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Category Archives: Ghost Towns

The Beach Boys – Saltair Connection

The Beach Boys – Saltair Connection

Today marks the release of The Beach Boys’ 30th studio album, That’s Why God Made the Radio.  The band is currently playing their 50th anniversary reunion tour, which will bring them to BYU’s July 4 Stadium of Fire show in Provo.  Since I’ve got The Beach Boys on my mind, and since I’ve always got Saltair on my mind, it’s high time I address the Beach Boys – Saltair connection.

What do Saltair and The Beach Boys have in common?  The answer may surprise you.  Sure, one was a long-vanished resort in Utah, the other a rock band from California.  But think about it.  Both spark thoughts of sun, sand, and saltwater.  Both were arguably products of genius, their legacies unmistakable.  Both have rocky—even tragic—histories.  Both have persisted through the years in some incarnation or another.

Oh, and one other thing:  these icons of music and culture met each other one summer day in the late 1960’s.

If you’ve done much research into Saltair history, you may have come across a photo or two of the Boys posing and goofing around at the old Saltair site.  The most ubiquitous is a shot of the band standing alongside a Toyota Land Cruiser with the dilapidated Saltair pavilion in the distance.  This photo appeared on two separate album covers—a European EMI repackage of Today! and a bootleg album titled “Unsurpassed Masters, Vol. 19.”

Here’s the EMI album cover:

Photo by Clint Thomsen

The back features the same photo and a blurb by the late Dick Clark.  Saltair is instantly recognizable, as are The Beach Boys.  There’s Dennis with the beard, Carl in the denim shirt, Mike with the Newsie cap, Al with the wild red hair, and there’s Bruce on the right.  But Beach Boys fans and Saltair buffs alike continue to debate one question:

Who’s the guy standing with them?

Photo/Edit by Clint Thomsen

It’s no secret; it’s not well-known.  The online speculation is amusing.  He might be the Wilsons’ father, Murry.  Or Bruce’s father, or the band’s Mexican bus driver, or a Brazilian cabbie.  The truth makes a lot more sense and is actually quite interesting.  So who is that guy, and what brought The Beach Boys to Saltair in the first place?

Check back early next week for the answers to these questions and several other nice tidbits on The Beach Boys’ connection to Utah.

Or, since it’s already posted, just click here.

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Ghost Towns: Lost Cities of the Old West out today!

Today is the official release of my book, Ghost Towns: Lost Cities of the Old West.  It is available direct from the publisher, most all online booksellers, in major bookstores, and at museums and national parks.  If your bookseller doesn’t carry it, they should be able to order it in.  Just give them ISBN # 0747810850.

If you’d like to order through my Amazon.com affiliate link, click here:
Ghost Towns: Lost Cities of the Old West (Shire Library)

Thanks to those who have already picked up a copy, and for the kind words from those who have already read it.  Thanks also to the Tooele Transcript Bulletin for the nice profile in last Thursday’s edition.  Enjoy the book and spread the word!

Clint

 
 

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Announcement – Ghost Towns: Lost Cities of the Old West

Dear Reader,

I’m ecstatic to announce the upcoming release of my first book, Ghost Towns: Lost Cities of the Old West, from Shire Publishing.  The book is available for pre-order now and will be released on April 17. An e-book version is expected to be released by June.

About the Book
“There comes a time in every rightly-constructed boy’s life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure.”

This quote from Chapter 25 of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer has captioned this website since its inception.  The raging desire of which Mr. Twain speaks came upon me early in life, and has sparked several passions.  Among them is the study of abandoned places.  My somewhere was the great American West.  My hidden treasure, ghost towns.

The dialog that follows the quote in Tom Sawyer is priceless.  It goes something like this:

Huck: Where’ll we dig?

Tom: Oh, most anywhere.

Huck: Why, is it hid all around?

Tom: No, indeed it ain’t. It’s hid in mighty particular places, Huck – sometimes on islands, sometimes in rotten chests under the end of a limb of an old dead tree, just where the shadow falls at midnight; but mostly under the floor in ha’nted houses.

Huck: Who hides it?

