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The Steamboat Era Was Glamorous But Brief in Utah
Cowboys and the Cattle Industry
Old La Sal Was Once a Thriving Cow Town
Preston Nutter Made Utah Home of His Cattle Kingdom
Robbers' Roost Was a Haven For Outlaws
Utah Had Hollywood Style Western Gunfights
Just Who Was the Outlaw Queen Etta Place?
Josie Bassett-Jensen's Remarkable Woman Rancher
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The Colonel Orders a Grand Review

Miriam B. Murphy
History Blazer, November 1995

Ghost towns, colorful reminders of the old west, are generally relics of the mining industry. Utah, however, has several ghost towns of other origin. This is the story of old La Sal, the ghost site of a once vigorous cow town, now stripped of its houses, stores, barns, corrals--and even its name.

According to the files of the Utah Writers' Project, old La Sal lay in the northeast corner of San Juan County, a few miles from the Colorado line. It was first settled in 1877 when Tom Ray, seeking greener pastures, found a valley he liked, turned his herd of shorthorns loose to graze, and built a cabin to house his family.

A few months later the Maxwells and the McCartys moved in with 2,000 head of cattle, selecting a site on Coyote Creek a few miles west of the Rays. The La Sal Mountains offered excellent grazing, and by 1878 more than twenty new families had arrived. For protection against Indian attacks, cabins were built along Coyote Creek, and the town of La Sal came into existence.

During the next few years the valleys of the region filled with settlers. Steers sold for $10 a head in Utah settlements, but in Colorado they brought $35. Profits began to pour into the pockets of the La Sal ranchers.

Having nothing better to spend their money on, they evolved horse racing pools that might have matched the daily "take" at one of our modern tracks. Thoroughbreds were unknown, but plenty of cow-ponies had amazing speed for short distances, and "Tobe," "Sagebrush Jack," and "Swayback Johnny," to mention a few of the more famous entries, provided thrills to suit the blood of the settlers. It has been estimated that more than $75,000 changed hands at a single race in this era.

During the eighties and nineties, however, Indians moved onto the lands, provoking the settlers to arms and causing them economic losses in cattle and range overcrowding.

No sooner had the Indian threat been averted than the Robbers Roost gang moved in to prey upon the district. This gang, run out of Brown's Hole, transferred operations to the lower Green River region. Although this new base of operations lent itself beautifully to bank and train robbery, the outlaws were not above rustling a whole herd if food or spending money got low.

Branding cattle

Branding cattle on the Benion homestead in Riverbed, Utah

By this time the settlers had been stripped of most of their wealth, and to make matters worse they were now beset by drought years and falling cattle markets. This change of events brought in an era of sheep raising and relegated the cattle industry to a secondary position. On the brighter side, rustling became an unprofitable business and the Robbers Roosters departed.

Added to economic troubles, the site of La Sal had been unwisely chosen, as the rushing of cloudburst waters down the main street periodically evidenced. This yearly threat of extinction by floods at length became tiresome, and in the late twenties La Sal residents looked for a new site closer to the highway and less isolated. Finally they packed up bag and baggage and moved to Coyote, some miles west along Coyote Creek. But they took the old name with them; Coyote became La Sal.

Today, old La Sal is forgotten by all but old-timers. It is a ghost site lacking even ghosts. Alone and forsaken, the old site is marked only by gaping cellars to show that men had been there. Its weed-strewn, sage-grown streets are traveled only by prairie dogs, crawling ants, and the hot sunshine. The thousands of cattle that once passed hence to Colorado markets are seen no more, and only an occasional band of sheep visits the deserted site.

Source: "Tales of Utah, 1941-1942," Utah Writer's Project, Work Projects Administration, copy in Utah State Historical Society collections.

 

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