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Kanab City

Kane County, Utah

Kanab City Hall is located at 76 North Main Street, Kanab, UT 84741.
Phone: 435‑644‑2534.

Beginnings [1]

The city of Kanab is located just north of Utah's southern border in Kane County. Geographically part of the high desert Colorado Plateau, the city is located between cliffs of red and white sandstone. The Kanab Creek enters the valley on the north and flows along the western edge of the city. Before white settlers came to Kanab the region was used by tribes of Paiute Indians for hunting, foraging, grazing and limited agriculture. Navajos, who lived to the south and east of the Colorado River, also frequented the area. The word Kanab came from the Paiute word for willow, and the area was called the "Place of the Willows" for the trees that once lined the creek. Kane County was visited by Spanish explorers, later fur trappers, and finally government surveyors, but no attempt to build a permanent settlement was made until 1858 when Mormon settlers first explored the area.

Within a few months of entering the Salt Lake Valley, Brigham Young, leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or Mormon Church), had sent groups of settlers to explore the outlying areas. The Mormons had three reasons for settling southern Utah: 1) to set up a series of settlement outposts especially those on route to California and Arizona, 2) to find areas suitable for grazing and agriculture, and 3) missionary work among Utah's Native American tribes. Through the 1860s, a Mormon leader named Jacob Hamblin organized several expeditions to negotiate with Native Americans for peacefully sharing the land; however, confrontations and raids between the two groups prevented the permanent settlement of Kanab for years. A fort built during the winter of 1865-1866 was soon abandoned, and a second attempt in 1868 also failed.

In the spring of 1869, a handful of families moved into the old fort along with several friendly Paiutes. On April 2, 1870, Brigham Young visited the fort and established an LDS ward in Kanab. The first permanent settlement occurred on June 14, 1870, when a colony of seventeen settlers from Salt Lake City led by Levi Stewart arrived in Kanab. In September, a one-mile-square town site was surveyed with Main Street running north-south and Center Street running east-west. One block in the center of town was set aside for public use and the rest of the blocks were divided into four one-acre lots. Farmland to the south and west of the town site was provided and a number of communal projects (irrigation ditches, fencing, and a school house) were commenced. Later that year several families joined the original settlers and the Kanab Fort became a center of activity. The 1870 US census lists 72 persons living in eleven dwellings in Kanab. The residents were primarily farmers with one blacksmith, one laborer, one schoolteacher and two teamsters. The Paiute population was not enumerated, however one sixteen year-old Indian girl was living with one family as a servant.

During the early 1870s, the Kanab fort was a focal point for local pioneering, missionary work, and exploration, as well as a trading post and the base of operations for the Geological Survey. The fort consisted of a stone building (used for school and other meetings) and several pine log cabins within a cedar post stockade. The fort was never intended to be permanently inhabited and settlers were anxious to built more substantial structures, especially after an incident in December 1870, in which Levi Stewart's wife Margery and five of his sons were killed in a fiery explosion of fuel stored inside the fort. By 1873, most of the families had moved from the fort onto their town lots. Some of the log cabins may have been moved from the fort, but the majority of dwellings were built new, many supplied with lumber from a rudimentary sawmill. The house of Levi Stewart constructed in 1872 was built of adobe and soft-fired brick. Because of the late settlement of Kanab (relative to other Utah towns), adobe was used in only the earliest dwellings. Histories of Kanab also mention structures constructed of willow.

Kanab was platted into 90 blocks of approximately four acres each. Each family was given a one-acre lot on which to build a house, barn, and outbuildings. The acre lots provided room for a family garden plot and perhaps a small orchard. The creek was too small for a sufficient water supply and a number of dams and reservoir projects were begun. By the mid-1870s irrigation ditches lined the streets and provided water to the town lots. One of the best-preserved acre lots is the house of William Derby Johnson Jr. at 54 South Main Street. This property includes remnants of the ditch, outbuildings, and an orchard. The acre-lots provided food for the family at a subsistence level, with more intensive agriculture occurring in the outlying lands, as in most southern Utah settlements. Kanab's geographic isolation forced the early settlers to be resourceful. Furniture and clothing was often homemade. Kanab has been described as the "most inaccessible place in the United States." Despite the difficulty of constructing roads, in good weather a thriving wagon trade existed between Kanab and its neighboring communities and Salt Lake City. News came via a telegraph line linking Toquerville to Kanab in December of 1871.