Tom: Why, robbers, of course…They always hide it and leave it there.

Huck: Don’t they come after it anymore?

Tom: No, they think they will, but they generally forget the marks, or else they die. Anyway, it lays there a long time and gets rusty; and by and by somebody finds an old yellow paper that tells how to find the marks – a paper that’s got to be ciphered over about a week because it’s mostly signs and hy’roglyphics.”

Like Tom’s treasure, ghost towns can be found most anywhere, especially in places that seem odd and secreted.  There they remain, mostly forgotten and in various states of decay, waiting for a couple adventurous kids with an old yellow paper.

There are many guide books available that list ghost towns by region.  This is not one of those books.  This book is a primer to the ghost town phenomenon and the ghost-towning hobby.  It’s the book you read before you pick up a guide book.  Ghost towns are best experienced with as much context as possible.  What exactly is a ghost town? How did they rise? Why did they fall? What can their remains tell us about the people that once called them home? And how can they be experienced today?

Ghost Towns: Lost Cities of the Old West answers these questions, and then some.

Pre-order yours today!

  • Pre-order direct from the publisher (this earns me highest royalties): Link [make sure to set your location to USA in the top corner]
 
 

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So long, Saltair Train: Iconic rail car makes final departure from Saltair

SLG&W Car 502 (the “Saltair Train”) is loaded onto a salvage truck on February 18, 2012 (photo by Clint Thomsen)

To anybody who regularly drives the stretch of Interstate 80 between Magna and Lake Point, the “Saltair Train” was a familiar site.  Like the cinder block shell of the substation she stood near, the old passenger coach was badly blighted and covered with graffiti.  But Salt Lake Garfield & Western Railroad Car 502 was more than just a popular tag site or a hipster backdrop for bridal photographers– it was the last vestige of the original Saltair resort.

Yes, the original Saltair.  There have been 3.  The first, a grand resort pavilion, was built in 1893 and destroyed by fire in 1925. “Saltair II” was built roughly to the same scale and on the same site– at the end of mile-long long trestle, about 2 miles east of the current pavilion (Saltair III) at the freeway exit.  Saltair II itself was destroyed by fire in 1971.  When your grandmother reminisces about dancing the night away at Saltair, she’s talking about its second incarnation.

And she probably remembers riding to it on a train– quite possibly 502.  Some cars on the Salt Lake Garfield & Western line were open-air.  502 was a closed coach, and it carried happy passengers back and forth to Saltair for at least 30 years.

Saturday afternoon I was the last person to climb aboard the old rail car.  My visit wasn’t planned; I spotted the cranes on a flight into Salt Lake International Airport and quickly drove to the site.  A few moments later it was hoisted onto a semi truck bound for a Grantsville salvage yard, where it will be dismantled for scrap metal today.  It’s a sad end for this storied relic.

SLG&W Cars 501 and 502 at the old Saltair Site. 502 is on the left. Date unknown, Source: Grandma

502 was one of six “steel passenger motor cars” built by McGuire-Cunmings Manufacturing Co. in 1918 and shipped to Salt Lake City the following year. Cars 501 and 502 were rebuilt in 1950 as trailer cars and were given flat arch roofs.  The other cars were scrapped in 1953.  501 was displayed at the new Saltair pavilion (the one at the exit) in the 1980’s, and was scrapped in 2006.  502 was stored near the power substation at the old site.  It remained in decent shape well into the 1990’s, but has been the victim of severe vandalism and arson since.

Here’s an early, undated photo of Car 502 with its Saltair marking:

Source: UtahRails.net via Flickr

Here’s 502 in 1975:

Source: rrpicturearchives.net

In 1995:

Source: Doug Anderson, davesrailpix.com

And 2007:

Source: railpictures.net

I stood with landowner Ian Morehouse as the car two cranes lifted 502 onto the salvage truck Saturday afternoon.  Video below:

Morehouse, who also owns Saltair III, tried unsuccessfully to have car 501 preserved back in 2006.  He cited the tricky logistics and prohibitive cost of moving the car as primary reasons for nobody claiming it.  It might be said that the real demise of 502 came with the arson fire circa 2009.  Morehouse estimated that 80% of the car’s wooden structure was destroyed in the fire, making it restoration costly and near impossible.  He said it was a combination of recent pressure from Salt Lake County to clean up the site and the increased legal liability with the constant stream of visitors that prompted him to sell the car to the salvage company.

