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Category Archives: Tooele Transcript Bulletin

KDYL: KSL’s Doug Wright Reflects On His Days At Tooele’s Old Radio Station

This article originally appeared in the 11/12/13 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

TOOELE, Any given day in 1968 – A young disc jockey sits in a small radio studio at the corner of Main and Vine, sorting through a stack of vinyl records.  The station’s reel-to-reel automation block has ended and it’s time to go live.  He unscrews the side of the massive belt-driven turntable, adjusts the gear speed and cues a Hank Snow track.  When he drops the needle, Tooele Valley is bathed with the lo-fi sounds of classic country music.

The station is KDYL 990 AM, “The Country Gentleman.”  The fledgling DJ is a high school student from Salt Lake City by the name of Doug Wright.  At age 16, Wright also serves as program director, news reader and janitor for the bare-bones, 1 kilowatt operation.  Being more of a rock and roll guy, he’s not particularly keen on the station’s country format.

But he’s obsessed with radio—and that is all that matters.

45 years later, Doug Wright is a mainstay at KSL Newsradio in Salt Lake City, and one of the best-known radio personalities in the business.  He sat down last month with the Transcript Bulletin to reflect on his radio career and its humble beginnings in Tooele.

“I always loved radio,” Wright said shortly after signing off his daily topical program, The Doug Wright Show, at KSL Studios in downtown Salt Lake.  “I was one of those geeky kids that would listen to those big old tube radios.  The game was to see how far away your mom’s old set could pick something up.  I remember thinking, if I could ever just be able to say that I was on the radio—just once—how cool that would be!”

Wright’s first turn behind a radio microphone, a volunteer gig at the University of Utah’s KUER, came when he was 16 years old.  After only a few months spinning records there, he set out to begin his commercial career.

“At that age you think you own the world and you think you’re a whole lot better and hotter than you are, and I just couldn’t understand why anybody wouldn’t hire me on a commercial basis,” Wright laughed.

After failing to find work in the Salt Lake area, Wright turned his focus westward to Tooele’s KDYL.

Relatively little has been documented about the early history of Tooele’s only long-lived radio station.  In fact, commercial radio amounts to only a side note in Tooele County history.  For most Tooele County residents, clear signals pouring in from stations in the Salt Lake market were local enough.  But that fact didn’t foil a significant run for Tooele’s AM station.

KDYL Tooele began airing in 1955 with the call sign KTUT, originally broadcasting from the Ritz Theater on Main Street.  The station was renamed re-branded KDYL in the mid-1960s and was purchased by Wendell Winegar, who moved it across Main to the building that now houses the LA Hispanic Market at the corner of Vine.  The cascading diamond shaped outlines of the letters K, D, Y, and L are still visible on the south face of the building.  The studio itself was located on the second floor in the southeast corner.  The station’s 200 foot tower still stands in a field at 600 N. 400 W.  The station switched from middle-of-the-road (MOR) programming to country in 1966.

The late 1960s marked a period of transition and mild upheaval for KDYL.  According to Wright, when Wright came calling in 1968, only the General Manager of the station remained.

“His name was Don Hall,” Wright recalled.  “And he was so desperate that, instead of seeing this pathetic little kid who wanted to be on the radio, he saw somebody that maybe could actually help him.  So I was hired pretty much on the spot.”

Together, Hall and Wright operated the small-town station using equipment that seemed ancient to Wright at the time.

“It was a great, great old station and everything was hand-me-down.  We used to just keep that place together with spit and bailing wire,” Wright said.

KDYL was a daytime station broadcasting between sunrise and sunset, with Wright at the helm as often as his schedule allowed.

“High school was kind of a casualty, if you want to know the truth,” Wright said.  “I was so in love with radio that high school, well…”

He commuted each day from Sugarhouse in his mother’s 1960 Plymouth.  Because his pay at KDYL was negligible, he financed the commute by working a part time job at a Salt Lake grocery store.

The station’s Schafer 800 reel-to-reel automation system allowed Hall and Wright to fill in parts of the day.  The format was country music, which Wright said was mainly geared to the adult population.  KDYL hosted weekly live show on Saturday mornings called “Country Jamboree” (or Country Jubilee—neither Wright nor Winegar could remember exactly), which featured local artists.  A block of Spanish language programming ran on Sunday.  For several years, KDYL covered Little League baseball games.  Surplus speakers from the Tooele Army Depot were installed on light posts along Main Street so listeners out and about could hear the coverage.  Wright remembers providing live coverage of a parade on Main Street by stringing a microphone through the roof of the building.

“It was a mishmash of things.  It was an eclectic place,” Wright smiled.

