Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Ghost town wednesday - Sulphurdale, Utah

Towns used to have great names back in the 1800’s. If you found silver in the hills nearby, you named your city Silver City. If you found gold in a nearby hill, then you named your city Gold Hill. I guess to be more accurate I mean towns used to have incredibly uncreative names. There are exceptions of course. Eureka is a great name for a town. Dragon is better still. Ophir is somewhat less great, but at least it’s creative.

Having a great name becomes even more important the less desirable your town is. You could get away with naming you city Gold Hill because people don’t care what you call it as long as they get a chance to lower themselves into a hole with poor ventilation and look for gold. The problem is that not every mine is looking for something as romantic as gold or silver. Or even lead. No, some mines are looking for decidedly less pleasant minerals. You would think that such a place would need a really great name to attract residents, but some people never seem to figure that out. And so begins the story of the city of Sulfurdale.

Sulfur (or Sulphur) would be an agreeable mineral if it just didn’t have a couple of irritating personality flaws. Much like a teenager, it has a very distinct odor which is described as “eggy” at its best and “soul devouring” at its worst. Also like a teenager, it plays an important role in producing several toxic gasses and corrosive acids. Let's take a look at it....

Kennecott Copper Mine produces more sulfuric acid than it knows what to do with each year as a by-product of refining ore. And while there is a limited market for the stuff, humanity still doesn’t really have all that many uses for it. I don’t know where the rest goes. Check your backyard. But sulfur also has several important useful aspects. For example….

1) Matches use sulfur. Well, the colorful part of the match does. The rest is just wood.
2) Insecticides make use of the toxic properties of sulfur.
3) Gun powder has some sulfur in it.
4) Soap does too. Somehow.
5) Sugar refining requires sulfur for some reason.
6) Rubber, paper, paints, dyes, and gasoline also involve sulfur. I’m too lazy to list these individually.

So, as you can see, sulfur does have its uses, and as early as 1850 people were looking out for the stuff. I can’t imagine that you would have to look all that hard. You can smell sulfur long before you see it. It’s like a gassy ninja. As groups of brave souls started to explore the wild parts of Utah (which was most of it in 1850), they discovered outcrops of elemental sulfur sticking out of the rocks in around the city of Beaver. It’s around here…..

In a dramatically less inviting setting than the gold mining towns of the time, the good, sulfur-loving people of Sulphurdale settled in and started to set up shop. The town location was set up by a fella named Charles Dickart, which is a somewhat unfortunate name. Mr. Dickart was responsible for discovering the main sulfur body in 1870, which again, doesn’t seem like that big of an accomplishment. A fancy mill that could tear the sulfur from the rock was built in 1883. This mill….

It probably had a better roof 100 years ago. But it’s still standing, so I guess we can’t complain.
From 1890 to 1905 that crappy little shack turned out 1000 tons of sulfur a year. What’s weird is that there’s still sulfur in there. Just sitting in stinky piles all over the place. As things got a little more serious, the sulfur company built a company store…

A school house….

Check out that air conditioning! There were some stairs right in the middle of the building and I really wanted to go up them, but doing so would probably mean my death, so I didn’t. I like being alive.

And several old houses…

They're out there, somewhere.

Everyone lived the in magical little town of Sulphurdale. I don’t know who named it, but it shows the same creativity as the other towns of the time. Twice a week the wagon trains of Sulphurdale would haul their stinky cargo 30 miles to the nearest Union Pacific loading dock. The mine looks like this….

As you can see, mining was done by the open-pit method, which make for an even more attractive setting for a town. In 1918 the town got away from the name of Sulphurdale and turned to Morrissey (That is to say that the town name was Morrissey, they didn’t actually go to the singer Morrissey). I suppose this is an improvement over Sulphurdale, but what isn’t? Morrissey refers to the man who organized the mighty Utah Sulfur Industries which ran until 1949. At some point everyone went back to Sulphurdale though.

A surprising fact is that a new mill was built as late as 1951, but no sulfur was produced. It just sat there. Another new mill was built in 1961, and just as things were gearing up the owner of the mill up and died and the sulfur dream died with him. The plant shut down, and the town dwindled down to just the watchman. I suppose he lives in this little shack on the hill…

These houses were obviously newer, but they didn’t appear to be occupied. The front door blew open in the wind and a lot of the windows no longer held any glass. I drove up there and started to look around, but I got a really creepy feeling about the place. Maybe it was sulfur vapors getting to my brain, but I decided that if there was a haunted portion of Sulphurdale this was it. I kept my eye on this building the whole time I was there, half expecting a shotgun wielding prospector ghost to come flying out the door and shoo me off in a rain of lead buckshot. But that never happened. Which is good. If there IS supposed to be someone there, I hope someone checks up on them from time to time, because I think they are going to find something that smells worse than the sulfur when they do.

A large part of the city was plowed under in the 80’s because they became too dangerous to live in. I guess they gave up on that policy, as the school is probably a good candidate nowadays.

Overall, there isn’t a whole lot left of Sulphurdale. I can’t see any sign of the two newer plants, and have to assume that they have been removed. Only the original plant still hangs out, still filled with sulfur. A geothermal power plant has been constructed just up the way from downtown Sulphurdale, and now it seems to be the only real game in town.

So what do we learn from the tragic tale of Sulphurdale? I’ll tell you what we learn. Sulfur is gross, and we should leave it be. Also that one house was totally haunted.


Dan said...

I love how all your maps make a point of showing that Provo sucks. I guess that's OK because it's not your fault and you didn't deserve to win.

Kathy said...

Sulphurdale is the place that I grew up--it is home to me. The building that you are calling the school house is the log cabin that was years ago used to feed the men that worked at Suphurdale, which I lived in for a year, we moved back to the house on the hill due to the smell being to strong, it is not the school house. The school house was demolished, but was located behind that old cabin. My father was what you call the watchmen. I lived there from 1965 to 1975.

Cheetah said...

This is the goal of my blog! To talk to some people from these places. Kathy, you have made me very happy, and am excited that you have found this blog post.

As for the mis-identification of the buildings, I was going off of an old hand-drawn map of the place that my buddy had made. Apparently much of the town has disappeared and I obviously made some mistakes in identifying the buildings. I wish more was still there. Anyway, I apologize.

If you have any insights on what it was like living there, I would be excited to hear them.

Bonnie the Boss said...

Sulphur looks a bit like scrambled eggs.
I wonder if you would get used to the smell?
Is it worth visiting even with the stench?

Cheetah said...

Yeah, I would stop by. There's not a whole lot to see anymore, but it's not far from the interstate exit, and it seemed like a great place to kinda mess around.

mbcramer said...

I just found this. When I was young my mother told me that there was a town in Utah named for my grandfather. I've recently started some genealogy research and looked into it. My grandfather Michael P Morrissey ran the mill for a time around 1918. He and the family moved to Chicago prior to 1928.

Kody and Layken Wasden said...

We are working on my Grandma's history, and would love to use your photo of the Sulphurdale sign if at all possible. She lived there for a lot of years and we love that photo. Let me know what we can do. Thanks

mbcramer said...

My cousin sent me some photos if anyone is interested in seeing what it looked like in 1918.

Stacey B said...

After driving by Sulphurdale on our way to pick up our daughter from DSU, I decided to Google "Sulphurdale" to learn more about it. You had us giggling the whole time! It was a nice read to pass the time!