Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Ghost Town Tuesday - The Reclamation of Mercur, Utah

Well, here we are at tuesday again. There was no ghost town last week because I didn't feel like it. This is my blog, and them are the breaks. But now, now I feel like it. So let's look into the shadowy expanses of Western Utah and see who is next. Last time we visited Ophir, a lively little place with a strickly enforced quiet time. Let's move one canyon over and look at the ghost town of Mercur.

As you can see, Mercur is very close to Ophir. This makes it easy to visit both of these towns in one trip. Even if you don't find this blog entertaining, you have to admit I'm efficent.

As was mentioned in the Ophir post, towns in Utah typically had two different backgrounds. Either you were sent to some far off patch of land by the LDS Church and spent your days trying to stay alive, or you ran off to the hills and found something of value and stayed to mine it. If you are having a hard time telling which type of town you are in, look around and count the number of ore carts that you can see. If that number is greater than zero, chances are you living in a mining town. This test may produce some incorrect results if you are visiting a mining museum.

Mercur, like all the other towns we have visited, was a mining town. Things got started off way back in the good old year of 1869. Prospectors were wandering around the area, doing what they do best, and someone discovered that if you rummaged through enough of the rocks in the streambed you could find a little gold. A few people stayed and spent their days searching for gold and probably smelling horrible. When silver, gold, copper and other good things were found at nearby Ophir in 1870, people reasoned (correctly) that there must be worthwhile deposits in the next canyon over. So they packed up their mules and soon the few people from 1869 who had decided to stay found themselves with a lot of company. Everyone lived in a little city named Lewiston (someday to be Mercur)
Within 3 years the canyon was filled with all the classic western things. Mines with names like Sparrow Hawk, Silver Cloud, and Mormon Chief appeared. Saloons profits were way up, yoga profits were way down (I'm guessing), and spitting was the activity of choice. As is true with most mining towns, the entire place was a red-light district. All in all, a good 2000 people called this miserable little canyon home.

Here's what it looked like.....

This picture is actually from the early 1900's. There doesn't seem to be any from early on. So let's imagine what it would have looked like.

Go ahead and ignore that big mill thingy on the hill. That's not there yet. Things only lasted a good 10 years for Mercur (or did then?! Read on!). By 1880 the town was empty and the mines were considered played out. All they left were those who partied a little too hard.

Just as everyone was clearing of the town like drunken frat-brothers, a lone foreign fella named Arie Pinedo thought he would take one last look around. Just to make sure nothing good was left behind. It was a smart move.

That, my friends, is Cinnabar. It sounds like Cinnibun, which are delicious. But unlike Cinnibun (hopefully) Cinnabar is a purdy little mineral that can spit out Mercury like nobody's business. You take one atom of mercury, stick it with one atom of sulfur, and that's what you get.


The Aztecs would often use Cinnabar to decorate the burial chambers of their dead rich people! This was great because the mercury is somewhat toxic, but what do dead people care about stuff like that? They don't. They don't care about nothin.


Anyway, Mr. Pinedo found a thick deposit of Cinnabar and realized that he could very well become the mercury king of Utah. Frankly that's a title I would have been happy to give away, but I'm fortunate enough to know that mercury will make you crazy if you touch it too long. Anyway, anyone want to guess what "Mercury" was called in Mr. Pinedo's native language? It was "Mercur". But that was the name of the very ghost town we are looking at! Coincidence? Perhaps (not at all).

So mercury production kicked up, and for a while the town revived. The prostitues came back like buzzards to a carcass, the spitting returned, cursing production was tripled, and life was good. The town was renamed Lewiston (which is the name of the canyon this is all taking place in) to Mercur (see right below the AZTEC FACT #1). People didn't give up the name Lewiston because they loved Mercur so much. No, they gave it up because in the few short years in which Lewiston-Mercur was abandoned, some other jerk in Cache County had stolen the name for one of thier towns.

That sign is supposed to say "You are here in Lewiston in Cache County", but it doesn't. Imagine it does. In 1962 the Cache County Lewiston was hit by a 5.2 magnitude earthquake and all sorts of stuff broke. See?

Geologically, the event is easily explained by movement along the Wasatch Fault Zone. Crazilyogically, I believe that the earthquake was a punishement, a punishment sent from some mad scientist prospector hybrid living in the battered remains of his lab in Mercur. You are free to decide which one you belive. Simply cast your vote on the following poll by clicking on the appropriate picture.

Anyway, if you love mercury, this would have been the place to be. Then something happened. Something that would baffle the most intelligent prospector scientests for years to come. There was something else INSIDE the Cinnabar.....GOLD!!!!
THERE WAS GOLD INSIDE THE CINNABAR!!!! But nobody could get at it. It was all locked up chemically. So it was like winning a lottery and getting so excited that you fell into a coma. But as we have seen with Gold Hill, if there's gold to be had, people will spend the rest of their lives figuring out how to get it. Luckily for Mercur, they didn't have to wait long. In 1890, someone figured out that if you dump a bunch of cyanide on the cinnabar, the gold would come right out! You would have a mercury-sulfur-cyanide-gold sludge! Only one of those things is not largely deadly, but 25% was good enough for the people of Mercur. In 1898, the largest mill in the United States was built high above the city where it could shower people with its cyanide-rich glory. The Golden Gate Mill.