Hall and Wright integrated news into the programming where possible, but since a traditional news wire service proved too expensive, they occasionally lifted stories from newspapers (including the Transcript Bulletin).  Even so, Wright remembers the particularly jarring experience of going to a murder scene near the Tooele Post Office to gather details on the crime, then breaking into programming to provide updates over the air.

Particularly memorable to wright was the need for careful timing—especially when it came to the Tooele Valley Railroad, which used to run down Vine Street.

“You had to be really careful of what you were doing when the [train] came down,” he explained.  If you had a record on, it would just shake the needle right off.  If you heard that whistle blow as it would cross Main Street, you better not have a record on!”

In time, Winegar allowed Wright to break format on Saturday afternoons to play rock and roll.  This, according to Wright, was refreshing to younger listeners who began to visit him in-studio on Saturday nights.  He maintains friendships with many of them to this day.

“The kids just gravitated to it,” Wright recalled.  “I say ‘kids,’ but they were the same age that I was.  They kind of tolerated the country station, but it was so exciting to them to have something [of their own].”

Wright paused to point out that despite his initial aversion to the country genre, he acquired a taste for it while at KDYL.

“I used to joke with my friends, saying all I do out there is play Hank, Hank, Hank, and Hank.  Hank Locklin, Hank Snow, Hank Williams, Hank Jr.  But it got in my blood,” he said.

It was also during his time at KDYL that Wright became fascinated with mining history.  After signing off the air, he would frequently take excursions to local ghost towns and historic sites.  While venturing further south into Juab County with a girlfriend from Tooele, he fell in love with the small town of Eureka and later bought a home there.

After about a year at KDYL, Wright returned to the Salt Lake market, finally landing at KSL in 1978.  Originally working as a fill-in host, he became Program Director and began hosting his own show.  The Doug Wright Show airs from 9:00 to noon on weekdays.  According to KSL Program Director Kevin LaRue, Wright’s show is heard by some 50,000 listeners each day.

Winegar sold the station in 1979 and KDYL continued broadcasting as such until 1982 when it released the call sign to a Salt Lake station, assumed call sign KTLE, and switched its frequency AM 1010.  The station switched ownership and formats several more times until 2009, when it was purchased by IHR Educational Broadcasting.  The station, now KIHU (for Immaculate Heart Utah), broadcasts Catholic religious programming.

The seasoned broadcaster looks back on his KDYL days fondly and said his experience broadcasting from Main and Vine helped shape his career.  He lamented the demise of small-town, community focused media like Tooele’s KDYL:

“When we lose that small town newspaper, that small town radio station, we lose a little bit of our soul.”

But channeling Mark Twain, he posited that the reports of radio’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.  It must adapt and evolve, but the need for local radio will always remain.

“There’s something to tuning in and knowing that person’s right there too, that they’re in the same time frame that you are in, that the weather you’re experiencing, they’re experiencing too,” Wright explained.  “The core of it is that friend on the radio.”

bonnevillemariner@gmail.com

 
 

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What will become of the historic Benson Grist Mill? Make your voice heard

The Benson Grist Mill with Oquirhh Mountains in the background (photo by Clint Thomsen)

The Benson Grist Mill with Oquirhh Mountains in the background (photo by Clint Thomsen)

Last week the Tooele Transcript Bulletin reported that the staff of the historic Benson Grist Mill in Stansbury Park had been laid off due to county budget woes. According to the piece (the online version of which is behind the TTB’s pay wall), the mill complex will remain closed for a 30-day “timeout” period, during which the Tooele County Commission will decide its fate.

The mill’s temporary closure and uncertain future are alarming to those of us with a passion for Tooele County history, especially those who so diligently restore it from shambles in the 1980s.  I haven’t spoken directly to County Commissioner Shawn Milne about the mill, but I gather he understands the site’s historical value and will do his best to see that it re-opens under capable oversight.

But whose oversight?  Milne reached out to local residents today via Facebook to solicit feedback:

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My take?  It’s a no-brainer.  Assuming the LDS Church is interested in acquiring the complex, it would be the best steward hands-down.  Here’s why:

1.  Private ownership means tax dollars can be used elsewhere.

2.  The mill plays a major role in LDS Church history in the county.  It was built in 1854 by LDS apostle Ezra Taft Benson to serve the predominantly LDS population of the region.  The construction of the mill and the relics surrounding it (including the ruins of the Grantsville Woolen Factory) are archetypical of classic Mormon Pioneer architecture.  Who better to care for these old structures than the organization that originally built it, and whose heritage it so perfectly encapsulates?

