Category Archives: BUDS

Forgotten ghost town of Clifton reminds visitors of mining’s boom-and-bust times

Oliver Young’s cabin, Clifton, Utah (Photo by Tyler Slack)

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.

Thanks to Randy “Mr. Prospector” Lewis for telling me about Clifton in the first place. Thanks also to Dr. Bill Moeller of the Clifton Mining Company for giving me a history run-down.

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.

Headstone of W.H. Sheldon, Clifton Cemetery (Photo by Tyler Slack)

Outhouse, seat still intact (Photo by Tyler Slack)


Visiting ghost towns invites reflection on the ‘ghosts’ who once lived there

This article originally appeared in the Tooele Transcript Bulletin on April 25, 2008.

I had to blink my eyes to relieve the pressure. Hours of tracing tumbleweed-strewn back roads- intently checking each curve against our topo maps- had made my eyeballs feel like overfilled basketballs. We had reached what I call the “blur point,” where all scenery seems to blend confusingly together into an boundless abstract vista.

To be sure, the ghost town of Frisco in western Beaver County is much easier to find in daylight. But for reasons I may never comprehend, my friends and I rarely reach a destination before nightfall. This night was no exception. John navigated his jeep over craggy trails as Tyler studied our maps with his headlamp. I poured through the information I had compiled, reading aloud the parts referring to Frisco as “Utah’s Dodge City”- about the daily violence that plagued the boom town- about the Nevada sheriff who was called in to clean things up and shot 6 men dead his first night on the job.

John backtracked and tried another offshoot from SR-21. His headlights illuminated a weathered picket fence, and behind it the old Frisco graveyard. Some of the graves were marked with crumbling headstones, the rest with simple wooden crosses. Other plots were visible but unmarked. Shreds of some kind of material hung from many of the crosses, waving silently in the breeze. Nearly illegible names and dates from the late 1800’s evoked thoughts of the people who lived and died in this forgotten town.

Utah is home to a healthy share of ghost towns. Some were railroad towns- glorified pitstops along travel or shipping routes. Many were elaborate mining camps, like Ophir and Mercur in the Oquirrhs. When travel routes changed or mines stopped producing, the towns died out. Some sites, like the Benson Grist Mill, died but were preserved in a state of “arrested decay.” Some coded but were revived by new mining operations or tourism. Most, however, died and were forgotten- skeletons of rock and wood- still standing only because they’re so far isolated from modern life. The bulk of Tooele County’s ghost towns fit this description.

The term “ghost town” is a loose classification. The generally accepted definition of a ghost town is any place that is a shadow of its past glory. Under this definition, a town can have an active population and still be considered a legitimate ghost town. The sparsely populated town of Gold Hill in western Tooele County is an example of what ghost town buffs classify as an “almost ghost.” The nearby town of Clifton is completely abandoned and is thus considered a “true ghost.”

When most people think of ghost towns, they imagine a western movie set, complete with false front buildings, spooky cemeteries, and saloon doors creaking in the wind. Indeed, that Hollywood image is based in truth, and most of the more established Old West towns did more or less fit that mold. In reality, ghosttowns range from collections of preserved buildings (like Ophir) to scant ruins hardly identifiable without a history book (like West Dip).

My passion for ghost towns was sparked in college when my history professor mentioned exploring ghosttowns in the Nevada desert. My mind filled with images of dusty Main Streets, so I asked him to tell me more. Later, Tyler, John, and I sat around Professor Case’s table and studied brittle maps. Equipped only with wide-eyed excitement, we drove west and located several ghost towns in central Nevada.

That first trip inspired a long-term quest to locate and visit as many Utah ghost towns as possible. Because most remote parts of Tooele County remain undeveloped, our neck of the wilderness is an explorer’s paradise. One of the county’s most unique ghost towns is Iosepa in Skull Valley.

Settled in 1889 by Hawaiian converts to the Mormon faith, the town was laid out in classic Mormon grid style in the shape of the state of Utah. Settlers diverted water from nearby canyons to supply each home with clean water, and in 1911 the town was named the state’s “best kept and most progressive city.”

