It is 1896. He wears a long beard, spectacles, and the curious stare of a visitor to a new land. The twisted landscape that surrounds him is claimed by cowboys and sheepherders. Rustler camps line the canyons and fugitives from the law use its overhangs for shelter. They tell him that in the curl of rocks, beyond the garish face of its sandstone formations, the town of Moab is becoming an established, flourishing community. Utah has become a state. In Moab, the county seat of Utah's Grand County, fine brick homes, community dance halls, and stately stone business buildings denote the area's claim to civilization. They have invited him here, to this newly civilized land, to become their first physician.
He has been several days in the traveling from Ordway, Colorado. At the train station in Thompson he learned that the stage to Moab only ran three times a week. Sharing the fee with a traveling salesman, he hired a young man with a light spring wagon to bring him to town. It was over a 30 mile journey along a rough and sandy road. He ate salt pork at the Halfway House Stage Station. "If I'd only know'd you was a comin' I'd have cooked a chicken',' was the station keeper's classic greeting.
Doc continues the journey as the wagon travels around the stretch of road they call "Hell Canyon,' and drops into the Moab Valley, next to the river that must be crossed there. It is the Grand River, they say, but when he arrives, the November river is clear and low, and not at all befitting its name.
The neck of a great sandbar arches out of the river at the center of its course. A cable-drawn ferry provides passage across the river, but on this day, the ferry can't operate because the river is too low and the sandbar stands in its way. Around him is a captivating drama of sandstone; a diversity of shape, color, and texture. Across the river, the town of Moab wafts in a narrow valley oasis of the southeastern Utah desert. Water laps into the wagon as he fords the river. It is the baptism that makes him one with the country.
"On November 30, 1896, I first saw and loved Moab," Dr. J.W. Williams would one day say. Dr. J.W. Williams accepted Grand County's offer to become its first doctor, and in so doing also accepted a passion that he would carry with him for the next sixty years. He fell in love with the country, and in the country he found a dream, born of redrock and sandstone and the echoing call of sentry ravens.
The territory that Dr. Williams served stretched west to Hanksville and north to Thompson and Cisco. To the east, the people of Castleton, LaSal and Paradox sent word of their need for his help. Scattered farms, mining towns and cow camps also depended on the service of Moab's new physician. Because he was the only doctor in a vast frontier, Dr. Williams spent a good portion of his time on horseback. With his medical supplies packed in his saddle bags, he pulled his hat down to shield his eyes and set his horse along winding narrow ledges, through wide open valleys, and across rubbled cliff slopes on route to his patients.
One house call sometimes required days of traveling. In this way, Dr. Williams came to know the country with the same intimacy accorded the cowboys, rustlers, sheepmen and outlaws who then claimed it.
On his trips to the railroad towns of Thompson and Cisco, Dr. Williams avoided Hell Canyon and the sandy wagon road that had first brought him to Moab. Instead, he followed a shortcut along a trail that wound through an astonishing sandstone landscape. In this country he shared the campfire's crackle with cowboys and sheepherders. From them he heard of the scenic treasures of the area.
"He spoke their language, he was an old cowboy himself, and they showed him around, showed him places they knew about," says Mitch Williams, J.W.'s youngest son. As a young man, Dr. Williams had made his way west to Colorado on a cattle drive. He earned the name "Rawhide John" because of his skill at working rawhide into quirts for the cowboys.
Over twenty years later, Williams' time as a cowboy had earned him access to the campfire stories that spoke of the windows, caves, pinnacles, and sandstone sculpture that hid themselves north of Moab.
On horseback, on foot, and through the eyes of early cowboys, Dr. Williams came to know the country of what is now Arches National Park.
It was unlike anything else he had ever seen and he brought his enthusiasm home to the streets of Moab. He was their doctor, respected and admired. As the rapport of his bedside manner became punctuated with the sandstone of his passion, his patients listened in a way not accorded just any "cowboy."
In 1919, at the age of 66, Dr. Williams retired from his medical practice. Though he continued to treat old friends, he was able to redirect his energies and focus more time on favored pursuits. When he had arrived in Moab in 1896 he had already been a cowboy, a chuckwagon cook, a druggist, a justice of the peace, a county assessor, a postmaster, and the first county judge of Lincoln County, Colorado. His list of new pursuits had continued even while he served as Moab's physician. A new list of opportunities faced him on his retirement. Facing him also was a chance to spend more time in the backcountry.
On his own, he had explored the intimate details of the area. In coming to know the land in a way that only a few other local people could understand, Williams became convinced that the nation should know of the special character of the scenic marvels that lay just a short distance from Moab. Family, friends and acquaintances were all to become partners in the dream.
"The 'Windows', 'Arches', 'scenery', 'tourism' -- they're all words burned in my memory. It's what I heard constantly while growing up ... We spent a lot of time out there ... We took the buggy or went horseback out to a point where we could start walking," recalls Mitch. "Papa could really walk and anybody with him learned to walk too," he adds with a smile.
