Matrimony Springs north of Moab is a legendary site -- one that some say equals the icon status and international renown of Delicate Arch. But no one seems to know who named it Matrimony Springs, or when.
Those questions, put to many old-timers this spring when closure of the springs opened a flood of public debate, drew a wide range of responses, memories of good times at the springs, and consensus that fresh, free-flowing water is the way to go.
“I think they ought to just open it up and put up a sign that says ‘drink at your own risk,‘ and let it go. I think those people who’ve been drinking it all their lives look pretty good to me,” said Mel Dalton, 86, a Moab native who served the city 11 years as police chief. He added, “I think it may add a little life.”
Dalton is among longtime local residents and others who have used the spring for decades who were queried about the site’s history, who named it Matrimony Springs, and when did that name stick?
“I have no idea,” said Virginia Fossey, 91, a regular “fixture” at the Dan O’Laurie Museum of Moab. “I wondered if somebody got married out there or something.” Fossey has lived in Moab 52 years, and Matrimony Springs is what she’d always heard the site called.
“When I was going to school, it wasn’t called that,” recalled Jode White, 75. “Somewhere along the line, it just popped up.” Born in Moab, White grew up on Tommy White’s ranch (now Red Cliffs Lodge) on the Colorado River, and remembers stopping to fill jugs and quenching his thirst from the water spilling into his palms after a quick hike to the site from the road, single lane back then. “When I was a kid, they just called it the river springs.”
“I have heard it referred to as ‘river springs,’ too,” Dalton said. “In the last 30 or 40 years, I’ve only heard it called Matrimony Springs. That’s what I’ve always called it.”
Dalton said it was always a good time to go on “watermelon busts” out there, and anytime his family headed to the mountains by way of the river road, they would always stop enroute to fill up water jugs at the spring -- an activity he continued to engage in three or four times a summer, even as the thirsty crowds grew with increasing tourism and word about the freshwater springs, and “you‘d have to wait in line.”
The legendary source is said to be snowmelt from as far as the LaSal Mountains, 20 miles away. Another resident claims he heard the water can take as long as 40 years to seep through the porous sandstone and make its way to the river.
A Colorado couple, Ryan and Jessica Vachon of Longmont, talking to Diane Walker of Moab, drank from Matrimony Springs for years and got married a year ago upriver. Photo by Vicki Barker
Whoever named it, Matrimony Springs has tended to live up to the legend attached to it. According to Fossey, “if anybody drinks from the springs, they‘re married to Moab.” A variation on that version is that those who drink the water and are wed to Moab will always return. Another variation is that those who share the water will later wed, like a couple from Longmont, Colo., Jessica and Ryan Vachon, who told their story at the springs recently.
Separately filling their bottles there for years, they eventually met and got married a year ago at Sorrel River Ranch upriver. “We stop here every time we come here because we like the taste of the water so much,“ Vachon said.
White wonders if the word “matrimony” developed from humorous stories of “the campfire girls,” a handful of men from Moab who were divorced or had otherwise fallen into disfavor with wives or girlfriends and would gather at the springs, build a fire, and proceed to imbibe and commiserate with each other.
Another twist on the story is that high school students traditionally partied at the spring on graduation night, and a few weddings resulted.
The original setting of the springs -- which Carol Hines, now in her 90s, remembers was full of native flowers -- changed when the state blasted out some of the rock to widen the river road to two lanes, White said.
White, and his son Jerry Tommy White, have joined in peaceful entreaties to authorities to reopen the spring, which was closed to public access in February. They attended a gathering at the springs mid-March that drew more than two dozen supporters, some with signs imploring officials to “Let it flow” and “Free Matrimony.”
Officials are reluctant to reopen the springs because of testing by the Southeastern Utah District Health Dept. that showed coliform content. Sanitarian Jim Adamson, health district director, first posted a sign in February to discourage use of the untreated water after informing the county and state that his testing revealed coliform organisms in the water in July and October 2008, and again in January.
Disappointed at the news of the closure was Raney Walden, 22, of Salt Lake City, who had friends waiting in her car while she sallied forth to fill a half-gallon milk jug on her monthly pilgrimage to Moab. Finding the pipe had been plugged, she said, “This is a travesty, I know, not only for me as a visitor from Salt Lake City…but I know a lot of Moab people who come out here to get water.”
Walden said she’d brought her friends down on her most recent trip to Moab, and “last time I came here they got married to Moab.” Her friend, John, had brought her to the springs, telling her, “You’ve got to get married to Moab.”
“So I did,” Walden said. “This place has changed my life.” “We’d fill that truck full up. We’d go out and catch catfish. We supplemented our food with that.”