Unfortunately, the town was beset by economic difficulties, disease, and the harsh desert environment. When the LDS Church announced plans in 1915 for a temple in Hawaii, most of Iosepa’s residents returned to the islands and the rest relocated to Salt Lake City.

Today, all that remains of town proper are overgrown streets, debris piles and concrete stairways leading nowhere. Large trees and foundations mark the old home sites. The property is privately owned and will be the subject of an archaeological study this summer.

Some dreams die, but they need not be forgotten. The preserved cemetery is in pristine condition and is accessible to the public. Descendents of the town’s original residents gather there each Memorial Day Weekend to celebrate Iosepa’s heritage.

The remains of lesser-known ghost towns and historical sites pepper the county. What interests me more than timelines or mine production statistics is a ghost town’s human history.

Next time you see a pile of wooden planks where a house once stood, consider that every board was cut or imported by the industrious people who built these towns from scratch. Children were born there. People worked and spent their lives there. They died there and their bones still lie there under the dirt. The beauty of a ghost town lies not just in what buildings remain, but in the history that saturates its half-standing walls and scattered bricks.


Many historical sites lie on private property or require traversing private property to gain access. While access restrictions can be frustrating, consider that most of the best preserved sites owe their continued existence to private ownership. Because ghost town ruins are often abused and vandalized, I don’t widely advertise their locations. Interested parties should check the ownership of a site and if needed obtain permission before visiting. It takes some legwork, but exploring ghost towns legally is an unforgettable experience. A good place to start is

NOTE: Many historical sites lie on private property or require traversing private property to gain access. Because ghost town ruins are often abused and vandalized, I don’t widely advertise details about their locations. Interested parties should check the ownership of a site and if needed obtain permission before visiting. It takes some legwork, but exploring ghost towns legally is an unforgettable experience. A good place to start is


Winter camping can quickly become an exercise in survival

“I’ve never felt closer to death than I felt that night. My extremities were numb and the rest of my body stung like a second-degree burn. We talked as much as we could, trying to laugh about our predicament. After a while, Chan and Tyler were silent. The psychological trauma was almost worse than the cold itself. I didn’t want to fall asleep for fear my life would slip away, but the thought of laying awake and counting the seconds until morning was almost a more horrifying prospect. I slipped in and out, checking my watch sometimes several times per minute.”

This week’s article is a refined version of the story I submitted to Rock and Ice Magazine’s writing contest, adapted for newspaper format. If you’ve already read that one, don’t worry. This version is different enough to be interesting.

Go to the Tooele Transcript Bulletin’s website to read the full story.


Strange Food Concoctions Always Taste Better When Roughin’ It

Me, Tyler, and Chan enjoying a late-night snow cave meal
(photo by Chandler Blake)

“Entering the backcountry is like crossing into an alien world. The synapses seem to fire differently and the subconscious mind regresses to the primitive instincts it’s been craving, revealing new perspectives on life…and food.

Certainly I’m not the only one who sees the irony in our approach to food when we’re roughing it as opposed to our home kitchen. If you’ve done much camping, you know what I’m talking about. Raw nature has a magic ability to transform powdered drink packets into fine beverages and MRE’s into feasts fit for kings. What is it that makes Malt-O-Meal and Cup-O-Soup so amazingly delicious in the mountains? What is it about the open air that turns a culinary novice into an Iron Chef?”

Head over to the Transcript Bulletin’s website to read the full article.


If You Can’t Beat the Fish, You Can join Them at Horseshoe Springs

The following article originally appeared in the November 15, 2007 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

Looking east toward the Oquirrhs from the middle of Horseshoe Springs (photo by Clint Thomsen)

by Clint Thomsen

Marty VonRotz lashes his four-wheel drive quad to his trailer in the dirt lot fronting Horseshoe Springs, a thermal spring along Skull Valley Road, 9.5 miles south of I-80. His buddy Leland has just landed a 3 lb. largemouth bass and he’s laid it out on the trailer bed for my 6 and 4 year old sons to see. “Dad, is this what we’re going to catch today?” asks Bridger. Thanks guys, now the pressure’s on!