3.  The LDS Church very capably oversees numerous historic properties.  And it’s the whole deal, too– preservation, maintenance, public tours, and…

4.  Archaeology.  The mill and surrounding structures are an archaeological treasure trove.  For everything you see above ground at that site, there’s triple that underground.  Tooele County never had the resources to fund true archaeological research at the site (example: in 2008 a portion of the original miller’s residence was accidentally unearthed by a Stansbury Park maintenance crew.  A photo or two was taken and the site was promptly paved over).  The LDS Church, however, has a full archaeological arm.  The mill has been dubbed the most significant historical structure in western Utah.  Just imagine what lies beneath!

I don’t know whether or not the County Commission has approached either Stansbury Park or the LDS Church about taking ownership of the mill, and these are just my initial thoughts spurred by Milne’s Facebook Post.  But I’m obviously concerned about the mill’s future, and given the two choices, this is the best way to go.

What are your thoughts?  Commissioner Milne’s Facebook question was posed specifically to Stansbury Park residents, but I’m sure the Tooele County Commission would appreciate your thoughts regardless of where you’re from.  Contact them via their website here.  I’ll post updates as I learn them.

My previous posts and articles about the Benson Grist Mill:

Historical discoveries still await in old E.T. City area
Preserving History: Stansbury couple’s work provides a look into county’s past
A Glimpse into the Past: Investigating Tooele Valley’s Most Visible Pioneer Relic

 

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A Glimpse into the Past: Investigating Tooele Valley’s Most Visible Pioneer Relic

A Glimpse into the Past: Investigating Tooele Valley’s Most Visible Pioneer Relic

Ruins of the Grantsville Woolen Factory near Lake Point, Utah (photo by Clint Thomsen)

The following originally appeared in the October 9, 2012 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

If you drive the northern stretch of SR-36 with any regularity, you’ve seen the remains of that old stone building. That’s right, the picturesque, castle-like edifice off the highway’s west side, about a mile north of Stansbury Park. Chances are it catches your eye most every time you pass it. And even if you’re not a history buff, chances are you spend at least a moment of your commute wondering about it.

It’s got to be old, you tell yourself — pioneer era probably. But what was it? Who built it? And why was it abandoned?

Every old building has its story, and the Grantsville Woolen Factory is certainly no exception. Situated near the Benson Grist Mill in the historic heart of Tooele Valley, the 143-year-old building is one of the county’s most significant cultural treasures. But like the structure itself, the factory’s story isn’t completely intact.

The factory was a product of pioneer ingenuity in an era of extreme independence, when Mormon leaders encouraged pioneer communities to become as self-sufficient as possible. In the early 1850s, LDS Church President Brigham Young began counseling towns to build woolen factories. By 1857, several factories had been established in Salt Lake and Utah valleys. The most notable was the Provo factory, which was the largest woolen factory west of the Mississippi River.

Young brought the same counsel to Tooele Valley in 1867 when he encouraged a Grantsville congregation to improve their sheep breeds by building a factory of their own. Construction of the Grantsville Woolen Factory began the next year, financed by several prominent Tooele County citizens. The building was located in old E.T. City along Adobe Rock Creek, a sizable waterway fed by a network of brackish springs.

View southwest from the Grantsville Woolen Factory toward Adobe Rock Creek and Lone Rock Ranch (photo by Clint Thomsen)

Bishop John Rowberry was president of the company, with James Wrathall as factory superintendent and John Forsyth as machinery consultant. Various staff, including Forsyth, settled at the adjacent Lone Rock Ranch across from Adobe Rock.

The one and a half story factory measured 49-by-89 feet. Its walls were constructed of fitted blue limestone boulders cut from the nearby Oquirrh Mountains. Its upper room featured louvered windows and was supported with thick beams hewn from Oquirrh timber. It was accessed via two outside staircases. Twenty-five large windows on the lower story facilitated natural lighting, and machinery would be powered by a dam built across the creek.

The Deseret Evening News reported that the building’s completion was marked on Aug. 20, 1869 by an epic, all-night party featuring talks from local leaders, a substantial supper and dancing. Music of excellent quality and in any desired quantity was provided by bands from Tooele and Grantsville.

The factory was officially dedicated on April 29, 1870 by Elder John Taylor of the LDS Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. In the highlight of the event, the factory’s 350 spindles were briefly set in motion. The future of the Grantsville Woolen Factory couldn’t have looked brighter.

Grantsville Woolen Factory ruins, view toward northeast (photo by Clint Thomsen)

But according to the 1961 publication of the “History of Tooele County” by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, the factory operated only 10 months before closing. That’s also when the details get sketchy.