I’m not aware of any plans to demolish the nearby substation ruins, which lie on state lands.

For the record, I also made efforts to have 502 preserved about two years ago, before the land was purchased by Morehouse.  A few organizations showed interest, but none had space to store it or money to move it.  The salvage crew let me snap a few photos of 502 before the old coach made its final departure from Saltair.

Photo by Clint Thomsen

Photo by Clint Thomsen

Photo by Clint Thomsen

Photo by Clint Thomsen

Sad day.

UPDATE: Commenter Gilbert below has created a Flickr group to aggregate images of 502.  If you’ve taken photos out there, head over and add to the pool.

Here are several previous pieces I’ve written on Saltair:

Ghost towns? How about a ghost resort?
Old Saltair: Ruins are all that remain of “Coney Island of the West”
Saltair in flames: Video documents the ruin of famous Utah resort
Saltair’s spooky side shines in “Carnival of Souls”
Lakeside beach resort makes for a delightful summer outing

 
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Posted by on February 18, 2012 in Great Salt Lake, Saltair

 

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Mystery of Kanaka Lake carp defies those fishing for answers

Mention Iosepa and most people think of the modern steel pavilion that dominates the site. For others, the tidy cemetery comes to mind. Few, if any, consider of the large, pear-shaped pond across the highway. That’s too bad, because it’s one part of Iosepa that remains almost perfectly intact—physically and maybe biologically.

Yep, it's there: Kanaka Lake at sunrise (photo by Clint Thomsen)

The following originally appeared, without tangents and nested tangents, in the November 11, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

It was still dark when Tyler and I rolled onto the banks of Skull Valley’s Rock Bottom Spring.  From here the rutted double track we had been following veered sharply eastward.  Our destination, an unassuming pool called Kanaka Lake, was another half mile due south.  We’d have to park and hike the last leg, but that was fine by us.  What better way to arrive at our favorite Hawaiian ghost town?

“Hmm, coats would have been nice,” Tyler quipped when we were met by the frigid, pre-dawn air.

Ah yes, coats.  Of all the things to forget.  I blamed this year’s extra long autumn for the lapse.  Note to self: the desert gets very cold at night.  The flannel shirt won’t cut it anymore.  Tyler, whose light jacket was also not cutting it, made a similar note.  At least there was no wind.

We hopped a wide ditch and trudged into the darkness, our limbs warmed by movement, our hearts by the prospect of adventure.  Tyler and I have spent a lot of time exploring desert places, but we had never seen this outlying corner of Iosepa up close.  As far as we were concerned, this was uncharted territory.

Though it existed for a brief 28 years, Iosepa occupies a revered spot in Tooele County’s history.  Its story of faith and resolve has captured hearts worldwide.  The town was settled in 1889 by Hawaiian converts to the LDS Church who had moved from the islands to Utah.  Built on a working 1,280 acre ranch purchased by the church, the new colony would become a cultural and economic sanctuary for the Polynesian pioneers.  At its peak, 228 people called Iosepa home.

The town was abandoned in 1917 when all but one family returned to Hawaii to support a newly announced temple there.  The ranch was sold and the buildings were dismantled.  The entire town site was later plowed.  Today, virtually nothing remains of the town that in 1911 held the designation of “best kept and most progressive city” in Utah.

Despite the interest Iosepa generates today, not much is known about day-to-day life there.  Not even the remarkably preserved cemetery can tell us much about how these extreme pioneers lived.  In 2008, archaeologist Benjamin Pykles and a team of New York anthropology students began an ongoing study of the town site.

Regular readers of this column know of my own efforts to help connect the dots of Iosepa’s past.  In 2008, Tyler and I located and documented what the old timers called Story Rock, a limestone slab carved with images of palm trees, sea turtles and sharks.  I often reflect on those petroglyphs and the Hawaiians that carved them.  Who were these people who traded their island home for an unforgiving desert?  What were their dreams?  How did they spend their spare time?

