The Burgeoning Tourism Industry

Linda King Newell and Vivian Linford Talbot
The History of Garfield County

A number of federal government measures helped lead to Garfield County’s increased emphasis on the tourist trade. In 1957 President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 to create a national interstate freeway system. This thirteen-year program would be the most extensive public works project in U.S. history. Although the move had Cold War defense implications, many industries throughout the nation benefited from the new freeways, including tourism. No interstate highway traversed any portion of Garfield County, but the system improved visitors’ overall access to the county’s existing roadways, which the state and county gradually upgraded.

It was a long time after the federal government designated Bryce Canyon a national park before Garfield County had any of its other scenic wonders granted that status; but the next two were created within a much shorter time span. In 1964 a ruggedly beautiful area located mostly in western San Juan County received national park designation. The boundaries of the new Canyonlands National Park also spilled into eastern Wayne County along the Green River and to the northeastern tip of Garfield County in close proximity to the Colorado River. The park is divided into three distinct districts. The southern portion of the Maze district, comprising slickrock canyons and redrock formations, is located in Garfield County and is a very primitive area.

The next national park designation within the county involved greater controversy and complications. Residents of eastern Garfield County—and most of Utah, for that matter—received a shock on 20 January 1969 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a decree adding 215,000 acres (much of it in Garfield County) to the existing 39,173 acres making up Capitol Reef National Monument. This national monument in Wayne County had been created in 1937. President Johnson had been assured by Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall that this move would not be controversial. Instead, a violent outcry followed the announcement, and even the state’s Democratic senator, Frank Moss, was caught unprepared by the magnitude of the increase. Stockmen from Boulder and Wayne County were most affected economically by the president’s move and voiced their opposition. Over the ensuing two years, as Moss together with Republican Senator Wallace F. Bennett and Republican Congressman Lawrence J. Burton held hearings on the enlargement of the monument, it became obvious that many in other groups were equally outraged, including leaders of the BLM, U. S. Forest Service, and U. S. Soil Conservation Services. The Sierra Club, the Wasatch Mountain Club, and the Isaac Walton League, however, were among those who supported the expansion and hoped it would lead to the inclusion of all the Escalante River Basin in one great park or wilderness area.

Senator Moss introduced legislation that changed both Capitol Reef and Arches in Grand County from national monument to national park status. Three years after Johnson’s original decree, in January 1972, President Richard Nixon signed the bill creating Capitol Reef National Park. The park contained 241,671 acres, very little less than the original proposal.

By the early 1970s, Garfield County was well established as a tourist mecca. Garfield provided a gateway for much of southern Utah’s and northern Arizona’s most visited scenic sights. In 1972 the federal government created that recreational area, following the completion of the Glen Canyon Dam in 1964. Lake Powell, created as the dam backed up the Colorado River, is the second largest manmade lake in the nation. Even though neither the dam nor any of the lake’s main marinas are located in Garfield County, some of the lake’s most spectacular scenery is accessed by boating into some of Garfield’s canyons, such as through Bullfrog Bay. The county also provides some of the vehicular passageways into the recreation area.

Working hand-in-hand with these developments, some local citizens began to provide accommodations for the influx of tourists. A dozen motels appeared in Panguitch between the end of World War II and 1970. Four eating establishments complemented these facilities—the Bryce Canyon Cafe, the Flying M, Orton’s Cafe, and the Ru-Mil Cafe—although this last eatery, owned by Rula Houston and Mildred Riggs, catered more to the local high school crowd than to out-of-town visitors.

Hatch residents operated two and sometimes three motels during this time period, and small cafes opened for varying lengths of time, usually changing ownership on a regular basis. Wanlass and Dena Alvey opened the first overnight accommodations in Escalante in 1937 to provide housing for some of the CCC men. Over the years they continued to add to their facilities, until they had created a motel complete with swimming pool and opened a cafe and service station. In the meantime, three other motels offered accommodations (the first one built by Leo Munson and later owned by Claron and Ruby Griffin), three cafes served home-style meals, and the Alveys also opened a drive-in eatery.

Curio shops, selling such things as polished rocks, Indian crafts, and other handmade articles, attracted tourists. Panguitch had one such establishment on the south end of the town’s retail district. Ron and Virginia Young in Hatch owned a shop in conjunction with their gas station. In Escalante, John and Lola Zenz opened a rock shop, where they made beautiful gifts from petrified wood found nearby. Even though John Zenz gradually lost his eyesight, he could still operate the necessary equipment. The couple not only served people who visited their shop but also had customers throughout the state and beyond.

In another effort to accommodate tourists, Mayor H. J. Allen of Escalante announced on 1 July 1966 the town’s intention to create a new airport. Three entities provided funding for the project—the Federal Aviation Agency, the Utah State Aeronautics Commission, and the town of Escalante. At first it was intended to widen and lengthen an old existing runway, but community officials later decided to build a new one. Kelly Construction Company cleared and leveled the land, while the Mendenhall Company built the runway. Men in the town built the road from the airport to Utah Highway 12 and installed the necessary fencing. Don Kelly, who leased the airport facilities from the city after they were completed, built a reception center, office building, repair shop, and installed gas pumps. Dignitaries dedicated the $128,500 facility on 13 June 1970. A barbecue dinner and dance followed the ceremonies.

Garfield’s natural wonders were not all that attracted outside visitors, and the coming of fall did not necessarily shut down tourist-oriented businesses. During the last two weeks in October deer hunters inundated local communities. Most came from Utah’s Wasatch Front and from California. The annual deer hunt had become a celebration of sorts for locals as well as out-of-towners. Many towns hosted a deer hunters’ ball on the night before opening day of the hunt. Motel rooms filled up and local restaurants and grocery stores did a brisk business.

Interestingly, this area did not have a great abundance of deer when the early settlers first arrived. Old-timers could not recall that the early settlers hunted deer very often, although wild game certainly augmented their regular diet. According to one early observer, “the sighting of two or three deer was considered significant in the old days.” Many argue that deer herds began to increase after the implementation of range reseeding programs and the reduction in domestic livestock. For whatever reason, the hunt became a real boost to southern Utah’s economy.

Although it did not generate the concentrated excitement that the deer hunt did, fishing also continued to lure visitors. Panguitch Lake and other smaller lakes and clear mountain streams throughout the county promised great sport and an abundant yield to anglers. One fisherman, Chan Lee, caught an eighteen-pound trout in Panguitch Lake in the early 1940s; it was believed to be the biggest fish that the lake ever yielded. Recreational fishing stimulated the establishment of trailer parks and campgrounds. Because Otter Creek just over the county line in Piute County offered excellent fishing, Bryant Riddle decided to purchase a store in Antimony from Wayne Delange during the 1960s and add a cafe and trailer park to it.

Even if those who came to fish did not always have a lot of luck, the experience could be most satisfying. Clearly, Garfield County offered all visitors exceptionally beautiful and varied scenery in an atmosphere of utter tranquility, with western hospitality at its best. In turn, tourists could provide certain economic benefits to county residents that traditional industries no longer could. Jobs in the service sector and retail and government employment—all related to tourism—increased during the middle and later decades of the twentieth century as those related to agriculture declined.