Some blamed a scarcity of raw materials for the factory’s failure. Some blamed the muskrats that constantly bored through the dam, hindering water wheel operation. Others, including Forsyth, said parts of the structure were built on quicksand. Each of these factors seems plausible. The “History of Tooele County” notes that pioneer sheep flocks were indeed small and their fleece light. Muskrats still menace the waterway today, and the soil along the entire channel is generally loose.

Whatever the reason for the decline in production, it was the quicksand that ultimately proved fatal. It happened, of all times, during a visit by the LDS church’s first presidency and other church leaders in late 1870. According to the book, the dam gave way as the men were feeding their horses, unleashing an “avalanche of water, seething, boiling, foaming and lashing with terrible fury from either bank of the yielding dam, in its rapid passage down the heavy grade.”

The dam was never rebuilt, and the factory’s machinery was transported to the Provo factory in 1872. Little is documented about the history of the factory after it closed. The “History of Tooele County” briefly mentions that the structure was later repurposed as a fishery, a dairy, a factory manufacturing overalls and even apartments.

Eventually the structure was completely abandoned. The roof was removed and used to remodel the historical adobe house still standing at Lone Rock Ranch. The wooden columns gave way and the narrower tops of the walls began to crumble. The Forsyth cabin was moved to the Benson Grist Mill complex in 1986, and E.T. City itself was eventually absorbed into Lake Point.

Adobe house at Lone Rock Ranch, built around 1909 (photo by Clint Thomsen)

The entire area, including the factory, the ranch, and Adobe Rock, is believed to have been acquired by Kennecott Utah Copper in the 1960s, although the exact acquisition date is unknown. Erda resident DeLaun Blake and his wife Wilhelmena said they leased the ranch to Kennecott from approximately that time to the mid-1990s. They were the last occupants of the adobe ranch house. Blake, 91, has fond memories of living next to the factory and is still amazed at the design.

“[The walls] are beautifully straight,” he said. “The amazing thing about it is they didn’t even have a cement foundation. They put mortar on the ground, put rocks in a maze with mortar that wasn’t straight cement. You look at it today and its absolutely straight walls—no bends or bows in them at all. You’ve never seen such great walls in your whole life.”

Blake recalled planting rainbow trout in the springs, lending credence to the creek’s viability as a fishery.

“It seems like they grew an inch per month,” said Blake. “I used to throw the line in the morning, catch about a 12-inch trout and eat it for breakfast. Boy, it was nice.”

Kennecott — now Rio Tinto — continues to lease the land for agricultural purposes. While the company has no specific plans for the factory ruins, Kennecott Asset Manager Jeff Lachowski said the company is mindful of history and is interested in preserving the site. Public access to the ranch and factory site is restricted. However, the restored Forsyth cabin at the Benson Grist Mill is publicly accessible.

Large carp have now taken over Adobe Creek. On a clear afternoon last week, dozens of them cruised the shallows on both sides of the broken dam. The factory’s vacuous rectangle was empty, save for the fallen beams. Wooden frames lined many of the glassless windows. Walking along the thick stone perimeter, one laments the factory’s premature demise.

Would the factory have continued to operate had the dam not broken? Would it be occupied by some other enterprise? Would there be more of it left? No one will ever know, but one thing is certain. The stately skeleton of the Grantsville Woolen Factory remains a solid testament to Tooele County’s pioneer spirit.

Stay tuned next week for a video tour of the ruins.

Photo by Clint Thomsen

 

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Mystery of Kanaka Lake carp defies those fishing for answers

Mention Iosepa and most people think of the modern steel pavilion that dominates the site. For others, the tidy cemetery comes to mind. Few, if any, consider of the large, pear-shaped pond across the highway. That’s too bad, because it’s one part of Iosepa that remains almost perfectly intact—physically and maybe biologically.

Yep, it's there: Kanaka Lake at sunrise (photo by Clint Thomsen)

The following originally appeared, without tangents and nested tangents, in the November 11, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

It was still dark when Tyler and I rolled onto the banks of Skull Valley’s Rock Bottom Spring.  From here the rutted double track we had been following veered sharply eastward.  Our destination, an unassuming pool called Kanaka Lake, was another half mile due south.  We’d have to park and hike the last leg, but that was fine by us.  What better way to arrive at our favorite Hawaiian ghost town?

“Hmm, coats would have been nice,” Tyler quipped when we were met by the frigid, pre-dawn air.

Ah yes, coats.  Of all the things to forget.  I blamed this year’s extra long autumn for the lapse.  Note to self: the desert gets very cold at night.  The flannel shirt won’t cut it anymore.  Tyler, whose light jacket was also not cutting it, made a similar note.  At least there was no wind.

