Monday, September 8, 2008

Desert Destination: A Ghost Town

The desert often seems to be a vast wasteland, with little pockets of people separated by miles and miles of desert scrub. Sometimes the little pockets of people have disappeared, leaving ghost towns in their wake, making the desert feel even more desolate.

I love visiting ghost towns and imagining what happened there. What did the people do? What were they dreaming when they arrived? How did they feel when they left? 

I also like to try to picture day-to-day life. Many of these ghost towns were the result of mining, and minerals were not always close to water. How did they get their drinking water? Where did they get food? How many bars and other entertainment activities were available? Did the town get big enough to attract families, and if so, did the kids go to school?

Enough questions, let's get to one of these ghost towns, Gold Hill, Utah, located about three hours west of Salt Lake City. Gold Hill has had three big mining booms, giving it a longer history than most ghost towns.

The town of Gold Hill was established in 1892 and a creative miner named it for a gold-bearing hill just east of the town. As it turned out, gold wasn't the only ore mined. Miners also found silver, lead, arsenic, copper, and tungsten. The mining boom only lasted a few years, producing several hundred thousand dollars worth of ore.  Then the miners took down their tents and headed to the next new town to get rich quick.  

The town wasn't done, though. During World War I the need for more minerals arose, especially for tungsten, used as a strengthening agent in steel and in electric filaments, and for arsenic, used to control insects on the fields in the South. Arsenic had previously been imported from Europe, but this wasn't possible during the war. 

Some of the ore was shipped out via the U.S. Post Office in parcel post--in fact tons of tungsten were sent this way. Stagecoaches and wagons were also used, but in 1917, a 50-mile long spur off the Western Pacific Railroad line, called the Deep Creek railroad, allowed Gold Hill to be connected to the rest of the world. 

About 3,000 people lived in Gold Hill during this time, and a town was planned with a school, dance hall, and other public amenities. Stores popped up, like the Goodwin Mercantile Co. Nevertheless, many residents lived in simple shacks or tent shelters. Outhouses were located over old mining shafts to avoid digging, but sometimes these old mining shafts happened to be in the middle of the street.

An interesting book about this time period was written by a doctor, called What Next, Doctor Peck? Eventually the ore faded out, the electric lights dimmed, and the population dropped to next to nothing.
Gold Hill wasn't finished; during World War II it rose like a phoenix to help supply tungsten and arsenic for the war effort. Businesses and the school reopened and a bowling alley was built. The boom was short-lived, with the school closing in 1946 and the post office in 1949.

Today there's not much left in Gold Hill. The area that produced about ten million dollars worth of ore has left only a few reminders of its life. The old Goodwin Mercantile Co. building is in pretty good shape.

Building foundations and tailings can be seen all around the shrub-covered hills. Many of the old mines are still open, which is scary because they could collapse at any moment. If you're ever around old mines, remember the saying "Stay Out and Stay Alive."

A few people still live in Gold Hill, and one mine is still in operation. Prospectors explore the area and its interesting array of minerals to add to their collections. It's just a matter of time before Gold Hill booms again.


Corey Shuman said...

I just found your blog thanks to a google alert and I was pleasantly surprised. Its a nice overview. The only issue I had is the comment on the old mines. There is no chance of them "collapsing at any moment", the Gold Hill, Clifton and Deep Creek Range is peppered with hard rock mines, some that have been out there for more than 150 years. Hard Rock mines dont randomly collapse, and often withstand floods, earthquakes and fire and still stand firm (as evidenced by the fact they are still out there.)
Also, since 1983, when the DOGM started keeping track, there have been a total of 5 deaths "related" to abandoned mines. That stat, and the number of people that visit mines, shows that mine exploration is one of the safest outdoor activities, ever...
Caution is required, and we do a lot of work in educating the public, but the "Stay out and Stay alive" line used by DOGM is totally unfounded and just govt. propoganda.
As an interesting side note, the DOGM has already done massive closures in Gold Hill, clossing off all access to the historic sites and mines that have drawn people to the area.
Anyway, thanks for the space, and enjoy the desert.
Corey Shuman

I Am Woody said...

I love ghost towns too. Wouldn't you love to be able to pick a spot and just hit rewind and watch who goes by??

Desert Survivor said...

Hi Corey,
Thanks for your perspective. For folks who know how to evaluate a mine's safety and have proper equipment and knowledge, perhaps entering an abandoned mine could be a safe endeavor. However, most people who go to ghost towns and old mining areas do not have this knowledge and equipment.

According to stats I found, an average of 30 people a year die in abandoned mine-related deaths. You can see more here:

Utah has about 20,000 mine openings, providing plenty of hazards. I remember the story of 3 students dying in a mine near Provo just a few years ago. They got into an area that didn't have enough oxygen. So I think I'm going to stick with Stay Out Stay Alive.

For more info on Utah mines, check out

Corey Shuman said...

ah, the evil OGM that we fight so hard against...
So look at the stats on those abandoned mine related deaths. They arent in mines, they are ATVers that are rallying around mine sites and rolling their vehicles, people drowning in open pools out there. A quick dig in shows that none of the deaths actually happen on or in abandoned mines, only in the vicinity. So if we wiped out all evidence of any mining in the state would there be no more ATV deaths? no, it would then be related to the dangers of the desert.
The three kids that died in Provo were in a cave, not a mine, that they dived into a sealed room, and then proceeded to light candles and smoke cigarettes, which eliminated their air very quickly.
So they are morons, and darwinism took over. thats not the fault of the cave.
The desert itself is more dangerous than any mine is going to be, but if we continue to rely on the govt. to keep us safe we are going to end up with no liberties at all. Its may sound far fetched, the PE road across the west desert has been discussed in an effort to close it to only high priority access due to accidents and deaths that occur on it. Again, like you said, that comes down to education of the area, but do you think that the access should be shut down because some people are ignorant about what they are doing?
There are plenty of anti-closure sites with plenty of education available.

just to name a few.

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