Nothing recalls the faded glory of Utah's mining and agricultural heritage better than the 125 ghost towns scattered along its back roads and byways. As our state's economy turns to technology and tourism, they are silent testimony to the broken dreams that laid the foundations of our present prosperity.
Names of many of these forgotten towns glitter with the romance of gold and silver mining--Eureka, Bullion City, Gold Hill and Gold Springs, Silver City and Silver Reef, La Plata, Mercur and Ophir. Others, such as Alunite, Coal City, Copperfield, Irontown and Death Canyon evoke the practical realities of Utah's mining history.
In their glory days, many of Utah's mining boomtowns boasted thousands of citizens and hundreds of saloons. Today, often nothing survives but a few half-buried foundations and tailing piles scattered amid empty fields of sagebrush.
Other sites have spectacular reminders of Utah's past, such as the ruins of Fort Deseret in Millard County. Built in 1866 to protect settlers during the Black Hawk War, this adobe fort is the sole surviving example of the fortifications that surrounded Mormon pioneer settlements.
Given that most of Utah is desert, it's not surprising that ambitious farming schemes left behind as many, if not more, abandoned settlements as mining. Consider Widtsoe (aka Adair, Houston and Winder), which was named for Mormon Apostle John A. Widtsoe, an expert on "dry farming."
In 1923, Utah state Sen. Quince Kimball persuaded W.F. Holt, developer of the Imperial Valley of California, to invest in Widtsoe and its 365 residents. Holt spent almost $300,000 building homes and irrigation works, bringing in telephone lines and experimenting with iceberg lettuce in the highlands of Garfield County. Drought, erosion and rodents doomed the project and Widtsoe was soon infamous as the most destitute area in the state, which was saying something in 1934.
The surviving residents petitioned the federal Resettlement Administration for aid and on Feb. 8, 1935, they voted to accept help. The U.S. government spent more than $81,300 to resettle 29 families elsewhere in Utah. The Widtsoe Project became a model for resettlement programs in other western states.
The golden era of the Hollywood western left behind its share of ghost towns. An abandoned movie set stands among the surviving sandstone buildings at Pahreah. (According to legend, Pahreah was home to Prof. Westley "Doc" Pahreah, the notorious frontier dentist who made a fortune mining gold from his patients' heads.)
The graveyard is all that is left at the original site of Johnson in Kane County. Nearby stand the privately owned movie set used to film "Gunsmoke" and more than 50 movies.
Grafton is deservedly Utah's most famous ghost town. A number of log and adobe buildings still survive, along with the farming community's handsome one-room schoolhouse. Located on the Virgin River, Grafton was where Paul Newman learned to ride a bike in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."
While many Utah ghost towns are definitely down, it is never a good idea to count one out. Back in the 1950s, our family would pile into the Chevy for a Sunday drive up Parleys Canyon to see the old sites. One of our favorite destinations was an old mining camp where the few remaining residents lived among abandoned smelters and collapsing shacks you could buy for back taxes.
My father once looked at the ruins of Main Street and shook his head. "In a few years," he said, "this will be a ghost town." The place-- Park City.
Utah historian and author Will Bagley found a wealth of information about Utah ghost towns at http://Ghosttowns.com.