Iosepa ghost town finally sees much deserved media attention

28 May

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


7 responses to “Iosepa ghost town finally sees much deserved media attention

  1. The Adventurist

    May 30, 2008 at 2:01 am

    Hey Clint,

    This article reminded myself of coming upon an Indian Pow-Wow out in the middle of nowhere. Definitely a cool experience found off the beaten path.

    I did notice that you recently changed blog hosts. Sorry it has taken me a while, but I have changed over myself. I now I have a new address that you can get by clicking my name. I will have to update your link on my site, as well. By the way, you won’t be sorry by jumping to WordPress. I love it. I am hosted elsewhere now, but still use their system.

    As always, great article and full of information. Look forward to reading more. Take care.

  2. bonnevillemariner

    May 30, 2008 at 2:19 am


    I saw your switch and have been meaning to update my link to you. Thanks for reminding me. How’s life over there at skinnymooose? I like the format and template you’re working with. Your latest post about everything you’re up to writing-wise is nice peek into the world of pro-blogging.

    WordPress has been awesome! My problem is that I’ve been reluctant to pay for the domain forwarding upgrade. My domain,, forwards to my wordpress blog, but all the pages I created when I was on blogger still exist.

    So when people see one of my older articles in a Web search, they end up over in my defunct pages. Some day I’ll go thru and update those old pages to link to their new versions on WordPress.

  3. The Adventurist

    May 30, 2008 at 4:16 am

    Hey Clint,

    I just seen this comment. I am going to email you here in a second and the reasoning being, I don’t want to post what I have to say publicly–but it could be helpful. If your up, give me a few and you should get an email.

  4. Brad Leatham

    November 1, 2008 at 5:05 am

    I got on the Harley this morning and rode out to Iosepa hoping to find some relicks of the old town. I found a sign on Skull Valley Road about half mile North of Ensign Ranch North. I was disipointed to only find what looked like a rock quarry.

    Where did I go wrong in finding the town site that you were refferring to?

    I have lived amoung Polynesians for many years and have a great intrest in their history here.

    Any help you could give would be much appreciated.

    Thanks, Brad Leatham

  5. bonnevillemariner

    November 1, 2008 at 3:32 pm

    Brad- The road you turned off on should have taken you to the Iosepa cemetery, which is marked by a large pavilion, monuments, port-a-potties, and a parking area.

    These modern structures (the cemetery itself being the only original landmark) are all that’s there. The town was completely razed. If you look down toward Skull Valley Road from the cemetery, you’ll see some foundations and two large trees. The trees mark the corner of the old town square (Imilani Square).

    Unfortunately, the land the old townsite sits on is off-limits.

    Probably not the answer you were looking for, and I’m sorry.

    I have an old map of the town that I’ll scan soon and post ont the website, and photos of the current site, which I’ll mark up according to what was where. It’s still pretty neat to look at.

  6. Pat

    July 7, 2015 at 10:14 pm

    Aloha and thank you writing about the land that was once blossomed as a rose, our Iosepa. I have seen many articles of Iosepa and we are grateful in any way to get exposure for our people who came from the islands.
    There is an entrance before the old townsite, you’ll see a big sign with designs on them. This road was given to us by the new ranch owner because he didn’t like people trespassing on his property. We are blessed to be given extra land too by the ranch so that our camper who come out every Memorial weekend can fit…haha.
    We are having a special event to open the time capsule Friday, August 28, 2015. This is for those who would like to camp over night for Saturdays August 29ths ceremony of the time capsule. We welcome anyone, not just for islanders as we are all sons and daughters of God.
    Again, mahalo nui loa (thank you very much) for the publicity. Pat Kamai (Pres. of Iosepa Historical Association)

  7. Pat

    July 7, 2015 at 10:17 pm

    Sorry for my grammar, my typing to slow for my thoughts.


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