I’m not much of a fisherman. It’s not that I don’t like it- it’s just that I’m no good at it. I’m the only guy I know that could get skunked in a stock pond. It must have started with my very first cast as a young boy on Electric Lake. I pinched the line to the rod, flipped the bail, and let ‘er rip… only to turn around and see my line whipping round and round my grandpa’s neck behind me. He and my dad tried hard to keep straight faces, but I think I’ve been cursed ever since.

“What did you catch him with?” I ask Leland. “Worms”, he responds. I’ve packed a tackle box full of spinnerbaits, lures, flies, and various sized sinkers- but no worms. In fact I don’t think I’ve drowned a plain old worm since Boy Scouts.

“Let me give you a few,” he says, and walks to the cab of Marty’s pickup truck. He grabs an empty Minute Maid juice bottle, cuts off the top with his Buck knife, and shakes several night crawlers into it for me.

“Everybody’s friends in the desert”, says Marty, a Tooele resident and avid outdoorsman in his late thirties. “You’re stranded or stuck- you need something- we all help each other out here.”

It’s another unusually sunny November Saturday and we’ve come to try our luck in this strange oasis. If you’ve done any exploring in Skull Valley, you know the distinct horseshoe-shaped spring concealed by steep banks among the grass and brush. In fact, were it not for the road sign, you might never know it was there. A slow moving waterway with deeper ponds on both ends, Horseshoe Springs is prominent in a chain of springs that spans the length of the valley.

At times the brackish hydrosphere is hidden by a thick layer of green moss that floats on the surface. I first discovered this place as a scout while camping in the hills across the highway. My friends and I would dare each other to swim in the spring, not knowing what might lurk beneath its moss blanket. Once, curiosity got the better of me and I jumped in, breaking up the moss and revealing a fairly deep pool of crystal clear water. From the surface I could see all the way down to the spring’s source, a small sandy circle in the center of the north pond. From then on, a campout in Skull Valley was never complete without a pickup water polo game in Horseshoe Springs.

It’s been a long time since I’ve swam in the spring, and I’ve never fished it. I’ve always wanted to, but amazingly enough the last thing I think of when packing for a desert adventure is my fishing pole. Though brackish, the spring sustains a small population of carp and largemouth bass. Today, the moss has receded, and it doesn’t take long for me to spot about a dozen large fish circling the bottom of what I call the source pool.

The clear water is striking but it makes for tough angling. “If you can see the fish,” another nearby fisherman tells me, “chances are they can see you and they get lockjaw.” He’s right. I cast just over the spring’s source and reel slowly, my bait drifting gently into the path of the circling school. A few of them see it and pause, but continue cautiously past it. This happens over and over again as Bridger and Weston scurry along a web of small trails around the spring. I’m not catching anything, but the thrill of the chase and the primal air of the landscape send an energy through my veins that is at once cathartic and serene.

It’s the same feeling Marty VonRotz has been coming here to find for nearly three decades. “It’s the peace and quiet, the smell. It’s just beautiful to me. Sometimes I think I should have been born back in the old west- just the way things are going right now in the world.”

Indeed, with its dirt roads and its weathered juniper fence posts, this part of the desert evokes memories of simpler times. Once I realize the fish were smarter than I was, I recall my old, care-free days of swimming in these waters. For old time’s sake, I pull off my shirt, get a running start, and do a cannon ball into the spring. Once the shock of their out of shape dad suddenly leaping into the water wears off, the boys ask to take a dip too. The water in this warm spring is a constant 72.9 degrees- slightly cooler than a heated pool, but comfortable enough that hypothermia isn’t at the forefront of my thoughts. Once we’re dry, a few powdered donuts and a couple more casts and it’s time to go home. I’ve been skunked but not cheated. As we leave, I look down at a bass approaching the bank and warn him that he might not be so lucky next time.