Mention Iosepa and most people think of the modern steel pavilion that dominates the site.  For others, the tidy cemetery comes to mind.  Few, if any, consider of the large, pear-shaped pond across the highway.  That’s too bad, because it’s one part of Iosepa that remains almost perfectly intact—physically and maybe biologically.

The “lake” is a pooling of one or more geothermal springs and part of the extensive wetland system that spans the length of Skull Valley.  Kanaka’s warm, brackish water never freezes and is suitable for livestock drinking.  Carp planted by the Hawaiians thrived in its shallows.  Modern critics who question the Hawaiians’ choice to settle in such a seemingly inhospitable clime need look no further than Kanaka Lake.

The lake was also a recreation hub for the Iosepans.  If Salt Mountain was their island, Kanaka Lake was their Pacific.  Summer days were spent swimming and basking on its shores.  In his 1958 BYU Master’s thesis, Dennis Atkin noted that the Hawaiians caught carp by sneaking up behind the fish, gently stroking them along their sides, then grabbing them by their gills.

SIDE NOTE/TANGENT: The notion that the Iosepans ice skated on Kanaka has been perpetuated in several articles through the years. Atkin mentions ice skating in the same section of his thesis that he writes about Kanaka Lake.  It’s likely that some lazy writer falsely connected the two and everybody else ran with it.  Kanaka Lake is a warm spring.  It does not freeze.  This is just one more example of myth perpetuated by lazy writers.

NESTED TANGENT: There is no documented evidence of the Iosepans ever referring to the lake as “Kanaka Lake.”  The term “Kanaka” is Hawaiian for ‘people’ or ‘person.’  Outsiders often referred to the Iosepans as “the Kanakas” and Iosepa was known to most people as “Kanaka Ranch.”  It’s likely only the surrounding white settlers called the spring “Kanaka Lake.”  If the Hawaiians had an official name for it, it is not known to history.

Last July, Professor Pykles and I stood at his dig site and gazed down at Kanaka Lake.  Are there still carp in there, we wondered.  If so, are they of the same stock planted by the Iosepans?  Pykles wouldn’t have time to investigate the lake before he left.  Neither would I until fall, but if I could catch a carp, somehow deflesh it, and send its bones to New York, Pykles would see if they match the bones he unearthed during his dig.

I secured access from the Ensign Group who now owns the land.  The pressure was on.  I’m a decent angler until an article depends on it, and then I can’t catch anything.  My bad fishing luck has become a running chuckle in the newsroom.  The fishing part of this trip, I assured Tyler, was secondary to the actual experience of being where the Iosepans fished and played.

“But how hard could it be?” I asked as we approached the misty lake.  The atmosphere was surreal.

After almost a century without human encounter, surely these fish were up for a glittery ball of Power Bait.  We cast in as the sun peeked over Salt Mountain, but Kanaka’s surface was as still as glass.  Three hours passed without so much as a nibble.  The sun was up; it was t-shirt weather now.

Tyler decided to consult Google.  “When angling for carp, develop a patient approach,” he read from his phone, then shook his head.  “That’s bogus!  Haven’t you ever spit in the pond at Lagoon?”

“Maybe the Lagoon carp are tame,” I postured.  “Iosepa carp are wild.”

Wild and very picky.  We moved to the lake’s outlet where massive two-foot carp taunted us by zipping back and forth in water more shallow than they were tall.  Our varied baits and techniques were useless here too.  But we had answered our first question:  there were carp in Kanaka Lake.  The second would have to wait.  Like other Iosepa-related quests, success rarely comes on the first try.  It’s ok.  We’re persistent.  Those carp can’t run forever.

 

Ghosts of Mercur Cemetery don’t reveal themselves easily

“In recent years the cemetery has become a popular target for paranormal investigation groups, who document their findings in spine-tingling detail.  There’s the little girl who appreciates the dolls that visitors place on her grave.  There’s the Italian immigrant miner who enjoys a nice graveside conversation via EMF meter.  And let’s not forget the cold spots or the power drains on electronic devices.

