San Juan County Posts:
Grafton is a ghost town, just south of Zion National Park in Washington County. It is said to be the most photographed ghost town in the West and it has been featured as a location in several films, including 1929’s In Old Arizona—the first talkie filmed outdoors—and the classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The nearest inhabited town is Rockville.
The site was first settled in December 1859 as part of a southern Utah cotton-growing project ordered by Brigham Young. A group from Virgin led by Nathan Tenney established a new settlement they called Wheeler. Wheeler didn’t last long; it was largely destroyed on the night of January 8, 1862 by a weeks-long flood of the Virgin River, part of the Great Flood of 1862. The rebuilt town, about a mile upriver, was named New Grafton, after Grafton, Massachusetts.(*)
The town grew quickly in its first few years. There were some 28 families by 1864, each farming about an acre of land. The community also dug irrigation canals and planted orchards, some of which still exist. Grafton was briefly the county seat of Kane County, from January 1866 to January 12, 1867, but changes to county boundaries in 1882 placed it in Washington County.
Flooding was not the only major problem. One particular challenge to farming was the large amounts of silt in Grafton’s section of the Virgin River. Residents had to dredge out clogged irrigation ditches at least weekly, much more often than in most other settlements. Grafton was also relatively isolated from neighboring towns, being the only community in the area located on the south bank of the river. In 1866, when the outbreak of the Black Hawk War caused widespread fear of Indian attacks, the town was completely evacuated to Rockville.
Continued severe flooding discouraged resettlement, and most of the population moved permanently to more accessible locations on the other side of the river. By 1890 only four families remained. The end of the town is usually traced to 1921, when the local branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was discontinued. The last residents left Grafton in 1944.
Archbishop Joseph S. Alemany of the Diocese of San Francisco asked Father Lawrence Scanlan to settle in the mining town of Silver Reef and minister to the miners and their families. Father Denis Kiely arrived in Utah in 1874 and assisted Father Scanlan in Silver Reef. Fathers Henry T. Hyde, P. O’Conner, and P. Galligan also also served the people in Silver Reef from 1880 to 1882.
In 1879, Father Scanlan established the St. John’s Catholic Church, the Silver Reef Hospital, and St. Mary’s School in Silver Reef.
When the church was first constructed, it didn’t have a tower. But Father Hyde collected money and eventually the tower was erected and a 400 lb bell was installed.
St. John’s Church was closed in 1885.
In 1895, William Stirling purchased and moved the vacant St. John’s Catholic Church from Silver Reef to Leeds. He converted the building into the Leeds Social Hall or “Old Stirling Hall.”
Silver Reef Posts:
Silver Reef is a “ghost town” in Washington County, near Leeds. Silver Reef was established after John Kemple, a prospector from Nevada, discovered a vein of silver in a sandstone formation in 1866. At first, geologists were uncertain about Kemple’s find because silver is not usually found in sandstone. In 1875, two bankers from Salt Lake City sent William Barbee to the site to stake mining claims. He staked 21 claims, and an influx of miners came to work Barbee’s claims and to stake their own. To accommodate the miners, Barbee established a town called Bonanza City. Property values there were high, so several miners settled on a ridge to the north of it and named their settlement “Rockpile”. The town was renamed Silver Reef after silver mines in nearby Pioche closed and businessmen arrived.
By 1879, about 2,000 people were living in Silver Reef. The town had a mile-long Main Street with many businesses, among them a Wells Fargo office, the Rice Building, and the Cosmopolitan Restaurant. Although adjacent to many settlements with a majority of Mormon residents, the town never had a meeting house for Latter-day Saints, only a Catholic church. In 1879, a fire destroyed several businesses, but the residents rebuilt them. Mines were gradually closed, most of them by 1884, as the worldwide price of silver dropped. By 1901, most of the buildings in town had either been demolished or moved to Leeds.
In 1916, mining operations in Silver Reef resumed under the direction of Alex Colbath, who organized the area’s mines into the Silver Reef Consolidated Mining Company. These mines were purchased by American Smelting and Refining Company in 1928, but the company did minimal work as a result of the Great Depression. The Western Gold & Uranium Corporation purchased Silver Reef’s mines in 1948, and in 1951, they began mining uranium in the area. These operations did not last long either, and the Western Gold & Uranium Corporation sold their mines to the 5M Corporation in 1979. Today, the Wells Fargo office, the Cosmopolitan Restaurant, the Rice Building, and numerous foundations and walls remain in the town site, and a few dozen homes have been constructed in the area.(*)
Between 1875 and the end of 1876, Silver Reef boomed with development, going from a boulder-strewn flat to a town of 1,500 people, one of the largest in Washington county.
Silver Reef soon became the center of permanent development, and many stone and wooden buildings were erected along a mile-long Main Street. Among the many businesses and buildings were six saloons, nine grocery stores, two dance halls, a brewery, billiard hall, the Wells Fargo Express Office, post office undertaker, citizens hall, jail, Masonic and Oddfellows halls, telegraph office, barber shop, physicians office, Chinese laundries (the walls are standing today), and a Catholic church with a hospital included. The Wells Fargo building, which you stand before, has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.