Trip Tips:

Horseshoe Springs is located on BLM land in Skull Valley, 9.5 miles south of the Rowley-Dugway exit from I-80. A road sign marks a gravel road that ends as a small parking lot near the the spring. Fishing and swimming are permitted, but beware of steep and slippery banks. General state fishing regulations apply (see the Utah Wildlife Board’s current proclamation). Catch and release is a good idea due to the limited numbers of fish in the spring. As always, respect the land by doing your part to keep the water clean and its surroundings litter-free.


BonnevilleMariner Enters Blogger’s Brawl

Following the lead of Jason Hendricks at The Adventurist, I have submitted an article to the first annual Rock and Ice Magazine Blogger’s Brawl writing contest. The winner is determined solely by number of votes, and the top 3 authors win some sweet gear and get their stories printed in the magazine.

The article teaser is below, but contest rules don’t allow me to publish the complete article to my website. If you like what you read, please click the link below the teaser to read the full article and vote for it.


Photo by Chandler Blake

Tyler stood up and removed his coat. In an act of either profound
benevolence or chill-induced madness, he laid it over the flame,
hoping to buy us another ten minutes of warmth.

“WE CALLED IT OUR LAST STAND. Three eager teenagers lugging surplus rucksacks filled with random gear- deep in the Wasatch Mountains in the dead of winter. I’ve never been colder in my life.
I suppose our biggest mistake was not bringing a vehicle. Maybe Chan’s station wagon was broken down again or maybe my sister needed to use our shared Chevy Celebrity- I don’t remember. Either way, we found ourselves standing at the back of a ski bus, enjoying the last moments of relative warmth as the flurries began to float outside. Had we known then what we knew later that night, we may not have pulled the ‘stop’ cable so enthusiastically as we approached the Spruces picnic area.”

Click here to read the rest of the article and vote.


My Best Night’s Sleep: Ghost Falls

Taking a short break from his Gulf Coast series, the author pauses to remember
a memorable trip to Ghost Falls in Corner Canyon, Utah.

Most people keep mental lists of some kind- their favorite TV shows, ice cream flavors, dream vacations. I keep a mental list of my best nights of sleep. Strange, I know. But sleep for me is hard to come by, and when I actually get a good night’s sleep, it’s memorable.

My third best night’s sleep was on an overnight train ride in Europe. My second best night’s sleep was on the floor next to a wood-burning stove at Shane’s old cabin in Gunnison. My number one best night’s sleep, surprisingly, was in a wet sleeping bag under a leaking tarp in the storm-drenched forests of Corner Canyon, Utah.

But let me back up a little.

I was blessed in high school with a group of great friends- buds, if you will- who loved the outdoors as much as I did. Our little circle came together quicky- almost magically- our sophomore year. Never did a full week pass without some combination of us setting off to explore a canyon or bag a peak. Rain, snow, or shine- weather was never more than a side note. Each of us kept a rucksack handy with all the essentials for a night in the wilderness (rarely did those essentials ever include a tent). At the drop of a hat, we’d load into somebody’s mom’s car and drive west into the desert or east into the mountains to spend the night spinning yarns by a fire.

These trips had a simple structure. We’d start at a grocery store, where we’d stock up on beef jerky, Dr. Pepper, and Twizzlers. We’d drive until we found a good trail, then hike or bushwhack until we found a good place to set up camp. Usually these trips began in the evening (just as they do now), and most hiking was done in darkness. Once we’d settle in for the night, the fire became the central figure of our merriment. We’d roast meat and place various objects in the embers to see if they would explode. If the fire was a big one, John would get a running start and leap over it, just to see if he could (John has leaped over many an obstacle in the wilderness, and looking back on his many stunts, it’s a miracle he is still alive). Tyler, and sometimes Richard, would scrawl in their journals by firelight.

This care free nomadic lifestyle had it’s humble beginnings on that cloudy spring evening in Corner Canyon. We had packed light, and the sun was setting when we started up the trail toward Ghost Falls.

