Iosepa cemetery, Iosepa, UT (photo by Clint Thomsen)
I’ve written several pieces about the Skull Valley ghost town named for LDS leader Joseph F. Smith and settled by Mormon Hawaiians from 1889-1917. Five years ago, a Google search on the term ‘Iosepa’ would return scant results- my early (and frankly, crappy) writings being the first two or three on the list. That was back when the ghost town- along with it’s history, it’s location, and annual celebration- was one of Tooele County’s best-kept secrets.
The north end of Skull Valley is heavily visited by campers, ATV-riders, and people who shoot cows for fun. But few people venture far enough south to the old town site, which is pretty barren 361 days of the year, and has been for almost a century. Passing by, the only readily visible evidence of Iosepa is the cemetery and pavilion area, which lie 2/3 mile east of the road at the base of Salt Mountain.
Had a couple of the BUDS and I not been passing by on Memorial Day weekend 9 years ago, we would have never given the place a second glance. Curious about the swath of parked cars, trailers, and tents on the hill (an extremely unusual sight in Skull Valley), we turned off on the ranch road to investigate.
We parked and walked right into what turned out to be a huge Hawaiian luau. We were greeted warmly and invited to join the crowd for dinner later that evening. The people there, we discovered, were descendants of the town’s original Hawaiian settlers, and we had stumbled upon their yearly celebration.
Few outsiders attended the festivities that day, and I saw no journalists there. In subsequent days I found only one brief mention of the 4-day celebration in the Deseret News. Those of us that returned for dinner that night and were treated so kindly that we came back the next year. My family has attended the celebration almost every year since.
But only recently, it seems, has the local media discovered this special place. In fact, an archive search of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin returns only 13 results since 1997 (I’ve written two of them). Only one mention pre-dates 2006. I was surprised Monday evening when I saw a story about Iosepa on the KSL news.
I suspect the ghost town owes some of its new found media popularity to the recent announcement of a thorough archaeological study of the site. Dr. Benjamin Pykles of the State University of New York at Potsdam and his team began studying the site last summer, and will spend the month of July tracing the town’s streets and water system, and investigating as many buried remnants as possible.
Sidewalk to nowhere, Iosepa, UT (photo by Clint Thomsen)
Dr. Pykles addressed the gathering last weekend to outline the study and ask Iosepa descendants to help record oral histories. I spoke briefly with him about the project, and I’m excited to see what he uncovers. Expect to see more pieces on Iosepa in the greater Salt Lake area media this summer. Locally, my colleague Sarah Miley will be on top of the news developments, and I’ll bring you the outdoor adventure and deep history angles.
Previous Iosepa stories on BonnevilleMariner.com: