the late 1940s and 1950s brought thousands to Moab in the biggest boom to date. The arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union created a great demand for uranium, which the Moab region possessed in abundance. When the Atomic Energy Commission began seeking large quantities and guaranteed a base price, prospectors descended on the Grand County seat. Moab’s population increased from 1,275 in 1950 to 4,682 by 1960. The population boom put acute strain on the town’s services and drove prices higher. By the early 1960s, however, the demand had eased, and the uranium boom faded.

Other products helped to pick up the slack. In 1957 three more oil fields were opened, sparking a minor oil boom that lasted into the mid-1960s. By that time potash had proved to be a valuable commodity. The deposits, just northwest of town, were believed to be the largest in the world. An enormous potash processing plant was built in 1963.

All of these industries, as well as farming and ranching, continue to contribute in varying degrees to the region’s economy. The latest boom, which began in the 1960s, gained strength in the 1980s and continues today. The tourism business is much older than that, of course; Grand County has been touting the area’s climate and natural beauty since the earliest years of the century. The establishment of Arches National Monument in 1929 brought some visitors, but Arches remained a relatively obscure destination (although Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire increased its appeal). In 1964 Canyonlands National Park was established with Moab serving as its northern gateway. When Arches was upgraded to national park status tourism boomed, and Moab was perfectly situated to benefit from it.

Adventure sports also diversified the town’s economy. River running, which began as a tourist activity in the 1950s, had achieved wide appeal by the 1970s, and the town boasted numerous outfitters. Perhaps the greatest boost came from the experimentation of a small group of bicycle enthusiasts in Marian County, California. These daredevils found that oversized tires, stiffened frames, upright handlebars, and heavy-duty components produced bicycles that could handle the steep, twisting, rocky trails of their local Mount Tamalpais. As the mountain biking craze spread, Moab residents discovered that their region offered very different but equally challenging and delightful terrain. “Slickrock”—apparently named by teamsters whose shod horses slipped on its surface—proved to be an ideal surface for the new bicycles, and riders laid out trails throughout the region. The most famous, the “Slickrock Trail,” is a “strenuous, technically exacting ten mile loop” about two and a half miles outside of Moab. Slickrock and other trails now attract thousands of bikers. Moab’s population stood at 5,333 in 1980; although the 1990 census recorded a drop to 3,971, tourism and recreation, the booms of the 1990s, seem to be sending Moab’s economy back on the upswing.

Sources: Grand Memories (Grand County, Utah: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1972); John W. Van Cott, Utah Place Names (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1990); F. A. Barnes and Tom Kuehne, Canyon Country Mountain Biking (Moab: Canyon Country Publications, 1988).