We felt the first raindrops just as we reached the waterfall, so we decided to create a shelter. We had no tent, but we had a few old tarps, which we frantically and sloppily strung up against a tree as the storm began to drench us. When we finally came up with a crude lean-to that somewhat blocked the downpour, we rushed under it and laid our sleeping pads down in the mud. John was on one end with the tarp hanging about a foot above his sleeping bag. Shane lay on the other end under a higher and sturdier tarp. In between were Chan, Matt, Richard, Tyler and me. It was only a matter of minutes before the water wicked its way through the bottoms of our sleeping bags. To make things worse for Tyler, a can of Dr. Pepper exploded inside his sleeping bag. Huge earthworms were trying to slither into my ears, and it soon became apparent that the bush I had been using as a pillow was, in fact, poison oak.

The situation would have been utterly miserable if we weren’t having such a great time. Our soggy predicament soon became a joke and we laughed at ourselves long into the night. The only dry piece of equipment in my possession was a micro cassette recorder, into which we dictated our great wisdom and reveled in our toughness.

I still can’t remember how or when I eventually fell asleep. What I do remember is that it was the best sleep of my life. Whether it was the joy of being in the mountains with my buds or the sheer exhaustion from the hike and the weather, I don’t know. But when I woke up I was as refreshed as I’ve ever been. The sky was clear, and the tarp had sunk through the night until it rested on John like a blanket.

We rolled out of our soaked bags and immediately turned our attention to the waterfall, which we could actually hear now that the storm had passed. After an hour or so of swimming and sliding down the waterfall, we wrung out our belongings and packed up. On our way down the to the car we laughed more about the turbulent night we spent in the storm.

I’m amazed at how little we took up, but also at how much we brought back.

Chan, turns out, brought something extra special back with him. While the rest of us were frolicking in Ghost Falls, he quietly slipped away to answer nature’s call. It soon became apparent that the tuft of leaves he had used as toilet paper was, in fact, poison oak.

RELATED LINKS’s description of Ghost Falls Trail


My First Ghost Town Trip, Part V: Conclusion

MY EARLY RESEARCH ON ORVIL JACK resulted in story after story about an old one-armed coot living in a box car near the old Gold Acres townsite. With a little help from Google, I located Orvil’s daughter, Grace Wintle, who still lives in the area. She assured me that her father was no old coot, and that he did indeed have both of his arms. I concluded that there must have been some old one-armed miner that people were confusing with Orvil Jack. Then author/photographer Richard Menzies emailed me the above photograph that he shot in 1975.

Here’s Richard’s description of the picture:

“He (Orvil) was highly regarded as a mechanical genius, the sort of guy who could field strip a D-9 Cat in a sandstorm and put it all back together, single handedly. Literally. Orval lost a hand to a steam shovel in Manassa, Colorado.

I’ve had people complain about this picture, which they find disgusting. One woman wrote to say she was shocked that I would snap a picture of a man who had just lost his hand and who was bleeding profusely–instead of running for help. Actually, it’s not blood. It’s degreasing salve. And although he looks pretty intimidating in this picture, Orvil was a genial fellow.”

So rather than a one-armed geezer, Orvil Jack was a one-handed mechanical mastermind.

Later, Grace explained to me that “missing a hand is very different from missing an arm.” She was clearly frustrated at her father’s portrayal in ghost town lore and was grateful that I called her to clarify.

Orvil and his wife, Bessie, founded the Blue Ridge Mine in 1956 while Orvil was working as an assayer in Gold Acres. There he discovered the famous neon green turquoise that now bears his name. Grace and her husband took over the mine when Orvil passed away in 1986. I sensed joy in Grace’s voice as she recounted the old days with her father.

“Every day my sisters and I would hear dad’s pickup driving home. We would run down the hill to meet him and he’d give us a ride back up to the house.”

The Wintle family continues to work the mine, but Grace is suffering from cancer and no longer works the mine herself. Much thanks to this dear lady for her time and her willingness to speak with me.


Grace Wintle told me the old buildings in Gold Acres were bulldozed in the seventies, nearly a couple decades before our visit. She referred me to Steve Bishop, who grew up in Gold Acres and now lives in Elko. Bishop describes Gold Acres as a quaint little town filled with “stick-built” houses. He was educated in a one-room school, where a single teacher taught kindergarten through eighth grade. The town had no gas station, one commissary, a bunkhouse and a cookhouse. Contrary to what I’ve read in various ghost town books, Bishop says Gold Acres was a dry town. That doesn’t mean there weren’t any underground booze operations, but no swinging saloon doors creaking in the dusty breeze.

