During the 1800s the area around what is now Moab served as the Colorado River crossing along the Old Spanish Trail. Mormon settlers attempted to establish a trading fort at the river crossing called "Elk Mountain Mission" in April 1855 to trade with travellers attempting to cross the river. Forty men were called on this mission. There were repeated Indian attacks, including one on September 23, 1855 in which James Hunt, companion to Peter Stubbs, was shot and killed by a Native American. After this last attack, the fort was abandoned. A new round of settlers established a permanent settlement in 1878. Moab was incorporated as a town on December 20, 1902.
In 1883 the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad main line was constructed across eastern Utah. The rail line did not pass through Moab, instead passing through the towns of Thompson Springs and Cisco, forty miles to the north. Later, other places to cross the Colorado were constructed, such as Lee's Ferry, Navajo Bridge and Boulder Dam. These changes shifted the trade routes away from Moab. Moab farmers and merchants had to adapt from trading with passing travelers to shipping their goods to distant markets. Soon Moab's origins as one of the few natural crossings of the Colorado River were forgotten. Nevertheless, the U.S. military deemed the bridge over the Colorado River at Moab important enough to place it under guard as late as World War II.
Moab's economy was originally based on agriculture, but gradually shifted to mining. Uranium and vanadium were discovered in the area in the 1910s and 1920s. Potash and manganese came next, and then oil and gas were discovered. In the 1950s Moab became the so-called "Uranium Capital of the