By 1880, the population of Kanab Town had grown to 394 persons living in 73 dwellings. The occupations of the residents had grown more diverse, adding a number of artisans to the farmers: a shoemaker, a tanner, a tailor, a saddler, and a cloth finisher. As Brigham Young and others had suggested, the land around Kanab was more conducive to ranching and livestock than agriculture. Several stockmen, ranchers and a dairyman were listed in the census. The town also had a postmaster, a mail contractor, the county surveyor, and several teamster freighters. The millwright, two carpenter-plasterers, and two architect-builders represented the building trades. During the 1880s, many homes (stone, frame, and brick) were built. There were also several commercial buildings, a schoolhouse, and an LDS Church meetinghouse.

On March 13, 1884, Kanab was incorporated and a number of city ordinances approved. With the assessment of taxes, several city projects commenced. These projects included improving the cemetery, repairing streets, sidewalks, and irrigation ditches, and a provision for removing dead cattle from within the town limits. About the same time, the county seat was moved from Toquerville to Kanab, and a number of Kanab residents held county offices. Population growth during this period was mostly due to an influx of new settlers and the characteristically high Mormon birth rate. The population of Kanab in 1890 was 409, and 710 in 1900. The 1900 census indicates that ranching had increased dramatically. The number of stockmen and ranchers is nearly equal to the number of farmers. Both the census and gazetteer list a number of occupations associated with urbanization: physicians, dentist, druggist, newspaper editor, telegraph agent, barber, billiards, and two hotels. Resident John F. Brown served as both lawyer and blacksmith. Women appear to have a strong economic presence in Kanab at the turn of the century. In the 1900 census, few women are simply listed as "keeping house," the most common designation for adult women during this period. Most list some type of occupation. Many are dressmakers, seamstresses, and milliners. Nurses and midwives are represented, as is Harriet Spencer, the town's telegraph operator. A few are listed as artists and musicians.

Building increased dramatically during this period with a number of high quality brick and frame homes constructed by local builders. A handful of brick commercial blocks appeared on Main and Center Streets, and the community built a schoolhouse, a town hall, a post office, a meetinghouse-social hall, and an opera house. During this period the inhabitants of Kanab could not raise enough food to meet their needs, and staples had to be shipped from the north. The arrival of freight wagons and stages was an almost daily occurrence. The chief export was wool and other livestock commodities. The products of local industries such as sawmills, gristmills, dairies and cheese factories were mostly bartered and consumed locally. Experiments in buffalo herding and silk production were not successful. The Kanab Irrigation Company was established to oversee the water system of the town.

Telephone service was established during this period, but the problems of transporting passengers and goods remained. The railroad never came to Kanab; the closest shipping point was at Marysvale (reached by the Denver & Rio Grande in 1900), 132 miles to the north. On June 29,1909, two automobiles stopped in Kanab as part of a promotional tour from Salt Lake City to the Grand Canyon, a remarkable feat considering the condition of existing roads and the fact gasoline was not readily available south of Provo, 250 miles north. The trip was under the direction of Kanab resident, E.D. Woolley, who, according to his daughter, was the first person to envision southern Utah as a tourist destination. Woolley spent the next decade campaigning tirelessly to build automobile roads to Kanab and the scenic wonders in the vicinity.

Between 1900 and 1910, the population of Kanab increased only slightly from 710 to 733, a census total which included 33 Paiutes living in Kanab. The occupational makeup was similar to the previous decade with one important addition: six forest service workers were living in the town. Though not as many women were listed on the 1910 census with occupations (the 1900 census was probably just a quirk of the enumerator), women did strengthen their political clout. In 1911, partially because of a general political apathy, the town elected a female mayor and an all-female town council, the first in the United States. During their one term, Mayor Mary Woolley Chamberlain and her council instigated a town cleanup campaign, passed several pieces of health and vice-related ordinances, made major improvements to the town's cemetery, bought lumber to build bridges over town ditches, and participated with improvements in the irrigation system. All of the women had families and three gave birth while in office. Perhaps their most important contribution to Kanab's history was to make the work of the town council more visible. After the election in 1914, the town council was composed of all men.