Gold Acres was a company town with most of its residents working for the company. Bishop says one of the very few vehicles in town was the “manwagon,” which would pick up and drop off the miners.

Bishop says he has pictures of the old town packed away somewhere in boxes, which he’ll scan and send to me as soon as he can dig them up. I will post them at that time.


Bishop also told me that many of Cortez’s residents were Chinese- former railroad workers that turned to mining. These workers were buried in a separate cemetery near town. According to Bishop, all but one body in this cemetery were exhumed at some point and reburied in China.

Old wooden buildings in Cortez (Photo by Charles Hall)*
A grave in the Cortez Cemetery (Photo by Charles Hall)*


A short note on that pristine abandoned mining camp that I mentioned in Part 2 of this article: Using a popular satellite imagery program, Tyler and I believe we have located it. And that’s all I’m going to say…

Related Links
First Ghost Town Trip – Part I
First Ghost Town Trip – Part II
First Ghost Town Trip – Part III
First Ghost Town Trip – Part IV

* Charles, I’ve been desperately trying to reach you to ask permission post a couple of your pictures of Cortez. When all attempts to contact you failed, I posted the above two pictures anyway. If you’re out there, let me know if you have a problem with that.


My First Ghost Town Trip, Part IV: The Lonliest Road and Wendover

HAMILTON LIES 9 MILES SOUTH OF HIGHWAY 50, a grim stretch of pavement that for me embodies the very essence of the Silver State. Spanning the width of Nevada from Fallon to Ely, the highway crosses 9 mountain ranges and parallels the old Pony Express trail through the most barren part of the state. In it’s July, 1986 issue, Life Magazine called it the “Lonliest road in America.” The magazine quoted a AAA spokesman, who issued this warning:

“It’s totally empty. There are no points of interest. We don’t recommend it. We warn all motorists not to drive there unless they’re confident of their survival skills.”

Like most worthwhile things in the high desert, the attractions along Highway 50 aren’t advertised by billboards or decorated with shiny lights. State parks, historical markers, and numerous ghost towns dot the route and are easily accessed. 70 bumpy miles along that glorified pack trail from Cortez made America’s lonliest road look like the 405 in Los Angeles! We were only on Highway 50 for 110 miles or so, but the road is aptly named.

The Jeep was cramped and noisy. John had called shotgun for the return trip, so I was folded like a contortionist in the back seat. We turned north on Highway 93 as the sun set. This leg of the trip was more or less quiet. By about Eureka we had sufficiently discussed our love lives (or in my case at the time, the lack thereof) and solved the world’s problems. By about Ely we had finished postulating about the mysteries of Gold Acres, Cortez, and Hamilton. The wheels in my head had spun non-stop for two days and now the only thing keeping me awake was my concern that Tyler would fall asleep at the wheel.


Two hours or so later, we were greeted by Wendover Will, a 64 foot tall, neon-light lined mechanized cowboy. Will is the small gambling town’s unofficial mascot. For half a century (1952-2002) his wink and wave beckoned travellers to the State Line Casino. The town straddles the Utah-Nevada border and is the most convenient spot for most Utahn’s to get their casino fix. The Nugget and Montego Bay resorts sit right on the border, their parking lots on the Utah side and their first slot machines just feet across that imaginary line.

In the 1920’s, Bill Smith erected a tall light post in front of his gas station on the border that he kept lit around the clock- a constant beacon for the weary traveller. Bill’s gas station became a popular pit stop and later became the State Line Hotel and Casino. Bill’s ever-burning light was eventually replaced by Wendover Will (named for Bill Smith). The State Line was sold in 2002 and was renamed the Wendover Nugget. The new owners quickly refurbished the hotel and removed the landmark. After many of letters and donations, the beloved cowboy was deeded to the city in 2005. A newly polished Will again greets visitors to Wendover, now from a a platform in the middle of Old Highway 40.


