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 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.
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.
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.