Ghosts of the Utah War still roam charming Camp Floyd

25 Jan

The “Utah War” never saw an organized battle.  In fact, Johnston’s Army became an economic salvation for the very people it had intended to suppress.  400 buildings were constructed near the small community of Fairfield, igniting what was perhaps the biggest single boom in Utah history.  Fairfield transformed from quaint farm town to bustling Wild West hub almost overnight.

The old Stagecoach Inn at Camp Floyd (photo by Clint Thomsen)

The following originally appeared in the January 21, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

Five Mile Pass was unusually quiet last weekend.  The cold afternoon saw only two ATV trailers at staging points along highway.  Snow deposited by recent storms still coated the north faces of hills, setting the natural and man-made contours in sharp relief.   At the southernmost tip of the Oquirrhs, ATV-cut paths looped up and down steep slopes.  Other roads hugged knolls before winding away into canyons.

I spent many a winter’s night camping in these hills as a youth.  Care free and often bored, my friends and I would wander the arbitrary network of dirt roads, just to see what adventure might be waiting for us around the next bend.  We’d stash trinket caches in the nooks and crannies of the higher ridges, then gaze down at Rush Valley below, never realizing the likelihood that at least a few of these trails were  blazed some 150 years before by the exploratory—and often bored—soldiers based at nearby Camp Floyd.

Though the storied base made significant contributions to Tooele County’s mining history and economy, I had never visited before.  Heavy fog had doomed a west desert camping trip last Friday, and Saturday morning presented the perfect opportunity to finally check the place out.

Camp Floyd’s story is filled with irony.  Today, its visible remains are scant.  Only a small cemetery and one original structure, the camp commissary, are left to represent what once was the largest military installation in the United States.

The garrison was established in 1858 by General Albert Sydney Johnston, who had been dispatched to Utah by President James Buchanan to “subdue the rebellious Mormons.”  Johnston’s detachment consisted of 3,500 troops and civilian support staff—nearly one third of the entire U.S. Army.  They spent several months of what would be later called “The Utah War” camped on the shores of Rush Lake before moving near Fairfield to build the post.

Recently unearthed artifacts at Camp Floyd (photo by Clint Thomsen)

Historians suggest that while the U.S. government was genuinely concerned about rumors of an imminent Mormon rebellion, the reasons for sending such a large contingency to Utah were primarily political.  With tensions rising between northern and southern states over the issues of states’ rights and slavery, the newly inaugurated Buchanan hoped that a united effort to restore order to far west Utah would help defuse the conflict back home.  Polygamy, after all, was a practice scorned on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Secretary of War John B. Floyd, the post’s namesake and a known Southern sympathizer, may have had his own agenda.   The costs of establishing and maintaining such a remote base were significant, and rumor had it that the operation was an attempt by Floyd to drain the Federal treasury.

The “war” itself never saw an organized battle and was resolved through negotiation.  But whatever the motives behind the conflict, Johnston’s Army became an economic salvation for the very people it had intended to suppress.  400 buildings were constructed near the small community of Fairfield.  The new and substantial demand for goods and services ignited what was perhaps the biggest single boom in Utah history.  Fairfield transformed from quaint farm town to bustling Wild West hub almost overnight.  Its population skyrocketed from dozens to 7,000—nearly half the population of Salt Lake City at the time.

Camp Floyd’s troops led a mostly idyllic life.  Soldiers were relegated to transport protection, mapping, and surveying.  Some later took up prospecting in the nearby mountains, establishing the Camp Floyd Mining District and creating the mining camp of Ophir.

In 1861, the army sent in part to divert attention from North-South hostilities was recalled to participate in them.  The camp was abandoned, its buildings dismantled.  Fairfield became a de facto ghost town.  Nearly $4 million worth of supplies were sold to locals for $100,000, and the entire detachment moved east to fight on both sides of the Civil War.  In another ironic, though tangential twist, the first two generals to fight each other at Gettysburg had been comrades at Camp Floyd.

Today, the site is maintained as a State Park by the Utah Department of Natural Resources with the commissary building housing the small museum and an administrative office.  Also protected are the charming Stagecoach Inn and the one-room Fairfield District School.  Both are preserved in excellent condition and merit their own separate articles.

My sons and I arrived at the commissary building early in the afternoon and met park manager Mark Trotter, who was dressed in a Camp Floyd-era uniform for an event at the schoolhouse.  A meager fee gave us unlimited access to all three buildings.  We started with the museum, which features an exhibit of artifacts unearthed by a recent Brigham Young University archaeological dig.  Relics showcased include dishes, silverware, pipes, bottles, and other small items.

The two-story Stagecoach Inn sits across the street from the museum.  Built by the Carson family the same year as Camp Floyd, it was the first Overland Stage service stop south of Salt Lake City.  It was also a Pony Express stop beginning in 1860.  The restored inn is especially impressive considering the decreasing number of intact structures at ghost towns and other historic sites, and the fact that the likes of General Johnston and Porter Rockwell were frequent guests.

See that chair? Look close-- it's also a toilet. (photo by Clint Thomsen)

We stopped to tour the schoolhouse where costumed park staff members were teaching young girls about 19th century life.  “Are those people real?” 6 year old Weston asked, keeping a safe distance from the crowd.  “Cause shouldn’t they be dead by now?  I mean, 150 years…”

The question brought a smile to one staff member’s face, though she didn’t answer it.  She showed the boys to the belfry and allowed them each to ring the bell.  Then it was time to head back toward Five Mile Pass—we had some old dirt roads to wander.