There were many excursions in those days, and some of them involved distinguished scholars, politicians, and other notable visitors. "I guess every important person who came to Moab had to see Dr. Williams," Mitch says. "Somebody in the town always told them that Dr. Williams was the one they had to see if they wanted to know about the country".
In 1921, when Dr. Larry Gould, a graduate from the University of Michigan, came to Moab for a three month reconnaissance survey of the geology of the La Sal Mountains, it was no surprise that he found himself in Dr. Williams' living room. Williams took Gould into the place he called "The Windows." "Papa never learned to drive," Mitch continues, "but he had Larry drive as far as Willow Springs, then they walked to the Windows from there."
It was an effective indoctrination. In 1924, Gould returned to spend the summer in Moab. The following winter, he wrote a letter to Senator Reed Smoot of Utah, encouraging a movement to make the Windows area a National Monument. Smoot, in turn wrote to Stephen Mather, director of the National Park Service, recommending legislation to establish a National Park Service area in the locally known " Windows."
By this time the Park Service, based on recommendations from the D and RG railroad had already conducted a preliminary survey of the area. They were looking for a place that a Moab prospector had called Devil's Garden (now called Klondike Bluffs). Instead, they found Dr. William's Windows.
A second survey was conducted in 1925. This time they explored the area of what they thought was Devil's Garden and named it. L.L. Taylor, editor of Moab's Times Independent and another supporter of the future of tourism in the Windows, credited both Dr. Williams and Dr. Gould for their efforts of turning the Park Service's eyes towards Moab. By the following year, Mather was referring to the "extraordinary specimens of natural sculpture and architectures found north of Moab."
In 1928, Dr. Gould was selected as second in command to Admiral Byrd in the famous Antarctic exploration. A year later, while he was still in Antarctica, the area of the Devil's Garden and The Windows were officially designated as a National Monument. It was a success that the local newspaper attributed to Dr. Gould, Senator Smoot, and the unfailing enthusiasm of Dr. Williams. (Ironically, Klondike Bluffs, the original Devil's Garden was not part of the new monument because the surveyors had never actually found it.)
The 4,520 acre area of the new National Monument fell far short of Dr. William's vision. His dream included an area that rose east of Hell Canyon to include the Courthouse Towers, the Windows, and the district of land that connected it to Devil's Garden. It also included Turnbow Ranch near where "Schoolmarm's Bloomers" perched on the edge of a swirling bowl of layered sand. This is the land he saw when he envisioned Arches National Monument. Williams knew that any expansion of the monument would probably meet with resistance from the cattle people who were still ranging their cows just outside the monument's boundaries. He could talk to these people -- he knew their concerns. He felt they would listen to him. Dr. Williams also knew that the fulfillment of his dream would require a lot more than talking. It would take letter writing, lobbying, political savvy, and strong local endorsement.
The mechanism to achieve this kind of support effort was created the year after Arches National Monument was established. The Moab Lions Club, which held its first meeting on July 31, 1930, quickly became an active and influential local group. Dr. Williams had always thought himself as "not much of a joiner" and his reflex was to decline the club's initial membership invitation. The Lions kept after Williams, and he, in turn, saw the key that would open the door for Arches' expansion. "If you fellows will help me with this Arches thing," Williams offered, "I will join your club."
The Lions agreed. Williams subsequently assumed the distinction as the oldest Lion in the nation; and the Moab Lions Club subsequently assumed the responsibility of their promise. "We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into," said Lions' member Cecil Thomson, who was at the time the manager of Moab Transportation. Not a club meeting passed that Dr. Williams didn't turn the agenda to discussion of the expansion and development of Arches National Monument.
Through the Lions, Williams knew he could tap the talents and resources of Thomson and other community leaders-people like L.L. Taylor, the Time's publisher, whose mastery of the written word was already directing the nation's focus on southeastern Utah. It wasn't long before William's addictive enthusiasm was beginning to spread through the group.
By then, Moab had joined the rest of the country in a depression. The creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, however, was a light of hope for a town like Moab, who looked to the CCC's as a valuable resource for flood control and road and bridge construction. As the Moab Lions Club lobbied for CCC support, improvements to Arches National Monument stayed high on their list.
The club's attempts were rewarded. In December of 1933, one of the first CCC crews to arrive in Moab was assigned to Arches to survey boundaries, lay out roads, trails, and evaluate potential campground areas. Called the Arches Scientific Expedition, the survey would also document archaeological sites and scenic features.
Frank Beckwith, a self-taught eclectic who was the editor of the weekly newspaper in Delta, Utah, was appointed survey leader. Beckwith was at once mesmerized by what he found. In Beckwith, Dr. Williams was to find a match for his own enthusiasm. "I helped Mr. Beckwith as much as I could and showed him things he might not have found himself in a short period of time. He and his helpers came to me every few days and I instructed them on how best to get to certain areas." Dr. Williams wrote in his journal.
