Saturday, January 2, 2010

New Years in Silver Reef!!!

In honor of the New Year (2010 for those who aren’t paying very close attention), let’s take a look at a town that no longer gets to celebrate such things. Well, I guess it does, but no one is there to see it. For you see, the town of Silver Reef has no residents but the jack rabbits, the sagebrush, and the dozens and dozens of people who have recently built homes nearby. But don’t let the fact technically Silver Reef is somewhat inhabited by upper middle class take away from the fascination of this ghost town. A good twenty years ago you would be standing in a deserted field filled with the moldering remains of a town filled with intrigue, cussing, probably a good amount of spitting, more intrigue, women, guns, women with guns, and other western stereotypes.

Silver Reef is located down near the southwestern corner of Utah, about 16 miles north of the In-and-Out burger near St. George. 16 miles away from those delicious burgers that melt in your mouth and only cost a fraction of other burger places. Oh man, I would kill for one right now. Here’s a map…

Anyway, more specifically, take exit 23 off I-15 and there you are, standing right in the middle of a rather unique mining ghost town. Not much to look at nowadays, although the town does still have a surprisingly modern looking town sign.

I’m not sure who has maintained the town sign down through the years, but they are doing a great job even though they must be a zombie by now. I never saw the sign zombie, but kudos to them and their amazing work ethic.

There isn't a single reef in Silver Reef, silver or otherwise. Lies, all lies. No wonder it came to ruin. (Actually, they were refering to the sandstone cliffs nearby)

Anyway, let’s look at the history of this crazy place. The year was 1866, and Utah was but a dream. A dry, hot, parched dream filled with scorpions and odd liqueur laws. Several areas of the state had been populated by Mormon pioneers who went about their business, including farming and generally trying to not to catch any number of unpleasant dieseases. One thing that did not get included in their business was mining. Miners tend to be a bit loose morally, (or so history says. I’ve never met one), and mining towns tended to have more whores than a religious people cared for. So the LDS Church generally advised against taking up the rockpick so-to-speak, and just stick to growing crops, building highly organized street systems, and, like I said, generally trying to not die. In Southern Utah, near the cities of St. George and Leeds, this wasn’t a problem at all, as no one had any idea that there were good things underfoot anyway. And so things went, until a wondering prospector named John Kemple spotted black spots in a block of sandstone that he had picked up. He did what prospectors do, and had the sample assayed. Much to his surprise, the results came back showing very high levels of silver. This is unusual, as the sample was a block of sandstone which to that point had never been an ore-bearing material. So he figured that something was screwy with the assaying results and moved far away away. Then he moved back. According to the internet, this a picture of Mr. Kemple...

I’m not sure what happened to Mr. Kemple during the five years he was away from his black-speckled sandstone, but apparently he never truly belived that the assay results were bogus. Maybe he spent the time fostering his love for creepy looking dogs. In 1871 he came storming back to Silver Reef and decided to bite the bullet by setting up the Union Mining District (the Silver Reef area). This was all well and good, but remember that the LDS Church and mining went together like mining and the LDS Church. A man who was mining was a man who wasn't growing food, and everyone needed food back then. So the Church put the kibosh on the site, and things were abandoned and poor Mr. Kemple took off again for a couple of years and thought about things. Not to be defeated, Kemple came back yet again three years later determined to mine his little guts out, but the joke was on him. You see, it was too late! Some other dude named William Tecumseh Barbee found some sweet, sweet silver at the site when his wagon wheel overturned a block of ore-bearing sandstone. In fact, the main mountain range in the district was named Tecumseh Hill. This one….

So Mr. Barbee gets credit for developing the site and Mr. Kemple gets a brief mention in an obscure blog entry. There’s a lesson in there for us. You’ll have to figure it out though because I can’t think of what it is. Regardless of who set it up, the town really took off. Based on what I can figure out, this is how things were set up…

There are three hills involved here. Big Hill, Tecumseh Hill, that other hill with the Griffins, and possibly more, but I don’t know anything about those. This is all I know/think I know. SO let’s stick with this. Within two years of Mr. Barbee’s great discovery, a full blown town was present. Included in this town was a bank...

(No parking sign probably added later)

A hospital

Post office

(I think this is the post office anyway.)
A skull fortress

(That one is a lie).


And several churches.

(Yup, this is the same picture as the school ruins. All the ruins look alike, so I couldn't tell you what was what. Live with it).

As well as the town sign, which we have already seen.

In addition, a good 1,500 people called the place home as of 1878. Here's some of them now...