Wendover has always been a pleasant sight for me. My parents used to take us there for quick, cheap vacations. To me, Wendover met all the requirements of a vacation- hotels, pools, bright lights, and prime rib buffets. My first trip to Wendover was to see an air show with my Grandpa. I remember the stale cigarette smoke and cheery jingles as we weaved through the maze of slot machines toward the diner at the Red Garter Casino. That’s when grandpa gave both my little brother and me a quarter and said “See that machine over there?” For all we knew it was a pinball machine, but for the life of us we couldn’t figure out what the scrolling pictures were for.

We also couldn’t figure out why those very serious looking guys in security uniforms came and had a chat with grandpa.

We didn’t get to play any more “pinball” that day, but the sights and sounds (and smells) of Wendover stayed with me. I was probably the only kid in my elementary school that played pretend casino at recess, or that would excitedly report on my latest family vacation to exotic Wendover, Nevada.

Many years later on my honeymoon in Wendover, I returned to the Red Garter and won $3.83 at the penny slots. When I cashed out, the Red Garter staff looked as unamused as they did the day I pulled that lever and lost grandpa’s quarter.

What’s interesting is that while Wendover is a gambling town, it’s something totally different to me. Except for that brief childhood obsession with casinos, I’ve never had any interest in gambling. I figure if the winnings were as easy as they’re advertised, more people would probably win. I’ve met many people who’ve lost big, but never anybody that ever won big. Let’s just say Wendover Will isn’t grinning for nothing.

The real treasure in Wendover is its landscape and history- from the unspoiled miles of its World War II era airfield to its ancient Indian caves. Look for future articles here about the Wendover area, for there is much to tell. For a good look into Wendover’s soul, check out my friend Richard Menzies’ book Passing Through.

In recent years Wendover has seen a slight boom- at least on the Nevada side. But it was still pretty quaint when Tyler, John and I passed through on that quiet night. The lights of the town meant we had reached an oasis of civilization. It also meant our trip was coming to an end. Normally we would have stopped at the Rainbow Casino to get our fill of meat and cheesecake, but we were out of time and cash, so we made do with a tray of truck stop nachos. From there it would be another two hour trip over the earth’s curvature back to the Salt Lake Valley.

I often think about that first ghost town trip. Since then I’ve visited most ghost towns in Utah, and several others in the greater Southwest- each of which I will detail in this space. I also did my homework on Gold Acres, Cortez, and Hamilton and I’ve learned a lot about them. Next week’s article will be a follow-up on those ghost towns and a conclusion of this series.

Click here for the conclusion of this story.

Related Links
American Heritage Magazine article on Wendover Will

-Wendover Will photo by Doug Pappas.


My First Ghost Town Trip, Part III: Holy Grail, Eureka and Hamilton

IT’S AMAZING HOW DIFFERENT THE DESERT LOOKS IN THE DAYLIGHT. After spending the night driving and trekking a labyrinth of dirt roads, we thought we had a pretty good lay of the land. But we awakened on the side of SR-306 to a whole new world. We couldn’t find where we had been lost the night before, but we did find an interesting cluster of abandoned mines near the current Gold Acres operation, complete with relics and infrastructure. These shafts were still open- many with rickety ladders leading down into the darkness. We could only imagine the historical treasure that lay below.

As the years have passed I’ve learned to take notes and log waypoints when adventuring. I took only mental note of the location of Tyler’s favorite part of our journey- an abandoned mining camp- completely intact. But by midday every road looked the same to me, and it seemed like we had been exploring in circles. It was definitely in Lander County and definitely off the beaten path, but I’m not sure we’ll ever find it again. The compound included converted mobile homes, offices, dormitories, various equipment, and broken-down vehicles. From the look of the place, I estimated the site had had seen its last human in the ‘80s.

The buildings were filled with animal dung, as most abandoned buildings in the desert tend to be. Most doors were hanging open and many were simply missing. Claim maps hung on the walls of what must have been the mining offices. Desks, chairs, filing cabinets, and shelves filled with scrolls and core samples stood frozen in time. Other than the slight toll the years had taken on this property, it looked untouched. I can only assume that the mines dried up and the camp was abandoned, just like Gold Acres and Cortez.