Beckwith's weekly articles in Moab's Times Independent recounted the survey's findings in spirited detail. He went where Dr. Williams told him, and the result was an extension of the bounds of his survey to include areas not originally part of the Monument's two detached units. He began to share Williams' dream. At the end of his survey, he made an unequivocal recommendation for road and trail development and boundary expansions to include the areas of Courthouse Towers, The Palisades (Klondike Bluffs), and Schoolmarm's Bloomers, which would become popular as Delicate Arch. Beckwith's articles had awakened a new curiosity. Before the conclusion of his survey, Beckwith met with the Lions and presented his recommendations for Arches, including the proposed road, which followed a route recommended by Dr. Williams.
Shortly thereafter, Dr. Williams led members of the club into the Monument to follow the route. He showed them the slickrock horse trail from the mouth of Moab Canyon that snaked along the Navajo Sandstone as it climbed to the redrock spires and arches of the Entrada cliffs. Once on the mesa the route traveled to the Windows Section of the Monument. It was here that the first developed campground was envisioned. It was a route that Williams had followed on horseback as a frontier doctor. It was the way he had visited his patients to the north of Moab when the quicksand of Courthouse Wash was too difficult to negotiate. "This is where the road will be," his dream said.
The Lions' trip into Arches was one that few participants could forget. At age 80, Williams' physical condition was as strong as his dreams. "I walked the bunch of them to death," he said about the trip. According to the testimony of the comparatively youthful Lions that followed him, Williams' statement could almost have been taken literally.
"Dr. Williams darn near drove us crazy talking about the Arches," said Carroll Meador, an early Lions' member. It was also true that few could resist the contagion. Dr. Williams never missed a meeting, and he never missed an opportunity to bring up the subject of Arches. Eventually enthusiasm for the improvement of Arches had shaped a community dream.
The reward was soon to follow. "One day the White House sent Papa a letter asking him to send one of his pens to the President," Mitch recalls. "That's the way they recognized someone in those days -- we knew that the president was going to sign an order to expand the Monument. Papa didn't own any pens other than the old style dip pen. I guess he didn't consider he could send one of those to the President, so I offered my fountain pen that I used at school, and that's what he sent."
In November of 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed an expansion of Arches National Monument from about seven square miles to almost fifty three square miles, a total of 33,930 acres.
After he signed the proclamation, Roosevelt returned young Mitch's prized pen with a letter that thanked Dr. Williams for his efforts. Construction of the much wished for road into the newly expanded Arches was finally begun in 1941 by the CCC's.
By the end of the year, however, World War II changed the course of the nation's attention and the dream of Arches' expansion was dimmed by wartime.
By 1953, America was in the midst of a new economic hope. In Moab Dr. J.W. Williams celebrated his 100th birthday. An eloquent testimony to Dr. Williams was written by C. Robert Sundwall in honor of the event. "As much of the geological history of the world is found in the rocks of the Arches," Sundwall wrote, "so is the human history of the desert oasis of Moab found in this venerable person ... They will find in him," Sundwall continued, 'The pounding of rains and the beating of winds as these elements cut into the red sandstone." They called him the "Father of the Arches" and though no one knew it at the time, the second part of Dr. Williams' 60 year-old dream was about to become true. In Washington, D.C., the National Park Service was ready to launch a 10 year plan to upgrade its areas. It was called Mission 66 and through it Arches National Monument was to get a new road, and new visitor facilities.
By early 1956, the road in Arches National Park was finally under construction. Approaching his 102nd birthday, Williams asked Bates Wilson, Arches Superintendent, to take him along the route of the road. "I want you to take me out there," Williams said, 'so I can make sure that you're putting it in the right place."
The road was in the chaos of early construction: recently blasted boulders scattered over churned mounds of rocks and sand. The route was no road, it wasn't even much of a horse trail; but, this was no ordinary request. This was Dr. Williams, the "Father of the Arches." Bates knew there could be no refusing this wish.
The crunch of rock and dirt beat against Bates' jeep as he ushered the "Grand Old Man" of Moab through the shadows of his lifelong dream. They drove the entire route to Balanced Rock and back. There was little conversation, at least not through words.
It was the last time that Dr. Williams would travel the old familiar path into Arches. He died on August 13, 1956, 10 days after his 103 birthday. Two years later, the first phase of the road into Arches National Monument was finally completed. In honor of her husband's influence in the routing of the access to Arches National Monument, Dr. Williams' widow, Alvina, cut the ribbon to open the new entrance road. Ten years later, the American Society of Landscape Architects selected the Arches entrance road as one of the three best roads of the Mission 66 program.
In 1971, the land of sheepherders, cowboys, rustlers and country doctors at last received National Park designation. Mitch Williams and his wife, Mary, were invited to Washington D.C. to attend the commemorative banquet. Arches National Park, encompassing 73,379 acres became Utah's fifth National Park. Dr. Williams didn't live to see the expression of his dream, but the people came as he knew they would, and in them his dream was fulfilled.
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