This article originally appeared in the Tooele Transcript Bulletin on May 2, 2008.
“We can probably turn off the GPS to save battery life. These maps will get us there just fine.”
Famous last words for my friend Tyler and I.
It would have been a viable plan — if we would have had a compass and a decent map, and if that old Boy Scout orienteering merit badge was more than just a fleeting memory.
But neither of us had handled a compass since our scouting days and our maps were generic Internet printouts. Still, the directions seemed clear enough. According to Yahoo, the remote ghost town of Clifton in southwestern Tooele County was just down the road. With the resting GPS receiver tucked away in Tyler’s camera bag, we strapped on our Camelbaks and hiked toward what we thought were the Clifton Hills.
As trail-savvy as Tyler and I like to think we are, a quick skim through our journals and my articles in this newspaper are evidence that we’ve more than mastered the art of inadvertent wandering. Even using GPS, we tend to take the roundabout way of reaching most destinations. I usually don’t mind, however, because the most rewarding adventures often result from choosing the wrong fork in the trail.
We merrily hiked two miles through a canyon to a low summit before we recognized that something was off — before we turned on the GPS and found ourselves 4 miles off-target, and realized that we had been reading our unlabeled Internet map upside down.
We turned back, a little embarrassed but not defeated. After all, despite that morning’s series of unfortunate decisions, the trip so far had been near perfect.
We had set out the previous afternoon along the Pony Express trail. Tyler had been without his Jeep for over a year now, but he was still in full Jeep mentality, piloting casually over dips and rock piles, taking his little Chevy Prism places a Chevy Prism was probably never meant to go. We stopped occasionally to explore old station sites and film reports of each leg of the trip.
We reached the Deep Creek Mountains as night fell and coasted slowly through the small town of Gold Hill. This “living,” or “almost” ghost town boasts a handful of full-time residents and is replete with original buildings from its various boom periods. Most of Gold Hill is private property and we had read that its residents were wary of visitors. As nearby Clifton was our real target for this trip, we quietly passed through, promising to return some time to explore the town in daylight.
We made a roadside camp in a small canyon near the Clifton Flats. After a dinner of ramen noodles and green olives, we spread a tarp and laid our mummy bags out under a star-decked sky. Tired as we were, the surreal nocturnal terrain overrode our lethargy. We remained awake for most of the night discussing life’s mysteries and imagining our grand arrival on Main Street Clifton.
Our small 2-mile detour the next morning was but a negligible distraction. With our GPS receiver trained on Clifton’s waypoints, we quickly located the correct road and drove right into town.
Clifton is a lesser-known site that is usually overshadowed in ghost-town lore by Gold Hill’s notoriety. While the latter’s impressive buildings certainly fit the image of a classic ghost town, the former’s quiet isolation makes it an equally charming destination.
Gold Hill was first discovered in the Clifton area by employees of stage and Pony Express superintendent Major Howard Egan around 1857. Silver was also found around 1865, and the Clifton Mining District was organized in 1869. Hotels, stores, and saloons sprung up as the town boomed. A small mill and smelter were built in 1872, allowing ore to be processed on-site — a welcome addition, as Clifton would no longer have to ship its ore 125 miles east to Stockton.
Like so many mining towns in that period, Clifton’s heyday was short-lived. As the mines declined, so did Clifton’s population. Gold Hill became the new hot spot, and in the mid-1870s Clifton became a ghost town. Only two residents remained in the town proper: Brigham H. and Oliver Young, nephews of LDS leader Brigham Young. According to Ronald Bateman’s “Deep Creek Reflections,” Brigham’s cabin stood for over a century until it was burned down by hunters.
Oliver’s log cabin remains intact with a more recent porch addition, and was the first structure we saw as we walked down Main Street Clifton. A storage dugout in decent shape for its age stood behind the cabin, and several other unidentifiable structures lined the road. Across the way was a wooden outhouse that had been attached to another building. The adjoining building was collapsed, but the outhouse remained intact.
Multiple mines surrounded the ruins and other buildings stood higher in the hills. Tyler’s GPS receiver led us to the small, overgrown cemetery hidden in the brush. A bleached headstone stood above the only marked grave — that of William R. Sheldon, who died on Christmas Day 1889. Clifton Mining District historical records show that Sheldon worked as a district recorder from January of that year until his death.
Before leaving the cemetery, we pulled a few tumbleweeds and cleaned up some of the grave sites and watched a small charcoal-colored lizard do push-ups on a nearby rock. As far as Old West towns go, Clifton wasn’t anything special. Yet it remains one of my favorite Utah ghost towns, both for the area’s remote beauty and the site’s very simple human history.
Clifton is one of my favorite Utah ghost towns, and this trip was a classic. The ghost town was only one leg of our trip along the Pony Express loop.
A word of caution about old mining towns: They’re dangerous. They’re riddled with deep, unstable mines. Unless you’re a professional, stay out, no matter how tempting they may be.