In the second decade of the twentieth century, the population of Kanab saw its largest increase from 733 to 1,102, much of the increase directly tied to the increase in tourist related industries. Roads were improved dramatically and the road that would eventually become part of Highway 89 (the main north-south thoroughfare in the state of Utah at the time) was paved by 1921. Several hotels were established during this period, and at least two claim to have hosted noted author Zane Grey while he was working on his masterpiece, "Riders of the Purple Sage." In 1912, Stockman's Store was given permission to stock gasoline. The number of general merchandise stores increased as well as the addition of more specialized enterprises such as a confectioners, an ice cream parlor, a bank (1913-1921), and a bowling alley.

In 1922, a new era for Kanab began when a Hollywood film crew stayed in town during the filming of Deadwood Coach, a western starring Tom Mix and his wonder horse. At the time, the Parry brothers of Kanab were in the business of taking tourists by bus to see nearby national parks, and had the necessary resources to transport the film people and their equipment. The Parrys began to promote Kanab and vicinity as the ideal location to film outdoor movies, especially westerns. Between 1922 and 1950, thirty-four more films were made in and around Kanab. Kanab's long association with the movie industry resulted in the town's nickname, "Little Hollywood." It is estimated that the movie industry has spent ten million dollars in Kanab, most of it in direct profit to residents who served as carpenters, drivers, livestock wranglers, hotel and restaurant operators, and extras.

The expansion of tourism also brought increased prosperity to the city. Several organizations to promote the scenic wonders of southern Utah and northern Arizona were established in the 1920s. Though the population of Kanab remained steady during this period (1,195 in 1930, 1,397 in 1940, and 1,287 in 1950), facilities for tourists increased dramatically. The Parry family built a large motor lodge in 1931 (still in use), and by the 1950s, there were a dozen hotels, motels, lodges and "auto courts" in the city. The prosperity brought a number of changes to the city. Roads were paved and the city finally received electricity in 1925. A number of important institutional buildings were constructed during this period: the county courthouse (built in 1921 and demolished in the 1980s), an impressive sandstone and brick LDS Chapel (built in 1924 and enlarged in the 1950s), and the Kanab Library (a WPA project, built in 1939-1940). Private residences built during this period consisted of over a hundred highly individualized bungalows, along with a few representatives of later types and styles such as period revival and World War ll-era cottages. These twentieth-century homes appear as infill on divided lots scattered throughout the city. Tourism, movie making, ranching and forest service projects provided jobs for the community through the Depression years. Between the 1950s and 1980s, Kanab had a steady population and a sustainable mix of industries based on the themes established during the historic period.

The second half of the 20th century has seen a modest amount of change to the pioneer community. The increase in tourist traffic resulted in Highway 89 becoming a major thoroughfare. The highway enters the north end of the city at 300 West, turns on Center Street, goes south on 100 East, before splitting at 300 South. Highway 89 goes west on 300 South toward the Glen Canyon Dam Recreation Area, established in 1956-1957; Highway 89 A continues south to the Grand Canyon. As a result of Highway 89's prominence, commercial activity shifted from Main Street with new hotels and restaurants built on the highway's route. Other changes include the irrigation ditches disused and mostly covered over in the 1980s, outbuildings razed or used for storage, and a modest number of new homes built on the old town lots. These newer homes are similar to those found nationally: ranch houses, ramblers, etc. Institutional buildings have been added to the community at the rate of one or two a decade. The buildings range from the Kanab Elementary School, built in 1955, to the new Kanab Library built in 1999. Today, Kanab's population has increased to over three thousand resulting in a number of recent annexations where most of the new housing has been located. The economic base has tilted in the favor of tourism, which has been steadily increasing while other industries have been on the decline. Many former ranchers have moved into more lucrative enterprises. Though movies (and some television shows) continue to be filmed in the area, the industry is not the major factor it once was. Recently, heritage tourism programs, which promote the historic and architectural resources of Kanab, have been instituted to complement the marketing of the region's natural wonders.

  1. Korral Broschinsky, Preservation Consultant, for Kenab Heritage Council/CLG, Historic and Architectural Resources of Kanab, Utah, nomination document, 2001, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.