(used with permission from the Western Mining & Railroad Museum)
FORGET WHAT YOU’VE READ ABOUT THE HISTORY OF HALLOWEEN. The holiday was invented specifically for those of us depressed that summer has ended. It’s funny how September makes me forget August’s searing heat and lament summer’s end. The leaves are turning brown and I’ve already had to scrape the ice off of my car windows one morning this week.
They say that fall signifies summer’s day fading into winter’s wilted dusk. What makes sense is mankind’s association of fall with the melancholy. What baffles me is mankind’s warped fascination with it. Humans are the only species on earth that seeks out fear for fun. Jumping into autumn for me is like gritting your teeth and diving into a mountain lake. Sure, there’s the momentary loss consciousness, but once you’re in it’s not so bad. Once fall begins something wonderful happens. For one month- one beautiful month- nostalgia for summer softly subsides and gives way to eager thoughts of eerie woods and jack-o-lanterns.
And let’s not forget- ghost towns.
On a gray October evening I find myself driving along Spring Canyon Road, the crumbling narrow byway that begins at the outskirts of Helper, Utah, and winds its way up the mountains and back in time.
The sleepy town of Helper is nestled at the mouth of Price Canyon and the gateway to Castle Country. A former mining hub, Helper was so named for the “helper” engines needed to assist westbound trains up the long, steep grade to Soldier Summit. It’s a classic Old Western town with it’s Main Street lined with century old buildings.
No sooner do I enter the canyon than I spot the ruins of old Peerless with its stone staircases leading to a collage of rocky foundations. The sun begins to set and shadows dance on the canyon walls. I’ve been listening to a local radio station but reception is cutting out so I turn it off. I roll down my window despite the chilly air. As I drive I listen to my tires roll over small rocks as I weave between potholes along this forgotten road.
Spring Canyon is home to several small ghost towns and abandoned mining camps. The remains of these towns are readily visible on both sides of the canyon from the road. Wooden shanties still stand on eroding ledges and strange buildings built right into rock faces blend into the cliffs like optical illusions. Time has taken its toll on Ghost Town Row, but many buildings remain impressively intact. The overgrowth makes it difficult to trace the old street routes, but it’s still possible to map out the towns using stone foundations and heaps of wooden planks as landmarks. One could spend weeks on end exploring these towns and the history that lurks behind half-standing walls and beneath weathered grave markers.
It’s getting dark now, and that’s important. That’s when my naturally skeptical mind starts to wander, and I find my eyes cautiously avoiding the old roadside wash.
Tyler and I discovered this place several years ago, about the same time of year. After failing to locate the ghost town of National, we had driven up into this ghost towner’s paradise. Just above the ghost town of Latuda, the road was gated and a brand new homestead- the only modern building in the canyon- sat on the hill beside it. Knowing there were several more townsites past the gate and taking seriously our commitment to enter sites legally, we parked the car and approached a woman walking a horse. She met us with immediate suspicion, which seemed to abate once we told her we were just there to explore ghost towns. The land above the gate was her property, but she’d be willing to let us explore it for $20 each. We didn’t have $20 each, but the two of us emptied our pockets and pulled together about $15 total plus a Starburst wrapper and some pocket lint. That was good enough.
She invited us in and showed us maps and old pictures of the area. She told us her place was a bed and breakfast and insisted on giving us a tour. We had no interest in anything but driving through that gate, but we politely followed our hostess as she led us down a stairwell and through a corridor lined with themed rooms. These weren’t your regular mom and pop bed and breakfast rooms. Each had its own “horror” theme- mummies, skeletons, ghouls, black lights, life-sized horror movie figures- the works. It was a spook house on steroids. I’m a Halloween nut but this lady took the cake. She was downright giddy as she showed us a ghoul that screeched and a shower head that sprayed fake blood. There’s fun Halloween and then there’s psycho Halloween. This place oozed the latter.
When she finally let us back out of her haunted mansion, she gave us some quick instructions- “Don’t drive off the road and don’t take anything. Oh, and see that mountain right there? Stay away from it. It’s burning.”
THE WHITE LADY
Like most ghost towns, the Spring Canyon towns have their spooky lore. An old miner’s ghost here, a graveyard apparition there- people want a good story, and ghost towns are the perfect places to spark the imagination. The creepy cowgirl mentioned something about the “White Lady of Latuda,” a story well known in these parts. After that trip I read that the story has several variations, but all conclude that the ghost of a woman wearing a white dress haunts the canyon- specifically the canyon wash.
