The city of Monticello rests at the foot of Blue Mountain on the Great Sage Plain of southeastern Utah. Local springs east and west of its present location offered water to passersby, who gave them such names as Piute Springs, Soldier’s Spring, and Vega (Spanish for “fertile plain”) Creek.
In March 1886 Francis A. Hammond, LDS stake president of San Juan County, sent an exploration party from Bluff to determine likely sites for towns close to the mountain and its water. The south and north forks of Montezuma Canyon provided real possibilities, yet the general region was already utilized by Edmund and Harold Carlisles’ Kansas and New Mexico Cattle and Land Company, located a few miles north of Monticello, and the L.C. outfit, headquartered on the South Fork of Montezuma Creek. Undaunted, Hammond called Frederic I. Jones and four other men to start planting crops, laying out a townsite, and surveying an irrigation ditch. By the first part of July 1887 the men had their tasks well under way and had joined in a conflict with the cowboys of the Carlisle outfit that would continue for approximately the next eight years. Warning shots, heated disputes, and legal wrangling were all part of this tension as each group tried to control access to the area’s water. Homesites established at Verdure, on the South Fork of Montezuma Creek, were not free of conflict either, with cowboys as well as Ute Indians adding to the stress.
The Mormons claimed all of the water in the South Fork as well as three-fourths of it from the North Fork, and they learned from lawyers that the Carlisles had very little legal title to any of it. Since more water was available on the South Fork, the men there raised an initial crop of wheat, oats, and potatoes, and they experimented with both irrigation and dry-farming agriculture. In the spring of 1888 the settlers returned and undertook the construction of a town that was known as both North Montezuma and Hammond until it took the name Monticello in honor of Thomas Jefferson’s estate.
To bolster this new colony, Hammond called twenty additional men from Moab, Bluff, and Mancos, Colorado. Together they fenced 320 acres, established crude homes from wagon boxes and tents, and started the arduous task of hauling wood from the mountains. Private homes and a meetinghouse arose from the sagebrush flats, while the irrigation ditch, built by the newly incorporated Blue Mountain Irrigation Company, snaked its way across the flats to water the crops.
A rudimentary livestock and agricultural economy blossomed. Most of what was not home grown or locally made came from the stores of either Moab (via the railroad running through Thompson) or from the towns of Cortez, Mancos, and Durango, Colorado. Wagon freighting to distant markets provided an extra income for locals, but created a shortage of manpower for the women and children remaining at home. In 1903 the Utah State Agricultural College in Logan established an experimental station in Verdure, and for thirteen years the station tested various types of dry-farming techniques and products suitable to the climate.
This information, along with the passage in 1909 of the Enlarged Homestead Act that provided 320 acres of non-irrigable land for a small price, encouraged an explosion of new farms carved out of the sagebrush lands north and east of Monticello. The establishment of small communities comprised of homesteaders–Boulder (1910), Lockerby (1912), Ucola (1913), Summit Point (1915), Cedar Point (1916), Horsehead (1916), Ginger Hill (1917), Urado (1918), and Torb (1919)–supported the economic growth of the larger town like the spokes of a wheel linked to a hub. Even after the economic boom of World War I and during the Great Depression of the 1930s, farming remained a major local occupation.
The prosperity of the town ebbed and flowed. Monticello became the county seat in 1895 and in 1910 was incorporated as a city. A brick schoolhouse erected in 1897 replaced the log cabin school built nine years before. The Blue Mountain Irrigation Company accepted bids for a combined water and power system that came to fruition in 1917, supplying the 250-member community with twenty-four hour service. The town welcomed its first phone lines in 1906, tying communications in to Colorado circuits; two years later, Monticello connected with Moab. In 1915 Oscar McConkie established the San Juan Record, the county newspaper, in Monticello where it remains to this day.
World War II brought further changes. The Vanadium Corporation of America (VCA) selected Monticello as a site for a wartime vanadium processing mill. It employed 200 workers until it closed in 1946, only to reopen in 1949 as a converted vanadium and uranium plant. During the 1950s, the mill processed large amounts of ore taken from the canyons of southeastern Utah; however, in 1960, the Atomic Energy Commission closed the plant permanently. The government conducted a tailings cleanup project in the 1990s to remove any hazardous waste from the site.
Today, Monticello still serves as the county seat, is home to the school-district offices, has an eighty-prisoner correctional facility and the district court, and it has a growing tourist industry derived from Canyonlands National Park and traffic coming from southwestern Colorado. According to the 1990 census, it has a population of 1,806, which includes a small Hispanic community, and is the second largest city in San Juan County.
Robert S. McPherson