What blows my mind is that whoever lived here left absolutely everything- tools, books, pots, pans, utensils. The holy grail of ghost-towning is to discover an unknown town so secluded and intact that you could walk into a house and spend the night in a bed. The bunkhouse in this mining camp had beds and chairs, which were strewn with clothing and papers. If not for the animal droppings, a person could stay there quite comfortably. We touched nothing, took nothing, and were quite pleased that nobody else had either. Someday we will return and identify the site. Hopefully it will be in the same pristine condition we left it in.

Ghost Town Defined

The term “ghost town” is defined loosely. When most people think of ghost towns, they think of a western movie set, complete with false front buildings, horse troughs, and spooky cemeteries. Indeed, that Hollywood image is based in truth, and most Old West towns did more or less fit that mold. Some were railroad towns- glorified pit stops on along travel and shipping routes. Many were company-owned mining camps like Gold Acres and Cortez. Some of these towns cheated fate (Dodge City and Hayes in Kansas come to mind). Others died but were preserved, like Bodie and Calico in California. Some coded but were revived, like Park City in Utah. Most, however, died and were long forgotten.

The generally accepted definition of a ghost town is any place that is a shadow of its past glory. Under this definition, a town could have an active population and still be considered a ghost town. Such towns are often classified by ghost town buffs as “almost ghosts,” while towns completely abandoned are called “true ghosts.”

Eureka and Hamilton

It was still early, so we pulled out the map and decided to check out Eureka, a former “almost ghost,” and Hamilton, a “true ghost” before looping back up to Wendover. The most direct route to Eureka was an unnamed (at least on our map) road leading south about 70 miles to U.S. 50. There is a reason that dirt road had no name, and we were glad we were in a Jeep (I was even gladder that it was Tyler’s Jeep and not mine). It was slow going, but that was ok. We were traversing through country rarely seen and we considered ourselves lucky. Every bump in that road was part of the adventure.

Eureka is a sleepy ex-boom town with a long, rich history. It’s Main Street actually does resemble a movie set, lined with original buildings and set against a mountain backdrop. We only spent enough time in Eureka to fill the gas tank and stock up on Gatorade and Slim Jims. After all, we came for true ghosts. And as long as there was still somewhere in town I could buy Gatorade and Slim Jims, there was no reason to stick around.

Hamilton is a true ghost 37 miles west of Ely at the base of Treasure Hill in White Pine County. Hamilton began life in 1868 as Cave City, named so because the earliest settlers lived in caves and dugouts in the nearby hills. The town was eventually renamed after W.H. Hamilton, one of the town fathers. Stories of the great riches discovered in Treasure Hill sparked “White Pine fever” and prospectors flocked to the district.

Between June of 1868 and spring of 1869, the town’s population grew from 30 to over 10,000. Stage lines kept the goods and people flowing in, and Hamilton became the county seat. Soon the valley was dotted with businesses, restaurants, a post office, a newspaper, theaters, and saloons. At its peak, Hamilton was home to 60 general stores and 100 saloons!

But, like most other boom towns, mines ran dry, companies folded, and speculators left for greener pastures. By 1870, the population had shrunk to 3,915. An 1873 fire ripped through the business district, destroying both the buildings and the town’s economy. Only 500 people remained by the end of that year. The county seat was eventually moved to Ely, the post office closed, and Hamilton became a ghost in 1931.

That would have been the perfect time to explore this ghost town- before several mining companies returned to Hamilton in the 1980’s and built large aluminum buildings- only to later abandon them. The most prominent ruins at the town site are those of the Wirthington Hotel and a few scattered wooden buildings.

It’s remarkable to consider the scale of this once bustling mining town compared to today’s remains. Like most true ghosts, little remains of Hamilton. But the beauty of a ghost town lies not just in what buildings remain, but in the history that saturates the crumbling foundations and scattered wooden planks.

Click here to go to Part 4 of this story.

Related Links

-Hamilton photos used with permission from the White Pine Historical and Archaeology Society. Any reprint or unauthorized use of these photos is prohibited.