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Moab Historic Happenings July 2004

Illustrious Life of J.W. Williams,
Moab’s First Doctor,
spanned over a Century

by Jeff Richards


Forty-eight years ago, on Aug. 13, 1956, Moab saw the passing of Dr. J.W. Williams, one of the area’s most illustrious and well-respected characters. He was 103 years old.

Dr. Williams was instrumental in not only laying the foundation of the community itself, but also in taking care of the health of its residents. He was also an avid promoter of tourism to the Southeastern Utah area, and has often been known as “The Father of Arches National Monument.”

Born in a log cabin in Missouri on Aug. 3, 1853, Dr. Williams crossed the plains of Kansas at age 20 and settled in Colorado in 1874. After herding cattle for several years and serving as a druggist in Hugo, Colo. for over a decade, he later went to the Denver area to attend medical school. Then, after graduating from Gross Medical School, Williams practiced medicine in Ordway, Colo. for a time before accepting the invitation of Grand County commissioners to move to Moab and become the community’s physician for a guaranteed salary of $150 per year.

Dr. Williams first arrived in Moab via stagecoach either in late November of 1896 or mid-January of 1897, and set up his medical practice immediately. He made house calls throughout Grand and San Juan Counties, sometimes traveling by horse and buggy and other times simply on horseback, his saddlebags packed with bandages, remedies, and medical supplies. He would regularly visit sheepherders camps, mining towns, and cowboys on the range, and was known for his rugged outdoor skills as much as he was for his medical prowess.

Dr. Williams married Lavina Larson in 1900, and the couple had five children together. Their youngest son Mitch Williams remains a resident of Moab to this day.

Dr. Williams was also instrumental in helping the town of Moab (population 300) become officially incorporated in 1902. The much-anticipated event occurred during a landmark two-day Grand County Board of Commissioners meeting held Dec. 29-30, 1902. Williams was one of five councilmen who were appointed to serve as the trustees for the fledgling city until the first town election could be held. The other four founders were V.P. Martin (a local merchant), Henry Grimm (a blacksmith), D.A. Johnson (a local church bishop), and Harry Green, the board’s president who had spearheaded the incorporation petition.

The bearded, bespectacled Dr. Williams practiced medicine full-time until his retirement in 1919 at age 66. The year before, Moab had endured the outbreak of the so-called Spanish Flu, which killed tens of millions worldwide. In Moab, the influenza epidemic was so bad that Jasper Meador reportedly had to leave his store unattended so that he could help Dr. Williams care for the many town residents who were sick. Although Meador’s store was reportedly left open for customers to ring up their own purchases, not a penny was stolen.

For decades after his retirement, Dr. Williams continued to provide limited medical care for friends and close acquaintances, and eventually was believed to be the oldest licensed physician in the United States.
One thing that retirement afforded Dr. Williams was the chance to devote more time to other pursuits, including the promotion of tourism in the area and the eventual creation and expansion of Arches National Monument (later Arches National Park). New visitors to town (especially dignitaries) were often accompanied by Dr. Williams to sightsee in the surrounding countryside.

One such first-time visitor was Dr. Larry Gould, who arrived in Moab in 1921 to do a geological survey of the La Sal Mountains. Williams (who never learned to drive a vehicle) reportedly took Gould to the area in Arches known as the Windows.

Three years later, in 1924, Gould returned to spend the summer in Moab. Several months later, he began a letter-writing campaign for official protection of the area by the U.S. National Park Service, enlisting the help of Sen. Reed Smoot of Utah.

In 1929, while Gould was in Antarctica as a member of Admiral Byrd’s South Pole expedition, the 4,520-acre Arches National Monument was officially created. At that time, the monument included the Windows and Devil’s Garden areas but not Klondike Bluffs, the “Schoolmarm’s Bloomers” (Delicate Arch), nor Courthouse Towers.

Dr. Williams wasn’t satisfied with the size of the new monument, and, with the help of the Moab Lions Club in the early 1930s, embarked on a tireless campaign to expand its boundaries. Their efforts were rewarded in 1938 when Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a proclamation expanding the monument to 33,930 acres.

In 1941, construction briefly began on an access road into the park, following the route that Dr. Williams himself had recommended (it had been his own preferred path when traveling by horseback or on foot).

However, World War II caused the road construction to be put on hold for several years. It wasn’t until after 1953 (when Williams turned 100) that construction began in earnest on the access road.

Three years later, in early 1956, Doc Williams, then 102, asked Arches Superintendent Bates Wilson to drive him into Arches, quipping that he needed to make sure that the road was being put in the right place. That rough Jeep trip to Balanced Rock and back proved to be Williams’ last foray into Arches National Monument. He died just a few months later, 10 days after his 103rd birthday.

In 1958, the road into Arches was finally finished, and Dr. Williams’ widow Lavina performed the ribbon-cutting honors. More than a dozen years later, in 1971, Arches finally became a national park, its boundaries expanded to 73,379 acres.

In the decades after Dr. Williams’ long life came to a close, his legacy has continued, and many of Moab’s older residents today still fondly remember the illustrious doctor. As Robert Sundwall wrote on the occasion of Williams’ 100th birthday, “As much of the geological history of the world is found in the rocks of the Arches, so is the human history of the desert oasis of Moab found in this venerable person.”

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