Area: 2,422 square miles; population: 48,560 (in 1990); county seat: St. George; origin of county name: after President George Washington; principal cities/towns: St. George (28,502), Washington (4,198), Hurricane (3,915), Santa Clara (2,322), La Verkin (1,771), Hildale (1,325); economy: tourism, education, services, trade; points of interest: Zion National Park, Snow Canyon State Park, Gunlock Reservoir, Red Cliffs Recreation Site, St. George Temple and Tabernacle, Pine Valley chapel, Well Fargo & Co. express building in Silver Reef, Washington Cotton Factory, Jacob Hamblin home in Santa Clara, Brigham Young home and Dixie College in St. George.
Washington County in the southwest corner of the state includes a large area around St. George in the valley of the Virgin River and its tributaries; it has the highest average temperatures in the state and very mild winters. The eastern third of the county, including spectacular Zion National Park, is part of the Colorado Plateau province. The western two-thirds lies in the Basin and Range geographic province. The lowest point in the state, along Beaver Dam Wash (2,350 feet), is near the county's southwest corner, while the Pine Valley Mountains in the north top 10,000 feet.
Traces of the prehistoric Archaic and Anasazi cultures have been found in the area, and the Santa Clara and Virgin rivers provided an important base for the development of Southern Paiute life. The Dominguez-Escalante expedition in 1776 recorded the first description of the Indians in this area. In 1980 the federal government restored traditional tribal lands west of Santa Clara to the Shivwits branch of Southern Paiutes. The Shivwits Reservation, set aside in 1903, had been terminated in 1954.
In an attempt to establish an overland route to the Pacific and southern California (the so-called Mormon Corridor), the Mormons founded a string of settlements running southwest from the Salt Lake Valley. Brigham Young sent small groups into southwestern Utah as early as 1852 to test the agricultural potential of the warm climate. Fort Harmony was established in 1852, Santa Clara, 1854, Washington, 1857; Toquerville, 1858; Grafton, 1859; and Adventure (Rockville), 1860. But until 1861--when several hundred families were called by church leaders to go to the area to raise cotton, figs, olives, grapes, sugar, almonds, and tobacco--colonization remained chiefly an experiment. St. George, settled in 1861, became the center of the area, nicknamed Dixie because of its southern location, climate and agricultural produce, and the colonists succeeded in producing sizable amounts of cotton, wine, and molasses. The demand for cotton lasted until after the Civil War. The wine industry also grew during this period, as did mining, but when mining decreased so did the demand for wine. From 1875 to 1880 Silver Reef, northwest of Leeds, was a booming mining town, and Wells Fargo reportedly shipped more than $8,000,000 in bullion from the mines there.
The boundaries of Washington County, formed in 1852 by the territorial legislature, stretched the entire width of the territory (at that time some 600 miles). After several changes, the county achieved its present size and shape in 1892.
The economic base of the county has changed significantly over the years from its agricultural foundation to 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. The trade and service industries have grown steadily to accommodate not only increasing numbers of tourists but the development of the area as a major retirement center. Communities such as Bloomington, south of St. George, as well as numerous condominiums and trailer parks housing thousands of winter residents. Two-year Dixie College with some 2,300 students is a major employer as well as a cultural and sport focal point in the area.
During the past three decades, Washington County has been one of the fastest growing counties in the state. In 1970 the population stood at 13,669; during the 1970s it nearly doubled to 26,065 in 1980. It nearly doubled again during the next ten years hitting 48,560 in 1990. Projections for the 1990s are that this growth rate will continue. The county is host to several outstanding events each year, including conferences and conventions, art festivals and art shows, golf tournaments, the Dixie Rotary Bowl Football Game, the St. George Marathon, and the World Senior Games.