That's the same picture from above, but now feel free to stop ignoring the big mill on the hill. From here the mill could watch down upon the various insignificant and usually foul deeds of the inhabitants of Mercur. What's more, this mill was the first metallurgical plant in the western hemisphere to use transmitted electricity. So I bet this sucker glowed well into the night, generally pissing off the quiet-loving residents of Ophir.

By 1896, the population of Mercur top-off at 6,000 people. That is a lot of people. Several brick and mortar structures were built, and two newspapers took off (the Lewiston-Mercur, and the Mercur Miner). There were hotels, churches, saloons, the works. If you met a resident of Mercur at the turn of the century, I bet they would seem down-right smug.

Then in 1902 the whole place burnt down. All of it. The hotels, the churches, the saloons, the prostitues, everything.

That picture freaks me out. Well, everything but the mill. The whole thing took only two and a half hours. Here we go.

Nothing takes the steam out of a community like burning to the ground. But, oddly enough, the town of Mercur recovered, and by 1910 the town boasted a population of 12,000 people. How that many people could live in that tiny canyon is baffling. But they made it work despite the knowledge that it could very easily go up in flames again any second.

So things went for a while. Then in 1913, people just couldn't sqeeze anymore gold out of the cinnabar. It only took four years for the place to become deserted. And so, the little town that could (burn to the ground at any time) quietly fell into memory. The people of Ophir couldn't have been happier.

But wait! There's more! The town wasn't dead after all! All the efforts of Ophir were wasted! In 1933 even BETTER ways to get gold out of rocks were invented, and so back to Mercur we went! The old piles of ore were reworked, and yet more gold was their reward. But the town wasn't really ressurected. Most of the people simply commuted in from Stockton or Tooele, and very few permanent buildings were erected. People worked there until they had gone through the ore piles and retreaved what they could. Then they all left again.
By 1983, humanity had enough messing around. Barrack Resources Corporation bought the ore piles, the mines, the town and everything else and simply dug it all away. The town become a huge open pit mine. EVEN BETTER ways of getting gold out of rocks had been invented, so once again the old ore piles were reworked. Also all the other rocks they could find in the area were dug up and processed. By 1997 everything had been gone over with a fine-tooth comb, and Mercur finally gave up the ghost. Here is it today...

You can't go in. They've reclaimed the pit that used to be the town, and now the area is simply private property. Sorry if you were hoping to see pictures of Mercur. On an interesting note, the graveyard is supposed to be haunted. Very haunted. Probably by any number of people who died of mercury poisoning or fire poisoning. I didn't know you could go up there, so I didn't. Here's what it looks like though.

And that's Mercur. Oh, let's look at our poll....

And the mad scientists-wizards whatever have it! Behold democracy in all its glory!


Dan said...

My research indicates that the mines at Mercur ultimately produced about 2.5 million ounces of gold, which makes it Utah's largest producer, even though the gold had to be processed out of other minerals.

The story of trial and triumph recalls to mind the familiar analogy of the refiner's fire. May we all remember that when handled with humility and perseverance, our struggles will pay off to make us better, cleaner and purer.

Now that gold costs 2 to 2.5 times more than in 1997, will they un-do the reclamation efforts to squeeze more out of the hill?

Jaz said...

f you are booking your stay in honor of a special occasion, let the hotel staff know. Tell them what event you are celebrating in advance (when you book and confirm) and when you check in.

Pousada Ubatuba

JT said...

Haha, awesome history lesson! If only you were my history teacher...lol what's funny is that Ophir is now famous for pyrite deposits (aka fools gold), which is how I stumbled upon this blog. Just looking at rockhounding locations close to SLC. Will definitely check out some of your old posts. Love the subtle sarcasm you have imbued into the history to make it interesting! :)

Cheetah said...

Thanks JT! Ophir is a cool place. I have no doubt that there is pyrite all over the place out there. If you go to the Ophir Hill mine (private property! be ye careful!) you can find pretty nice malacite and azurite all over the dump too. Good times.

Bonnie the Boss said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post. You rock... pun intended. We are headed that direction this week and I hope we can get to the cemetery. Any tips?

Cheetah said...


Sorry, I'm pretty awful at following the comments on this blog. Ophir freaks me out because (as you learned) EVERYONE is pretty mean. Not horribly mean, but just kinda crotchety. I have poked around the Mercur area a little since this post and have seen nothing of interest. Ophir is the more interesting town, but outside of the Ophir Hill Consolidated (that's the mine you were at) you need a good 4X4 vehicle to get to the other points of interest. I have never gone to these places though. Anyway, if you poke around the ore pile near that chute you were at you can find some pretty nice pyrite and galena! So there's something....

Rich said...

Sorry Dan, Bingham copper mine has produced 23 million (decimal after the 3)ounces of gold making it the largest gold producer in Utah.