Doris K. Burton
Utah History Encyclopedia, 1994
Vernal, Uintah County’s largest city, is located in eastern Utah near the Colorado State Line, and 175 miles east of Salt Lake City. It is bordered on the north by the Uinta Mountains, one of the few mountain ranges in the world which lie in an east-west rather than the usual north to south direction. The Book Cliff Mountains lie to the south, and Blue Mountain to the east, while Vernal itself lies in Ashley Valley, named in honor of William H. Ashley, an early fur trader who entered this area in 1825 by floating down the Green River in a bull boat made of animal hides.
Vernal, unlike the majority of Utah towns, was not settled initially by Mormon pioneers. Brigham Young sent a scouting party to Uinta Basin in 1861 and received word back that the area was good for nothing but nomad purposes, hunting grounds for Indians and “to hold the world together.” That same year, President Abraham Lincoln set the area aside as the Uintah Indian Reservation. Captain Pardon Dodds was appointed Indian agent for this reservation.
When Dodds retired, he moved to Ashley Valley to raise livestock, along with agency workers Morris Evans and John Blankenship. They arrived on 14 February 1873 and settled on Ashley Creek. Dodds built the first cabin in the valley, located about four miles northwest of present day Vernal. Many single men—trappers, prospectors, home seekers, and drifters—arrived in Ashley Valley, and some stayed. However, there wasn’t a woman in the area until 1876.
The area where Vernal is now located was called the Bench, and it was described as a large barren cactus flat. The David Johnston family moved onto the Bench on 6 June 1878. It was reported that when they stopped their wagon, David took his shovel from the wagon and cleared off the cactus so the children could stand without getting cactus needles in their feet. He put the wagon on logs to keep it off the ground as there were many lizards, horned toads, scorpions, mice, and snakes in the area. Alva Hatch came to the valley looking for a place to locate in May 1978. He returned later with his family and his father, Jeremiah Hatch, along with Jeremiah’s two wives. The fall of 1879 brought many settlers to the valley.
On 29 September 1879 the Meeker Massacre occurred in Colorado, with the White River Utes killing their agent, Nathan Meeker, among others. Renegade Utes then rode to Ashley Valley to convince the Uintah Utes to join them in killing all the white people in the area. Instead, the Uintah chiefs advised the settlers to “fort-up.” A fort was built on the Bench due to its open expanse. Many settlers of Ashley Valley took their cabins apart, moving them to the fort site. The incident was settled, but the people remained in the fort that winter. The winter was severe, killing most of the animals. The humans also suffered. Much of their grain had been gathered from the ground, since grasshoppers had knocked it from the plant stocks; it became moldy. Diphtheria took its toll. It was March before they could get out of the valley for supplies.
Many families moved their cabins back to their homesteads, others remained in the fort. A town grew out of the fort and became known as Ashley Center. A store was opened and the residents applied for a post office. The name Ashley Center was requested, but it was too similar to the town of Ashley; therefore, the name Vernal was assigned to the community by the U. S. Postal Department.
The enterprising settlers of the valley developed a basic irrigation system that still serves the valley today. Because of the distance to a major railhead, settlers produced, manufactured, and developed about everything they needed. The leading livelihood was the cattle and sheep; milling, the production of honey, and the farming of grains and alfalfa were also important. Vernal still remains without a railroad, but the highway transportation system has enabled the city’s residents to have access to most goods and services.
Although the LDS church helped set up Vernal as a town in 1884, the town wasn’t incorporated until 1897. Vernal thus had the distinction of being a city without taxation for fifteen years. In 1948 Vernal had its first oil boom. From that time on it has been a boom and bust town. A thriving tourist business by Dinosaur National Monument, as well as livestock and agriculture production, help keep Vernal going during “bust” times.
Flaming Gorge Dam was built in 1964, bringing more tourists to the area. Steinaker and Red Fleet dams, built in 1962 and 1980, provided irrigation water and recreation. As with many cities, big stores have moved to the outskirts of town, but small businesses are keeping the downtown area alive. The population of Vernal City in 1990 was 6,644. Vernal, being the county seat, draws from a county population of 22,211 and also from western Colorado.