We hopped a wide ditch and trudged into the darkness, our limbs warmed by movement, our hearts by the prospect of adventure.  Tyler and I have spent a lot of time exploring desert places, but we had never seen this outlying corner of Iosepa up close.  As far as we were concerned, this was uncharted territory.

Though it existed for a brief 28 years, Iosepa occupies a revered spot in Tooele County’s history.  Its story of faith and resolve has captured hearts worldwide.  The town was settled in 1889 by Hawaiian converts to the LDS Church who had moved from the islands to Utah.  Built on a working 1,280 acre ranch purchased by the church, the new colony would become a cultural and economic sanctuary for the Polynesian pioneers.  At its peak, 228 people called Iosepa home.

The town was abandoned in 1917 when all but one family returned to Hawaii to support a newly announced temple there.  The ranch was sold and the buildings were dismantled.  The entire town site was later plowed.  Today, virtually nothing remains of the town that in 1911 held the designation of “best kept and most progressive city” in Utah.

Despite the interest Iosepa generates today, not much is known about day-to-day life there.  Not even the remarkably preserved cemetery can tell us much about how these extreme pioneers lived.  In 2008, archaeologist Benjamin Pykles and a team of New York anthropology students began an ongoing study of the town site.

Regular readers of this column know of my own efforts to help connect the dots of Iosepa’s past.  In 2008, Tyler and I located and documented what the old timers called Story Rock, a limestone slab carved with images of palm trees, sea turtles and sharks.  I often reflect on those petroglyphs and the Hawaiians that carved them.  Who were these people who traded their island home for an unforgiving desert?  What were their dreams?  How did they spend their spare time?

Mention Iosepa and most people think of the modern steel pavilion that dominates the site.  For others, the tidy cemetery comes to mind.  Few, if any, consider of the large, pear-shaped pond across the highway.  That’s too bad, because it’s one part of Iosepa that remains almost perfectly intact—physically and maybe biologically.

The “lake” is a pooling of one or more geothermal springs and part of the extensive wetland system that spans the length of Skull Valley.  Kanaka’s warm, brackish water never freezes and is suitable for livestock drinking.  Carp planted by the Hawaiians thrived in its shallows.  Modern critics who question the Hawaiians’ choice to settle in such a seemingly inhospitable clime need look no further than Kanaka Lake.

The lake was also a recreation hub for the Iosepans.  If Salt Mountain was their island, Kanaka Lake was their Pacific.  Summer days were spent swimming and basking on its shores.  In his 1958 BYU Master’s thesis, Dennis Atkin noted that the Hawaiians caught carp by sneaking up behind the fish, gently stroking them along their sides, then grabbing them by their gills.

SIDE NOTE/TANGENT: The notion that the Iosepans ice skated on Kanaka has been perpetuated in several articles through the years. Atkin mentions ice skating in the same section of his thesis that he writes about Kanaka Lake.  It’s likely that some lazy writer falsely connected the two and everybody else ran with it.  Kanaka Lake is a warm spring.  It does not freeze.  This is just one more example of myth perpetuated by lazy writers.

NESTED TANGENT: There is no documented evidence of the Iosepans ever referring to the lake as “Kanaka Lake.”  The term “Kanaka” is Hawaiian for ‘people’ or ‘person.’  Outsiders often referred to the Iosepans as “the Kanakas” and Iosepa was known to most people as “Kanaka Ranch.”  It’s likely only the surrounding white settlers called the spring “Kanaka Lake.”  If the Hawaiians had an official name for it, it is not known to history.

Last July, Professor Pykles and I stood at his dig site and gazed down at Kanaka Lake.  Are there still carp in there, we wondered.  If so, are they of the same stock planted by the Iosepans?  Pykles wouldn’t have time to investigate the lake before he left.  Neither would I until fall, but if I could catch a carp, somehow deflesh it, and send its bones to New York, Pykles would see if they match the bones he unearthed during his dig.

I secured access from the Ensign Group who now owns the land.  The pressure was on.  I’m a decent angler until an article depends on it, and then I can’t catch anything.  My bad fishing luck has become a running chuckle in the newsroom.  The fishing part of this trip, I assured Tyler, was secondary to the actual experience of being where the Iosepans fished and played.

“But how hard could it be?” I asked as we approached the misty lake.  The atmosphere was surreal.

After almost a century without human encounter, surely these fish were up for a glittery ball of Power Bait.  We cast in as the sun peeked over Salt Mountain, but Kanaka’s surface was as still as glass.  Three hours passed without so much as a nibble.  The sun was up; it was t-shirt weather now.

