Images of the American west and its complex history seem to focus on ideas of lawlessness, of wildness, and of conflict. In popular culture, we picture the gun fight at the OK Corral, miners fighting each other for claims to get rich quick, taverns and brothels being the closest things to “civilization” within a hundred mile radius, and all sorts of manner of unsavory characters.

And then there is this place, a peaceful homestead on forty acres as far north as Arizona gets without becoming Utah. Pipe Spring National Monument tells a different story of the American west, one that, while it has its share of conflict, is more about creating order than flying in the face of it.

Winsor Castle is the settlement’s largest building

Pipe Spring National Monument sits at the intersection of two important pieces of American history, neither of which is easily visible anymore. First, it straddles what became known as the Old Spanish Trail in 1829, a route crossing the vastness of Arizona and Utah that skirted the Grand Canyon rather than trying to follow one of the southern rivers (Salt or Gila), as the Colorado and its many rifts was impassible, and still is. This small homestead sat next to a natural spring, making it an important stop on that journey.

In 1861, the first transcontinental telegraph line was completed, connecting east and west with rapid communication. In 1865, Brigham Young, leader of the Mormon community in Utah and its surrounding areas, expressed a desire that a local telegraph line be constructed, allowing Mormon communities and outposts to communicate with each other. Called the Desert Telegraph Company, the line was first operational in 1867, and passed through Pipe Spring, outside of the city of Kanab, Utah. This marks the second important piece of the intersection.

However, the most important aspect of Pipe Spring has always been water. When early Spanish explorers and missionaries first reached the area in 1776, they were greeted by native Americans from the Kaibab Paiute tribe, who had been living in the area for countless generations, using the water from the spring to cultivate maize and beans. Disease and slaving raids by the Navajo and Ute tribes would reduce the numbers of the Kaibab to less than 1200 by 1860, when Mormon settlers would arrive to the area. (Today, the entirety of the land surrounding Pipe Spring National Monument is Kaibab Paiute land, helping to maintain that vibrant culture.)

A Paiute construction like this would protect against the strong winds of the area

Mormon pioneers were drawn to Pipe Spring by the plentiful high grasses of the surrounding plains for cattle grazing, and of course by the water of the spring. In 1863, James Whitmore purchased 160 acres of land surrounding Pipe Spring, though he would be killed in a Navajo raid only three years later, part of a tit for tat war that would last much of the next decade. As for the amazing grassland? By 1870, most of it was gone, having been overgrazed, exposing the topsoil to often violent winds in the area. The soil blew away, leaving the land barren, as it remains today.

Pipe Spring never produced enough water for a full town to be built here. Volunteer park historian Pete Bostich tells me that in 1870, roughly when the fort of Winsor Castle was constructed to protect the area from Navajo raids, the spring was producing roughly fifty gallons of water per minute. This would have been enough to maintain the small settlement, its animals, and its fields of fruit trees, grape vines, and vegetables, as well as provide passing pioneers with water for them and their animals. Today, due both to climate change and naturally occurring movements in the earth, the spring produces a trickle of about four gallons per minute, and is expected to run dry within a decade or two.

A visit to Pipe Spring National Monument begins at Winsor Castle, a wood and stone building that housed the telegraph office, accommodations, kitchens, and the water source (in a subterranean room from which channels were dug through the walls and down to the fields). Other buildings – some original and some restored – are also able to be visited, with the always-wonderful signage of the National Parks Service explaining different aspects of Mormon pioneer life. From here, one can visit the fields, animal pens (including a friendly donkey and not-so-friendly longhorn steer), and two small ponds holding water from the spring.

Water from the spring is held in a pond like this

But for the best experience, walk the short but steep ridge trail that meanders up the red rock cliffs overlooking the settlement. (Closed toed shoes are a must, and wind gusts can be viscous, so be careful.) Here, signage tells the tale of the establishment of the settlement, and of the people who were here before, the Kaibab Paiute, who today are partners with the parks service in the maintaining of the area. Plants are labeled in both their English and Paiute names, with notes on how the Kaibab would have used them, whether for food, medicine, or crafts. (Pete also tells me that at the top of the ridge, back near a sign that delineates the monument from the reservation, there is a dinosaur footprint – this area is one of the best for paleontologists – but in the wind conditions on the day of my visit I didn’t brave another trip up.)

A view from part of the ridge trail

For those interested in the American west, Pipe Spring National Monument tells a different story than you are perhaps used to. This is the story of water, of pioneers, of grazing animals and fields. This is the story of the Mormon settlers and their telegraph, of the Spanish explorers charting a route through the wilderness, and of the native tribe who befriended them both, only to nearly disappear at the hands of slavery and disease. It’s a visit of discovery and of learning. Just don’t try to pet the longhorn.

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