One version of the story- the best sourced version- was told by Claude Lambert, an old miner who lived in a rock house in the canyon. Mr. Lambert knew the woman in question and worked with her husband. In the early 50’s he laid out the facts as he knew them.
The couple lived next to a store in Peerless with their infant child. Like many wives of the day, the woman lost her husband in the mine. But her husband met his end from blood poisoning caused by an infected tooth, not a mining accident. Thus, the company had no obligation to pay her any compensation or benefits, and she was turned away at the mine office in Latuda. Desperate and without recourse, the woman took her baby down to the wash and drowned it, so as to spare it from starvation.
She spent some time at a Provo Mental facility before escaping and returning to Peerless to look for her baby. Her restless search did not end when she died. Some miners claimed the White Lady would appear in front of the mine, luring miners inside. To follow her, they said, was suicide. Other sightings have her walking in the direction of the mining office. Most people see her near the wash.
Time passed and the boom towns died out, leaving only tailings piles, vacant buildings, and the White Lady. To this day, the stories go, the woman wanders the canyon, dejected and vengeful. She wears a beautiful white dress. Her face is pale and empty and she floats several feet off the ground. The sightings increased as the legend grew, and the old ghost town of Latuda became a popular destination for teenagers looking for a few thrills. In 1969, one disturbed young man, Delmont Gentry of Price, acquired a blasting cap and blew up the old mining office in Latuda in an attempt to “kill the ghost of the White Lady.”
Though I believe they exist, I’ve never seen a ghost. I think most ghost stories are nonsense. That said, I’ve been in eerie places. Places where I’ve felt watched. Places I won’t go at night. This is my first time in Spring Canyon after sunset.
The sun has set and dark begins to fall in Spring Canyon. It’s much cooler now and my first reaction is to roll up the window, but I don’t. I want to experience this place in the raw. As I drive toward Latuda something catches my eye in the distance. I think I should stop here, but my foot remains steady on the gas pedal, almost uncontrollably. It’s a figure- light in color but not illuminated. It doesn’t react to my approach, but it does seem to drift from side to side. As the road curves I lose sight of it in the trees. I’m a little spooked but I’m not scared. The figure seems to beckon me, and I comply. I slow down and turn the car so that the headlights shine into the woods just above the wash. Then I get out and walk toward where I saw it last.
As I walk, a slight breeze blows something into my view from behind a tree. It appears again and I notice that it is the skirt of a faded white dress hovering about 3 feet from the ground. I walk around the tree, and there she is…
Well, maybe not her. Maybe “it.”
A long, old fashioned white dress hangs by a rope from the tree, waving softly in the breeze. My caution turns to laughter and my laughter turns to amazement. Whoever hung this dress here placed it so expertly so that you see it from afar, but lose it in the trees as you get closer. The trees blocked the dress from the roadside, and I never would have found it had I not set into the woods on foot. Who knows how many wary travelers this ghostly frock has frightened?
I look up at the rope from which the White Lady hangs and notice that the knot is coming loose. One more stiff gust will tear her free; the effect will be ruined and the dress will blow away. I stand on the branch of a nearby tree and secure the knot.
“Sorry,” I tell her. “You’re staying put tonight.”
I decide to follow the road further up the canyon toward the ghost towns of Rains and Mutual. The bed and breakfast from hell looks abandoned. Has for about 2 years now. I’m amazed how fast the structure has deteriorated. The gate is open and I continue to Mutual. I turn around at the impressive remains of the old Mutual Store and drive back toward Helper. As I pass Standardville, a Jeep passes me heading up the canyon and I wave. I can’t help but smile as I think about how it’s passengers will react to the floating specter just around the bend. I’m glad I tightened that knot. —
ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS: Most of the land on both sides of Spring Canyon Road is privately owned. If you plan a trip to these ghost towns, please seek out the land owners and get permission first. Trespassers will be picked up and charged. Ownership of the bed and breakfast from hell has changed at least once since Tyler and I took our tour of it and I trust the new owners did some house cleaning. My information about the ghost story comes from histories compiled by Frankie Hathaway and Richard Davies. Additional thanks to Kathy Hamaker and Michael Francis.
Oh, and the burning mountain… The good people at the Western Mining & Railroad Museum in Helper tell me the mountain is indeed on fire. The McClean Mine caught fire in the 1950’s and the mountain has been burning internally ever since. Stay tuned for several more articles about the Spring Canyon ghost towns.