Tyler decided to consult Google.  “When angling for carp, develop a patient approach,” he read from his phone, then shook his head.  “That’s bogus!  Haven’t you ever spit in the pond at Lagoon?”

“Maybe the Lagoon carp are tame,” I postured.  “Iosepa carp are wild.”

Wild and very picky.  We moved to the lake’s outlet where massive two-foot carp taunted us by zipping back and forth in water more shallow than they were tall.  Our varied baits and techniques were useless here too.  But we had answered our first question:  there were carp in Kanaka Lake.  The second would have to wait.  Like other Iosepa-related quests, success rarely comes on the first try.  It’s ok.  We’re persistent.  Those carp can’t run forever.

 

Best adventures of 2010 offered laughs and life lessons

Many of this year’s episodes marked first-time experiences.  Some were as frustrating as they were enjoyable.  Others combined outdoor sport with investigative journalism in attempt to unravel forgotten histories.

King of the urban jungle: Me and my Heelys (photo by Meagan Burr)

The following originally appeared in the December 31, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

ON THE FLANKS of the Stansbury Mountains west of Grantsville stands a common U.S. Forest Service signboard.   Wooden and weathered, it marks the end of the 5 mile dirt road from town and the beginning of the 4 mile hiking trail that winds deep into West Canyon. A placard at the top reads “Travel Information.”  But ironically, save for a few staple-trapped shreds of bulletins long torn away, the signboard’s face is completely empty.

First-timers on West Canyon Trail no doubt bristle at the least informative information board in western Utah.  I chuckle, because it illustrates a certain recreational ambiguity in our neck of the desert.  Opportunities for outdoor fun here are countless, but despite commendable efforts by the Forest Service and other local agencies, most are poorly documented.  The purpose of this column is to highlight the unique experiences our vast back country has to offer.  I’m satisfied that 2010 saw a good number of tips, back-stories, and ideas tacked to the proverbial signboard.

Thanks for the info!

Many of this year’s episodes marked first-time experiences—like hunting for meteorites and handling live rattlesnakes.  Some– like getting skunked by carp in Kanaka Lake or by crawdads in Grantsville Reservoir—were as frustrating as they were enjoyable.  Others combined outdoor sport with investigative journalism in attempt to unravel forgotten histories.

Of the latter type, my favorite was an investigation of an old airmail beacon in the Oquirrh foothills above Lake Point.  The idea for the story was posed to be by a reader from Stansbury Park.  A pilot with a thing for historical recon, Brian Staheli often flew over the structure and wondered what it was.  Over the years I’ve come to realize that everything has a story, and this collection of concrete slabs shaped like a double-tailed arrow was no exception.

With a little research we identified the structure as Airway Beacon 61A, one of the last surviving remnants of the legendary U.S. Air Mail era.  The beacon, we discovered, was constructed circa 1923 and was a key point along two Contract Airmail Routes.  With the back-story mostly assembled, it was time for the real fun to begin.

A hike to the arrow gave us a close up look, but that wouldn’t cut it for either of us.  61A was built to be viewed from the air, and we’d do the old thing a grave disservice if we didn’t oblige.  So Brian borrowed a plane and I grabbed a camera.  We took off early and flew low and slow over the Great Salt Lake while we waited for the sun to hit the beacon.  After two passes, we realized we would need to fly even closer to get a decent photo.  This all-encompassing adventure reached its apex when Brian executed a brain-juggling maneuver called a “slip,” rapidly dropping us to 50 feet above ground level and giving me a square-on view of the arrow.

The money shot. Not the best photo in the world, but it was the best I could do given the circumstances.

Oh that I could take this full-on approach to every exploit!  Alas, exploring a concept from every possible angle is rarely feasible.  Fortunately, the simple, impromptu outings are often just as rewarding—especially when they involve the kids.  Each of my children has seen their fair share of back country, but my oldest sons Bridger, 9, and Weston, 7, have been my trustiest companions.

Of our adventures together in Tooele County this year, 13 made the column.  Aside from the comic relief, the boys bring a wide-eyed perspective to every excursion, allowing me to see the rocks and ridges the way I did when I was their age.  Nothing brings a smile to my face quite like a fireside conversation with them about space and dinosaurs and the icky girls at school.

Nothing breaks the ice like a campfire.  The boys and I build them whenever and wherever we can.  I like to think I’m planting seeds in them—nourishing, perhaps, that innate and symbiotic relationship between boy and wilderness.  I think they appreciate my efforts.  Both boys have sworn to be my buds forever—“even when we’re teenagers and we think you’re a dork.”

