Utah History Encyclopedia


By Joseph M. Bauman, Jr.
The San Rafael Swell is a kidney-shaped upthrust of about 900 square miles of desert, domes, steep hogback ridges, and canyons--almost entirely within Emery County. So much of this uninhabited country is scenic and natural that the Swell has been proposed repeatedly as a national park, although local residents generally oppose the idea.

The striking pictographs found on cliff faces in Barrier Canyon and throughout the San Rafael Swell and in the nearby Horseshoe Canyon section of Canyonlands National Park are almost certainly 2,000 years old, and may be much older. Archaeologists date a sandal from Walters Cave in Horseshoe Canyon as about 8,875 years old.

Later cultures, notably the Basketmakers and Fremont Indians, also left pictographs in the Swell. During the nineteenth century, Ute Indians camped along the Green River within view of the San Rafael Reef.

From 1813 through the 1850s, traders and travelers used the old Spanish Trail, a dusty and difficult track that eventually stretched 1,200 miles from Santa Fe to Los Angeles. It looped north at the San Rafael Reef, then ascended the Wasatch Plateau before swinging toward southwestern Utah, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles.

In 1853 Captain John Williams Gunnison headed a railroad survey attempting to chart a route for a transcontinental rail line. Following the Spanish Trail, the party forded the Green River and reached the San Rafael Reef. Gunnison wrote, "As we approached the river yesterday, the ridges on either side of its banks to the west appeared broken into a thousand forms--columns, shafts, temples, buildings, and ruined cities could be seen, or imagined, from the high points along our route."

Soon after leaving the Swell, the explorers split into two groups for separate investigations. Gunnison and his party were attacked by Indians on 26 October 1853 while camped beside the Sevier River in central Utah. Gunnison and six others of the twelve men in that group were massacred.

Just before the end of 1853, John Charles Frémont led an expedition into the region, also searching for a railroad route. At the Reef, they turned south and worked their way along its towering wall. Then they lost their way in the deep snows of the Aquarius Plateau. Starving, they cached all their equipment and made a dash for Parowan. They were rescued by a band of Ute Indians and led into the settlement, having lost one man.

In September 1871, as John Wesley Powell was leading his second expedition down the Green River, Powell and Stephen Vandiver Jones hiked from the river to investigate the San Rafael Reef. Another expedition member, Walter Clement Powell, wrote in his journal that the Indians called the strange formations "Sau-auger-towip" or Stone House Lands.

The town of Green River sprang up in 1878 at the Old Spanish Trail crossing of the Green River. Soon afterwards, in 1883, the Denver and Rio Grand Western Railroad track was built to Green River and Price. Conductors began pointing out to passengers the same ragged skyline of the San Rafael Reef where Gunnison had imagined temples, buildings, and ruined cities, and they called it "the silent city."

On 21 April 1897 Butch Cassidy and Elza Lay robbed the coal mine payroll at Castle Gate, Carbon County. They galloped their horses into the Swell and escaped. They were only two of probably dozens of outlaws who found a haven there over the years.

In 1903 sheepherders discovered vanadium and uranium deposits in Wild Horse Canyon. At that time, vanadium was useful in hardening steel, but uranium wasn't valuable except for research, manufacturing porcelain and glass, and in "cures" cooked up by medical quacks. During World War II, however, uranium was mined for the Manhattan Project that produced the first atomic bomb, and in the 1950s a uranium boom brought hundreds of prospectors and miners to the Reef. When the mines played out and the boom ended, the economy of nearby towns like Castle Dale, Hanksville, and Green River became largely depended on tourism and ranching.

Interstate 70, completed in 1970, bisects the Swell. The highway enters the region's eastern boundary, the San Rafael Reef, about seventeen miles west of Green River. The Swell is a popular destination for hikers, photographers, and off-road vehicle users. During times of high water, rubber rafts and inner tubes carry adventurers along the San Rafael and Dirty Devil rivers.

See: Joseph M. Bauman, Jr., Stone House Land: The San Rafael Reef (1987); and Volunteers of the Utah Wilderness Coalition, Wilderness at the Edge (1990).