Camp Floyd/Stagecoach Inn State Park is an excellent and accessible winter outing.  It’s located 33 miles southeast of Tooele along SR-73.  A small fee is required for access to the museum and other buildings.  For more information, call 801-768-8932.


11 responses to “Ghosts of the Utah War still roam charming Camp Floyd

  1. Polly Aird

    January 25, 2010 at 4:59 pm

    I’m pretty sure it was 2,500 troops, not 3,500. And although there was no fighting, the soldiers themselves did not describe life at Camp Floyd as “idyllic”–instead they talk of extreme boredom and especially of the inescapable dust that worked it’s way into every cranny and made life miserable. Otherwise, nice article!

  2. bonnevillemariner

    January 25, 2010 at 5:10 pm

    Polly, thanks for stopping by!

    I did mention that the 3,500 number included troops and support staff.

    I took my 3,500 number from museum materials. I also spoke with a local expert on Camp Floyd, Curtis Allen, who said actual troop numbers fluctuated between about 1,500 and 2,500 during the operation. Good records of this were kept, but Allen had to do some real digging to find them. According to Allen, 2,500 is a nice even estimate when you’re talking overall history. It’s likely that most secondary and tertiary sources (like my article) derive their numbers from Allen’s numbers and an 1860 New York Times article.

    Unfortunately, records of support staff numbers are scant. 1,000 is a ballpark estimate, and a high one, according to Allen. Utah State Park documents claim that 3,500 men were dispatched by President Buchanan. Based on the fact that not as many troops made it to Camp Floyd as were originally dispatched, it may be safe to assume that not as many civilians accompanied them as were originally called for.

    Conclusion: We don’t know exactly how many people lived at Camp Floyd at it’s nadir. 3,500 is the official estimate (though the exact basis for that calculation is unknown), and that’s what I used. Keep in mind that my article is a tertiary source meant to provide a broad overview. Contradicting the official estimate would have necessitated a drawn-out explanation, which I didn’t have room for, and would have only confused museum visitors who had also read my article.

    Yes, the soldiers were bored– which I note in the article– and I understand what you’re getting at. “Idyllic” might not have been the best word to use due to its “relaxing” connotation. I was speaking to the nature of their life as opposed to what it could have been had the Utah War escalated to battle. Yes, they were bored. But they did not have the stress of combat. I should have probably used “calm” instead.

    Thanks for the comment, Polly!

  3. Polly Aird

    January 25, 2010 at 9:14 pm

    Yes, I’m sure the museum has fairly accurate numbers. A newish book, “Roll Call at Old Camp Floyd, Utah Territory,” by Roger B. Nielson indicates that in the muster rolls taken four days after marching through Salt Lake City, the number was 2,400 men plus 800 civilian army employees and a number of military wives. The number of the expedition then fluctuated wildly with units not yet arrived, others departing within days of each other, and desertions. See Nielson’s book, pages iii, 256, 269, 271. The book also details all the camps the army made on their way to Cedar Valley, inducing the Jordan River camp, West Creek camp, Saratoga camp, and Old Camp Floyd, the Upper Camp where they were for two months while Camp Floyd was being build.

    • bonnevillemariner

      January 25, 2010 at 9:57 pm

      Sounds like a great book, Polly. Do you know if they sell it at the museum there?

  4. Polly Aird

    January 25, 2010 at 10:40 pm

    They should if they don’t! I live in Seattle and thus don’t get to Camp Floyd very often. It’s available on Amazon.

  5. Curtis Allen

    March 6, 2010 at 10:11 pm

    The numbers being discussed are close enough for a friendly conversation. What is most interesting is the fact that just as the early peak was reached at near 2,500 soldiers, it took a quick drop as Colonel Loring’s New Mexico troops left the “Old Camp Dloyd” in the northwest corner of Cedar Valley and returned to their stations in that territory. Then,as the camp next to Fairfield was occupied, three columns of the 1858 “reinforcement” (no longer needed)arrived and some of those dispersed to other locations. One whole regiment of nearly 700 troops (6th Infantry) the two companies of that regiment that had been at Camp Floyd gathered at Fort Bridger with the regiment;s other 8 companies and marched to California.

    In 1860 two large columns left for New Mexico and Forts Laramie and Kansas, diminshing the Camp’s contingent to about 400, with about 150 at Fort Bridger. By mid-July, 1861, Colonel Philip St. George Cooke (Commander of Mormon Battalion in 1848-9) led the remainder east to various fates.

    As mentioned, Captains Henry Heth (“Heeth”) of the 10th Infantry and John Buford of the 2nd Dragoons went east and met at Gettysburg on July 1st 1863 where their efforts had a great influence on the outcome of the Ciivl War.

    • bonnevillemariner

      March 11, 2010 at 2:44 pm

      Thanks for the insight, Curtis! It’s always tough, when you’re limited for space and writing for a general audience, to tell the story both accurately and in a manner that won’t put non history buffs to sleep. I appreciate these comments that flesh out the details.

  6. Roger Schwing

    August 3, 2010 at 12:35 am


    Is this the Curt Allen that worked at T&B in Ann ARbor Michigan?

    Roger Schwing

  7. Curtis R. Allen

    August 3, 2010 at 6:56 pm

    Yes, Roger, the one and only. What brings you to the dusty sagebrush of Camp Floyd?


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