Green River has traditionally been known as a way-station, a crossing-point, a pit-stop, but this unique village is more than just a place to pause. Like most towns, it has been shaped by many events that have dramatically impacted the shape of the city and its residents. Green River has a rich past full of booms and busts.
The history of Green River begins before the settlement era since it was the most accessible crossing point on the Green River south of the Uinta Basin. The Old Spanish Trail forded the river about three miles upstream from the present town, as did the 1853 railroad survey under the direction of Captain John W. Gunnison. The site’s accessibility also made it a natural staging and supply point for travel on the river. the City of Green River started as a river crossing for the U.S. Mail. Settlement began in the late 1870’s in the form of Blake Station on the overland mail route between Salina, Utah, and Ouray, Colorado. The first permanent settlers of European stock were the families of Thomas Farrer and Matthew Hartman. The Farrers played a leading role in the community for several decades, operating a general store, a bank, and a ferry service.
The railroad has played a major role in Green River’s history. In 1880 this small town of three families boomed into a tent-and-dugout town with workers coming to build the bridge and the road bed for the railroad. The completion of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railway in 1883 made Green River a shipping point for livestock and mining equipment and supplies. Green River became a fueling and watering stop for the railroad with switching yards and engine sheds. Since there were no dining cars in those days a hotel (called the Palmer House) was built, and it became the scheduled meal stop for trains from both directions for many years. The influx of railroad workers gave the town 375 residents by 1890, in addition to a fluctuating population of cowboys, sheepherders, and prospectors from the Book Cliffs and the San Rafael Desert. The town’s location on the “outlaw trail” between Robbers Roost and Browns Park also contributed to its “wild west” reputation during that period. Green River enjoyed the railroad boom until 1892 when the railroad transferred most of its operations to Helper, Utah, cutting the population in half. Today, only the Amtrak passenger train stops in Green River, Utah.
An oil boom in 1901 brought a rush to locate claims and some drilling activity but no commercial production. In 1906 a land developer named E.T. Merritt began promoting Green River as a fruit-growing area comparable to the Grand Valley of Colorado. Several hundred acres of peach trees were planted on both sides of the river, but problems with the irrigation system and harsh winter temperatures killed most of the trees before they could come into production
In the late 1940’s through the 1960’s (when the uranium boom ended followed by a brief recovery in the 1970’s) uranium dominated the economy of Green River. Several trucking companies based in Green River hauled the ore from the mines in the Four-Corners Mining District, the San Rafael Swell, the Henry Mountains, and near Lake Powell.
The U. S. Air Force built the Green River Launch Complex (the new Area 51?), just outside of Green River, in 1964. It was an annex of the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range. From 1964-73 the U. S. Air Force launched 141 Athena and Pershing Missiles from the Green River launching area, near the Crystal Geyser. From those firings research was done to improve nuclear missiles. The Launch Complex brought the town’s population to a high point of almost 2,000 before the closing of the complex in the 1970s led to yet another economic downturn.
Each of these boom cycles had some lasting impact upon the community. The “Farrer Subdivision” that makes up the southeastern portion of the town was a product of the railroad era. The “upper town” to the north and west was developed during the peach boom, a period that also saw the incorporation of the town in 1906 and the building of a high school in 1910. The Community Presbyterian Church was also established during this period. A Latter-Day Saint ward was organized in 1904, disbanded in 1915, and reestablished in 1923. During the uranium boom, Jim Hurst developed an innovative flying service to carry workers and supplies to remote mining locations. The successors to Hurst’s operation now carry on an active business flying river running parties. The “missile base” era brought new schools and civic services and saw the Community Church become the Green River Bible Church. Catholic and Baptist worship services were also instituted during this period. Unfortunately, these booms and busts have put the city into the mindset that it has to wait for something to come along in order for things to change. So, what will the next boom be… the nuclear power plant?
Information taken from: Emery County Daughters of Utah Pioneers, Castle Valley: A History of Emery County (1949); Emery County Historical Society, Emery County, 1880-1980 (1981) and the City of Green River website.