The boys

I may have already earned my dork badge last spring when I set out to master the art of skating in Heelys.  As it turns out, those hip shoes with removable wheels aren’t just for the youngins.  In fact, any parent willing to risk a little embarrassment can order a pair of adult-sized Heelys and join their kids on a glide through the urban jungle.  I wrote about my journey from crash course to semi-success in a March article and have steadily improved since.  I have yet to complete my outfit with a skull print hoody, but my wheeled wonder shoes are never too far from reach.

The Heelys saga highlights the varied nature of this year’s activities.  Looking back on this topical hodgepodge, no distinct patterns emerge, but several themes are woven prominently—though not deliberately—throughout.  For example, I’m apparently obsessed with the concept of technology in the outdoors.  This isn’t surprising, considering my devotion to both.  2011 will seriously test my ability to balance the convenience of tech against the exhilaration that comes from roughing it.  I’ll let you know how that goes.

Until then, I’ll close this retrospective by sharing a few handy tips I’ve picked up while afield this year:

15 minutes spent gazing at the stars does more for the mind and soul than four hours of yoga.  Take weather reports and online trail guides with a few grains of salt, but always trust your gut.  Dad was right—that ridge is steeper than it looks from the trail.  When old people tell you stories, pay attention.  And carry a tape recorder; they might not be around the next time you come calling.  Never back away from a rattlesnake that’s close enough to strike.  Despite your body’s relentless attempts to convince you otherwise, early morning is the best time to hike.  Always pack enough water—and don’t forget the bratwurst.

Thanks for reading, and have an adventurous 2011!

 

Hiatus

I’m going on hiatus.  Not from the blog (though I can see how the lack of regular postings here lately might lead one to that conclusion).

If you’re a regular reader, you may have noticed that It’s been quite some time since I re-posted any content from my newspaper column.  A few people have asked why, and I suppose a brief explanation is in order.

For just over three years I’ve written a (mostly) weekly outdoors column for my local newspaper, the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.  This has been an exhausting, but unbelievably rewarding undertaking.  It’s become a passion, and I think I’ve published some  insightful and worthwhile pieces through it’s course.

So it was with mixed emotion that I made the decision last fall to put the column on indefinite hiatus.

There are several reasons for this, one of which is a reassessment of sorts.  I found my literary muse a little late in the career game.  So far it’s been strictly a side gig, limited to ever-decreasing amounts of spare time.  But the column has given me a foot in the door, and I need to pause in order to explore opportunities to grow and expand.  Can a side career be made in campfire philosophy?  I don’t know, but I need to find out.

In that vein, I’ve begun one new venture– a history-related project with a focus on Old West ghost towns– and am laying the groundwork for another, which will take a hybrid/New Media approach to  Utah’s outdoors.

I’ll explain both of these projects in more detail as time goes on, and of course keep you updated on the column’s status.  In the meantime, I’ll continue to write regular features in the newspaper’s Hometown section, and  I’ve got a few more Outdoor Adventure articles to re-post here, including a 2010 retrospective from last week.

 

Ghosts of Mercur Cemetery don’t reveal themselves easily

“In recent years the cemetery has become a popular target for paranormal investigation groups, who document their findings in spine-tingling detail.  There’s the little girl who appreciates the dolls that visitors place on her grave.  There’s the Italian immigrant miner who enjoys a nice graveside conversation via EMF meter.  And let’s not forget the cold spots or the power drains on electronic devices.

Or the would-be voices discovered later on digital recordings, which state with horrific clarity things like ‘You don’t belong here.'”

 

Mercur Cemetery by day (image source unknown)

The following originally appeared in the October 28, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

FULL MOON: CHECK. Midnight: check.  Spooky, century-old graveyard: check.  The inexplicable flickering of my LED flashlight: check.  It was the perfect recipe for a Halloween-time adventure.

Granted, the inexplicable flickering of my flashlight might have had less to do with otherworldly phenomena and more with the fact that I bought it at the gas station for $1.99.  But there’s no need to quibble over technicalities, because none of them mattered when the boys and I walked into the old Mercur cemetery and laid our eyes on those first moonlit graves.

Paranormal enthusiasts argue that places marked with high emotion or scarred by traumatic history act as spectral magnets.  They’re “hot spots”—areas of high paranormal activity.  In short, they’re haunted.  Many ghost towns naturally fit the bill—especially those built around mining.