Now, there are two cemeteries at Silver Reef, one for Catholics and one for Protestants. I don't know where everyone else got buried, but it wasn't here. Both graveyards are filled with people who's gravestones have disappeared. Either that or everyone was named "Unknown". Either way, it gave me the creep-outs.

But that was only half the coolness. As you would expect, there were also a lot of mining stuff going on. There was a huge mill situated on the side of Tecumseh Hill

Which now, sadly, looks like this…

I labled the stone wall portion of the mill in both pictures so you could get a sense of what is left. You are lucky to have me. There was also one of these things.

This thing was really cool. I believe it used to be an ore bin, but I’m no 1880’s era miner. It could be a cheese factory for all I know. As you can see in the background, houses have sprung up all around the place, and now are only feet away from old mine workings. Neat!

Sadly, as cool as that may be, people rarely like having open, gaping holes in their backyards. Old mines tend to be unforgiving to the unprepared adventurer, and many of the people who have recently moved in have very little mining experience at all. In fact, most of them appeared to mortgage brokers or computer programmers, careers that have precious little training in the area of deep-earth excavations. So just a few years ago the state of Utah came out and sealed up all the shafts they could find so folks wouldn’t join the ages within the open maw of the earth.
Now, you can’t just pour cement down the holes until they fill up. It’s very expensive to do such a thing, so most of the shafts just got the bar treatment. These pictures are from the smaller hill near the southern end of the district (the one with the griffins).

This hill was riddled with holes, most of which looked like they were dug by contortion artists. It would be unwise at best to go down in one of these mines, but I was still kinda sad that I didn’t get to. These were all smaller mines dug by folks who didn't really want to get down into the earth all that far. The big show was over near the southern portion of Tecumseh Hill. I couldn’t get over there, but here’s what it looks like from google earth.

Back to history. Like most of Utah’s mining towns, Silver Reef’s rise to power was nearly as fast as it’s abandonment. From 1878 to 1882, the mines pumped out a goodly amount of chlorargyrite,

This little guy may not look it, but it is jam packed with silver. This was the mineral that everyone was after. Legend has it that there was an entire petrified tree trunk found at the site that had been replaced with this stuff. This would have been a neat thing to hang onto, but sadly it was crushed for ore and probably made into a crappy watch or used to fill cavities. Either way, only so much of it could be found and by 1888, after 10 short years, the big mines had all called it quits. The ore bodies were approximately 200 to 300 feet long and 100 to 150 feet wide, and it didn’t take long for a group of eager miners to clean the area out. The fact that there was no more silver (well, easily obtained silver) left was bad news to a town that was basically founded on a silver economy. Also, silver grew really cheap on the market, which is not such good news either. A few brave souls, including the town sign janitor kept fighting on, but by 1903 Silver Reef was no more. A few of the town's buildings were sold off to locals who wanted them for some reason. This really paid off for one gentleman who found $20,000 worth of gold coins within the walls of his delapidated ruin. Of course, then everyone tore into their houses hoping to find similar things, but all they found were sad, broken dreams. This resulted in the majority of Silver Reef being raised to the ground.
So things sat, growing more ruin-y by the day until mankind discovered that Uranium was interesting, and that we could make bombs out of it. Suddenly the Silver Reef area came back to life with folks who gladly marched down into the earth to get their hands on radiation poisoning. In 1950 alone, 2500 pounds of glowing ore was sent off to wherever that sort of stuff went. An impressive new mine was built. This one…

Should I be that close to the pile of uranium ore? Probably not. But nobody pays me to be a coward. Or fertile, I guess. This mine looked like it was going to be reclaimed soon. If there’s one thing mortgage brokers hate more than gaping holes in their backyards, it is gaping holes filled with DNA altering radiation.

And so, for a few more years the area of Silver Reef sputtered back to life, but this too was short lived. Soon people learned that uranium isn’t all that fun to dig out of the ground, and the area was abandoned again and went back to growing all fall-y apart. Which brings us to today. There’s very little left. The bank has been preserved, and is now a museum that never seems to be open. Last I checked it had a sign on the door that said “Closed for reorganization”. I don’t know what that means, but I’m guessing it isn’t going to be open again anytime soon. The rest of the ruins are being left to slowing fall down, at which point I suspect new houses will be built on top of them. Circle of life I guess. At least we got to keep the sign.

The end.


Dan said...

Are there any more pictures of what the actual town looked like back in its day? I am suddenly hungry for a white frosted donut with colorful sprinkles.

I found some stuff at the digital library collection at the U. Click Here!

Adam Elliott said...

Looks like Silver Reed is pretty lacking these days in the Ghost Town atmosphere department....

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