Area: 3,300 square miles; population: 20,789 (in 1990); county seat: Parowan; origin of county name: from iron deposits in the area; principal cities/towns: Cedar City (13,443), Parowan (1,873), Enoch (936); economy: government (including education), wholesale and retail trade, services, light manufacturing, and construction; points of interest: Cedar Breaks National Monument, Iron Mission State Historic Park in Cedar City, Southern Utah University (Utah Shakespearean Festival), Brian Head resort, old rock church, and Jesse N. Smith adobe house in Parowan.
Iron County is a study in contrasts–from its arid western reaches of the Escalante Desert and Great Basin ranges to the meadows and forests of the high plateaus on the east. The Markagunt Plateau is creased by the colorful formations of Cedar Breaks National Monument, a kind of miniature Bryce Canyon. Brian Head (11,307 feet), named for a profile resembling that of William Jennings Bryan, rises abruptly behind Iron County’s major string of settlements and extracts a toll of precipitation from passing westerlies to help feed the headwaters of the Sevier River.
Parowan Valley was home to prehistoric Anasazi and Sevier people who constructed granaries and pithouses, dating from about A.D. 750 to 1250. Petroglyphs of unusual variety from different periods were pecked into the stone of Parowan Gap about twelve miles northwest of Parowan. Cedar City is the tribal headquarters of the modern Southern Paiute Indians, whose ancestors used the plants and animals of the basin/plateau environment in a complex seasonal pattern.
The Dominguez-Escalante expedition passed through the area on 12 October 1776 on its unsuccessful search for a route to central California. The Catholic fathers followed the Old Spanish Trail long used by Native Americans to southern California. Fur trapper Jedediah Smith was the first American to use the route on his amazing journey of 1826. Mormon settlers dispatched by Brigham Young established Parowan in January 1851 as the mother colony of the southern frontier. Cedar City (originally Coal Creek) was founded the same year. Several pioneer log homes as well as some English two-bay log barns now very rare in the state remain in the county.
Coal in the canyons east of Cedar City and iron ore in the mountains west of the town inspired the early Iron Mission that proved marginally successful as a pioneer attempt at self-sufficiency. Modern mining methods and transportation made iron more befitting as the county name. Old Iron Town still has a fine beehive coking oven among its ruins. The west end of the county also has some historic and current precious metal mining. The Escalante Desert had its name changed to Escalante Valley, reflecting the rich irrigation agriculture of hay, small grains, and potatoes.
Iron County has a more balanced and broadly based economy than most of rural Utah. Located on Interstate 15, Cedar City is 500 miles from Los Angeles, 180 miles from Las Vegas, and 260 miles from Salt Lake, and about midway between Los Angeles and Denver via I-70. Its location and size have made it a regional trade center and supplier of services. The concessionaire for nearby national parks (an edge of Zion is in the county) headquarters here as do regional offices of the Bureau of Land Management, Dixie National Forest, and Utah Wildlife Resources. A railroad spur and regional airline still serve the city. A rocket motor fuel plant is under construction. Southern Utah University, combined with a peerless Shakespearean Festival in July and August, makes it an attractive stop for some of the more than one million people who annually pass through.
Gary B. Peterson