Life in boom-and-bust mining towns was rife with anxiety.  Technology was primitive.  Miner safety was often an afterthought and fatal accidents were commonplace.  Even on the best days, the threat of cave-ins, injury, or an ill-timed blast always loomed.  If you didn’t meet your fate deep in earth’s bowels today, there’s always tomorrow.  And if your business doesn’t go broke when the mine plays out, it’ll probably be destroyed in a freak, town-wide fire.

If such ghost towns attract real haunts, Mercur should be a good candidate.    Its story began in 1870 when prospectors in the Oquirrh Mountains working southward from Ophir discovered gold in Manning Canyon.  Then called Lewiston, the town saw its first boom around 1873.  Its population grew to 1,500, but not for long.  The mines proved unreliable, and by 1880, a single soul called Lewiston home.

The town saw its second boom when a Bavarian prospector discovered mercury and named his claim Mercur.  The name stuck, even after the focus of mining shifted predominantly back to gold.  By 1898, nearly 6,000 people lived in Mercur.  The town prospered even after a 1902 fire claimed most of its buildings, only to be abandoned again in 1913.

Though limited operations continued in the mines until 1997, Mercur’s real R.I.P date was 1913.  Any remaining structures were razed in the 1980’s and a gate blocks entrance to the area that was once town proper.

All that’s left of the great mining town is its small cemetery, which closed in 1915.  It sits atop a steep hill and is accessible from the canyon road by a narrow trail that must have been a pall-bearer’s nightmare.  The graveyard is the resting place of some 100 souls.  Rock ovals with larger limestone slabs at their heads mark 40 or so graves.  The rest are completely unmarked.   Around 20 of the marked graves are individually enclosed by picket fences.  Of all the graves on the hill, only one bears an actual carved headstone.

SIDE NOTE: The grave is that of Annie C. Jones– born 189(7), died 1898.  Her headstone is mostly illegible.

Tales of paranormal encounters at the cemetery are ubiquitous online.  The stories range from humorous to terrifying.  In recent years the cemetery has become a popular target for paranormal investigation groups who document their findings in spine-tingling detail.  There’s the little girl who appreciates the dolls that visitors place on her grave.  There’s the Italian immigrant miner who enjoys a nice graveside conversation via EMF meter.  And let’s not forget the cold spots or the power drains on electronic devices.

Or the would-be voices discovered later on digital recordings, which state with horrific clarity things like “You don’t belong here.”

I read the stories with interest, but my skepticism was firm.  It’s not that I don’t believe in ghosts—I just don’t see why they’d be hanging out at cemeteries.  Why exactly would a dead miner haunt a place he had little or no connection with in life?  Wouldn’t his afterlife be better spent scaring the tar out of witless teenagers along the canyon road, or stealing campers’ left socks?

Craig Campbell, founder of Salt City Paranormal, shares my skepticism.  Campbell and crew conducted their own investigation of the cemetery several years back with inconclusive results.

“There are just too many variables in that environment,” he told me.  “You’ve got the wind, other interference— it’s just too easy to get a false positive.”

Campbell says he looks at each investigation as a court room case.  Until he finds solid evidence, he’s not convinced.  Solid evidence, as Campbell defines it, would be a documented phenomenon that he is unable to recreate himself.  But the lack of solid evidence of the supernatural at Mercur Cemetery doesn’t mean nothing’s afoot there.

“It’s definitely a hot spot,” Campbell ceded.

In his book, Talking to Yourself in the Dark, Wasatch Paranormal founder Tom Carr recalls leaving the cemetery after a particularly disturbing visit:

“No more than an hour into the investigation, we found ourselves heading back down the hill to our cars.  I would have to say this was the first time in a long time that I was that scared.”

I’m glad I didn’t read that chapter until after our own trip.  The storm clouds parted almost full moon illuminated the picket fenced graves.  I only needed my flashlight to examine the sole carved headstone.

“1898—that’s forever ago, Dad,” pondered 9 year old Bridger.  “Wow,” echoed his 7 year old brother, Weston.  They scampered from plot to plot looking for another legible headstone.  I paused to collect my thoughts.

No voices, cold spots or other disturbances— only a solemn calm, punctuated at times by a slight unease.  Maybe the ghosts had taken the night off.  If so, I wasn’t complaining.  Perhaps they weren’t ghosts at all, but echoes of consciousness—or reflections of our own.

Were we welcome there?  Were we imposing?  Craig Campbell or Tom Carr might have asked out loud.  I didn’t, just in case.

When my flashlight finally died, we hiked back to the car and drove up the canyon to the gate.  Mercur was back there, once upon a time.  When we arrived home I emptied my pockets, habitually clicking my flashlight’s power button as I put it away.  It was only after I was half asleep that I realized it was working just fine.

 

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