For a lucky few, Green River is home. For most, Green River is a waypoint: a crossing point of the mighty river, a place to rest, or better yet, a spot to take a cool dip during a hot desert journey.
Paleo Indians, Archaic peoples, Fremont Indians, and Anasazi Indians inhabited the region long before any settlers or pioneers. The relative ease of crossing the Green River at what we now call the town of Green River made the area a necessary destination for them, as well as for the explorers and tradesmen that would come later.
Some would come by land, like the early 19th century traders who traveled the Old Spanish Trail between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Los Angeles, California. Some would come by river, like John Wesley Powell, the renowned explorer of the Green and Colorado Rivers. And some would come and stay, like a man named Blake who set up a river ferry that became an appreciated amenity for travelers. The town was established in 1876 and has the distinction of being one of the few Utah towns not founded by Mormon pioneers.
Green River cemented its status as a waypoint when the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad laid tracks and built a station mostly thanks to the work of immigrants. The first fruit crops were grown at the beginning of the twentieth century, leading to the melon farms of today. As automobiles replaced horse-drawn transportation, old wagon trails were transformed into roads then highways. The first in-town bridge for vehicles was built in the 1930s; US Highways 6, 50, and 191 were later routed so that they would cross in or near town. These roads brought passers-by through, even after the river naturally changed its course through town and after the collapse of the first river bridge. This would shift the traveler’s route from the town’s historic Broadway to Main Street, altering the shape of Green River’s downtown.
Those roads also brought floods of uranium miners beginning in the 1940-50s and folks to work at the U.S. Army’s newly built Green River Launch Complex in the 1960-70s. These industries brought new workers and their families to town, helping the town grow and infrastructure develop. When jobs in the mines dried up, the missile base decommissioned, and the newly built Interstate-70 went beyond downtown’s borders, the number of businesses decreased and the town’s population dropped to its current size - home to nearly 1,000 residents. In the 1980-90s, new motels and gas stations spread further from the town’s core and ever closer to the town’s I-70 exits. Today, Main Street sprawls 5 miles between two I-70 exits and has most of the amenities the modern traveler would want.
In some ways, Green River’s legacy of transport defines this place. It’s roads and river move more than people and vehicles — they become natural routes for mystery, history, and myths. And Green River has a lot of these stories to share.
NATIVE AMERICAN ROCK ART
This area is covered with fantastic examples of Native American rock art from several distinct eras of history, and most of it is really easy to see for yourself. Sometimes painted and sometimes carved, Southeastern Utah’s arid and remote landscape has helped preserve the native artwork for us to see today. A number of different petroglyph and pictograph styles are featured in the region, with the Archaic people’s Barrier Canyon Style among the most prominent. Made from an unknown blend of powdered minerals, blood, charcoal, oxidized iron, ground-up plant material, oils, and many other natural sources of pigment, the Barrier Canyon Style pictographs can be seen at sites like nearby Sego Canyon and Black Dragon Canyon.
At Sego Canyon, you can see unusual floating figures thought to be representations of human-animal hybrids of ancient legend or perhaps a shaman wearing a ritualistic headdress. At Black Dragon Canyon, you can see a menacing figure that appears to be a dragon, phoenix, or swan with wings outstretched emblazoned on a canyon wall. The ghost-like images of the Barrier Canyon Style can easily be interpreted as spirits, wraiths, mythological animals, or even ancient aliens. One of the things that makes rock art viewing so intriguing is all the theories and ideas that are inspired while viewing these strange wonders.
Mines & Missiles
Just outside of Green River and within a stone’s throw of I-70 and millions of unknowing travelers each year, are the remains of the Green River Section of the White Sands Missile Range (aka Green River Launch Complex). Although many have heard of the White Sands Missile Range, home of the first test of the atomic bomb, few know that for over a decade during the Cold War, hundreds of missiles were launched from Green River, flying across Utah, Colorado, and ultimately impacting in New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range. From 1963-1975, the U.S. Air Force launched Athena missiles a distance of over 400 miles from Green River to White Sands in New Mexico as part of the U.S. Defense Department’s Advanced Ballistic Reentry Systems program. The facility also hosted live firing exercises of the Army’s Pershing missiles. Some know that a part of the base was a repurposed Union Carbide uranium mill that was built during the region’s uranium mining boom of the 1950’s.
This local era of mining and missiles brought flocks of soldiers, scientists, families, and entrepreneurs of all stripes to this small riverside community. At that time streets and stores were humming, the park was alive with activity as off-duty G.I.s crowded in nightly, and the population ballooned to over double what it is today. Many who came during those years stayed and still live here today, but most left after the mines and launch complexed closed.
Besides the fond memories residents have of those years, there are at least two interesting, yet curious remnants of that era that remain. Near the old Union Carbide uranium mill sits the Green River Uranium Disposal cell, a 41 foot tall mound of radioactive tailings covered by black rock, also known as the “Black Pyramid.” Additionally, a Loki-Dart missile used by White Sands Missile Range staff to test launch-weather now sits in the park; a gift to the city years ago.