This post is brought to you by our friends at Visit St. George!
You don’t have to believe in ghosts to find ghost towns chilling. There’s something haunting about a site that was once bustling but is now totally abandoned. Whatever brought settlers West, whether it was a group of religious pioneers in search of freedom or miners hoping to strike it rich, it was all about hope. Ghost towns, though abandoned and in various states of ruin, stand as a reminder of settlers’ dreams for a better life. And, of course, along with the hope, there was plenty of drama, too; it took the form of gunfights, union riots, Indian raids, grasshopper plagues, and silver rushes, among other things. St. George may have been a town that defied the odds and survived, but while you’re visiting, you can also explore some of the historic settlements that were almost lost to time, as they sit in a state of preserved ruin.
The biggest, rowdiest ghost town in the area was known as Silver Reef. Silver Reef was a boomtown that was founded when (you guessed it!) silver was discovered. A prospector from nearby Harrisburg (also now a ghost town) found a vein of silver in the sandstone in 1866. Silver isn’t normally found in sandstone, and as word about the discovery spread, many experienced miners wrote it off as a rumor. Even the Smithsonian, upon receiving and inspecting a specimen of silver-laced sandstone from Silver Reef, declared it “an interesting fake”.
But, despite the doubt, camps of enterprising miners started to spring up. In 1875, businessmen came to stake out mining claims, and then Silver Reef was officially formed when two camps, called “Bonanza City” and “Rockpile” combined.
By 1879, the population was roughly 2,000. Businesses (including a hotel, boarding houses, nine stores, six saloons, five restaurants, a bank, two dance halls, a newspaper, a horse race track, a brewery, a brass band and eight dry goods stores) lined Silver Reef’s mile-long Main Street.
Of course, with so many saloons, gambling was common and shootouts occurred on occasion. One of the most famous occurred in the back room of the Elkhorn during a court case between Town Marshal Johnny Diamond and mine guard Jack Truby. Both men died in the gunfight. Another involved an argument between faro dealer Sykes Griffen and a regular patron named Harry Clark. Another famous incident was also the murder of Michael Carbis, a mine foreman, at the hands of recently fired miner Thomas Forrest. Forrest was taken from the town jail and hanged by a lynch mob of angry Silver Reef residents. The owner of the Elkhorn Saloon, a 300-pound German man named George Miller, was reportedly a character, as well. Like many bars at the time, free food was served to encourage customers to come in and drink. He once reportedly kicked out a local man for eating but not drinking, and when the man came back with a gun, Miller stood up, put his arms out, and dared him to shoot. The disgruntled customer shot five times… and missed.
There was also a brutal union strike, where a group of miners decided to shut down the Savage Mine as a response to a lawsuit filed by the mine after miners started protesting wage cuts. The Sheriff of St. George rode into Silver Reef with a posse and arrested 25 members of the union. The town’s bank was used as a jail, but was too small to hold all of them. So a line was literally drawn in the dirt, and men were told they would be shot if they crossed it.
The town died just as quickly as it started. An 1879 fire and a drop in the price of silver forced mines to start closing in the 1880s, and people started to move from Silver Reef to nearby Leeds. Attempts to revive the silver mines in 1916 and to start mining uranium in the 1950s were short lived.
Today, the building that housed the Wells Fargo office is now an art gallery and museum. Some buildings have been restored, and historical markers denote where other important buildings once stood. The museum has loads of info on what buildings stood where and lots of stories on the wild goings-on of Silver Reef in its heyday.
Old Iron Town
Although Iron Town was short-lived, it played an important role in Utah’s settlement. Iron was sorely needed for the Mormons who were building communities across the state, and since it was very expensive to ship from the East Coast, several attempts were made to mine ore and make it right in Utah. Iron Town was one example. At Iron Town’s peak in 1871, the town’s Union Iron Works was mining 2,500 pounds of iron a day, and the town’s buildings included a schoolhouse, a blacksmith, charcoal furnaces, and a foundry, some of which you can still see today. The company expanded in 1873, but 1873 was a tough year, as it was during an economic recession. The Edmunds-Tucker Act, an Act of Congress that restricted many of the Mormon religion’s practices (including polygamy), caused enough legal problems for the Mormons that they were unable to revive the iron mining at Iron Town. Today, it’s part of the Dixie National Forest and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. Remains include a beehive charcoal oven, the foundry’s chimney, and an Arastra furnace, which prepared sands for molds.
Grafton was the result of a second attempt by Mormon farmers from Virgin to start a cotton-growing project in Utah; the first town, Wheeler, was destroyed in a flood. The townspeople also planted orchards to grow fruit as well; in fact, during the town’s first year, many went hungry, as they planted too much cotton and not enough corn to feed themselves. Although they had some success, the area was just not really ideal for farming. Flooding, dams washing out, and silt clogging irrigation ditches made growing things tough here, and the town’s isolation didn’t help. Graftonites were also constantly worried about Indian raids, thanks to the Blackhawk War of 1866; at one point, the whole town evacuated to nearby Rockville for safety for nearly two years. The town’s final death blow wasn’t dealt until 1921, when the local chapter of the Mormon Church closed. Some people continued to stick around into the 1940s, and in 1946, the town was sold to a movie producer.
Thus began Grafton’s second life, as a film star. It is most famous for its appearance in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, but in 1929, the world’s first outdoor talkie was filmed here too; it’s called “In Old Arizona” and its star, Warner Braxton playing The Cisco Kid, won an Academy Award for Best Actor. Starting in 1997, the town was restored and has a caretaker on site. Buildings, including the old church, the Russell Home, the Louisa Foster Home, the Berry fence in the cemetery, and John Wood home have been restored. It’s known as one of the most photographed ghost towns in the West for its dramatic setting and lovingly refurbished buildings.
Like Grafton, Harrisburg was a second attempt to found a city after the first, which was called Harrisville, was foiled by the 1862 flooding of the Virgin River. Providing agricultural goods to nearby Silver Reef kept the town flush with cash between 1875 and 1888, but it wasn’t always easy going. In 1869, the town of about 200 was hit with a grasshopper plague and a Navajo raid that frightened some into leaving. The town’s death was slow, as years of drought caused the rest of its residents to leave for Leeds or Silver Reef. If you visit today, you’ll notice that many of the homes were constructed of stone; its abundance made it an ideal building material. One of the remaining buildings is the Orson Adams House. This is where the miner who struck silver in Silver Reef was staying before he left to stake claims!
BONUS: Fort Zion Trading Post
Okay, so Fort Zion isn’t a *real* ghost town, but the faux Wild West play area here is classic American kitsch at its finest. The Virgin Trading Post is part restaurant, part gift shop, part play area, part petting zoo, and all roadside delight. It only costs $1 to get into their reconstructed ghost town, which they call Fort Zion. It has a bank, a jail, a saloon, an undertaker, and other classic buildings you expect to find in a good ghost town, and you can wander in and out of all of them. Plus, what other ghost towns serve huckleberry ice cream and rattlesnake burgers?