The stimulus for the growth of roadside motels and motor courts in St. George was the oiling and graveling of the last stretch of the original Arrowhead Trail between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City in January 1931. The road became a major artery for motor travelers throughout the west. These new automobile tourists demanded better lodging facilities to accommodate their overland journeys. Southern Utah’s community leaders jumped at the chance to re-invent their struggling towns and turned their focus on tourism.
Rural Utah towns built motor courts and motels by the dozens, beginning in the 1930’s and escalating sharply after World War ll. With neon signs inviting cottage rooms, and picturesque names such as “Rugged West” and “Shady Acres”, these motels provided the drive for a shift in St. George and other communities along the Arrowhead Trail from the agricultural economy of the previous century to the new tourism destination economy.
By the 1950’s, tourism in Utah generated eight million dollars annually and millions of cars traveled along Highway 91, previously named Arrowhead Trail Highway. The St. George Chamber of Commerce and Motel Association cooperated to place billboards on the road advertising the St. George sunshine and business kept coming.
Hotel chains such as Travelodge, Howard Johnson and Holiday Inn expanded nationally in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s giving the hotel industry a new lodging business model. Customers liked the fact that they could count on a chain looking the same, offering the same amenities, and charging the same price, no matter what the location. St. George businesses people did not miss this trend. Many family-owned motels began to modernize or sold out to new owners. Almost all of the motels in St. George added swimming pools and some even added a playground. During the 1960’s, some motel operators adapted by building even bigger facilities, called motor inns or motor lodges.
According to Travel Utah, by 1972 tourism was ranked as the second largest industry in the state and generated an income of nearly $209 million per year. It is poignant that St. George finally saw the millions in tourism revenue, but it came with its own set of problems. The volume of tourists in St. George made larger hotel properties a better investment. Twenty rooms were not enough. It is also bittersweet that Highway 91 originally gave rise to the motel boom, but the new Interstate 15 bypassed the center of St. George, and most other southern Utah towns. Within a few years of the Interstate opening, the mom-and-pop motels started disappearing. Chain operators bought some and rebuilt them into standard formats.
Church, Lisa-Michele. “Early Roadside Motels and Motor Courts of St. George.” Utah Historical Quarterly, vol. 80, no. 1, 2012, pp. 22-23, 40-42.