Or the would-be voices discovered later on digital recordings, which state with horrific clarity things like ‘You don’t belong here.'”

 

Mercur Cemetery by day (image source unknown)

The following originally appeared in the October 28, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

FULL MOON: CHECK. Midnight: check.  Spooky, century-old graveyard: check.  The inexplicable flickering of my LED flashlight: check.  It was the perfect recipe for a Halloween-time adventure.

Granted, the inexplicable flickering of my flashlight might have had less to do with otherworldly phenomena and more with the fact that I bought it at the gas station for $1.99.  But there’s no need to quibble over technicalities, because none of them mattered when the boys and I walked into the old Mercur cemetery and laid our eyes on those first moonlit graves.

Paranormal enthusiasts argue that places marked with high emotion or scarred by traumatic history act as spectral magnets.  They’re “hot spots”—areas of high paranormal activity.  In short, they’re haunted.  Many ghost towns naturally fit the bill—especially those built around mining.

Life in boom-and-bust mining towns was rife with anxiety.  Technology was primitive.  Miner safety was often an afterthought and fatal accidents were commonplace.  Even on the best days, the threat of cave-ins, injury, or an ill-timed blast always loomed.  If you didn’t meet your fate deep in earth’s bowels today, there’s always tomorrow.  And if your business doesn’t go broke when the mine plays out, it’ll probably be destroyed in a freak, town-wide fire.

If such ghost towns attract real haunts, Mercur should be a good candidate.    Its story began in 1870 when prospectors in the Oquirrh Mountains working southward from Ophir discovered gold in Manning Canyon.  Then called Lewiston, the town saw its first boom around 1873.  Its population grew to 1,500, but not for long.  The mines proved unreliable, and by 1880, a single soul called Lewiston home.

The town saw its second boom when a Bavarian prospector discovered mercury and named his claim Mercur.  The name stuck, even after the focus of mining shifted predominantly back to gold.  By 1898, nearly 6,000 people lived in Mercur.  The town prospered even after a 1902 fire claimed most of its buildings, only to be abandoned again in 1913.

Though limited operations continued in the mines until 1997, Mercur’s real R.I.P date was 1913.  Any remaining structures were razed in the 1980’s and a gate blocks entrance to the area that was once town proper.

All that’s left of the great mining town is its small cemetery, which closed in 1915.  It sits atop a steep hill and is accessible from the canyon road by a narrow trail that must have been a pall-bearer’s nightmare.  The graveyard is the resting place of some 100 souls.  Rock ovals with larger limestone slabs at their heads mark 40 or so graves.  The rest are completely unmarked.   Around 20 of the marked graves are individually enclosed by picket fences.  Of all the graves on the hill, only one bears an actual carved headstone.

SIDE NOTE: The grave is that of Annie C. Jones– born 189(7), died 1898.  Her headstone is mostly illegible.

Tales of paranormal encounters at the cemetery are ubiquitous online.  The stories range from humorous to terrifying.  In recent years the cemetery has become a popular target for paranormal investigation groups who document their findings in spine-tingling detail.  There’s the little girl who appreciates the dolls that visitors place on her grave.  There’s the Italian immigrant miner who enjoys a nice graveside conversation via EMF meter.  And let’s not forget the cold spots or the power drains on electronic devices.

Or the would-be voices discovered later on digital recordings, which state with horrific clarity things like “You don’t belong here.”

I read the stories with interest, but my skepticism was firm.  It’s not that I don’t believe in ghosts—I just don’t see why they’d be hanging out at cemeteries.  Why exactly would a dead miner haunt a place he had little or no connection with in life?  Wouldn’t his afterlife be better spent scaring the tar out of witless teenagers along the canyon road, or stealing campers’ left socks?

Craig Campbell, founder of Salt City Paranormal, shares my skepticism.  Campbell and crew conducted their own investigation of the cemetery several years back with inconclusive results.

“There are just too many variables in that environment,” he told me.  “You’ve got the wind, other interference— it’s just too easy to get a false positive.”

Campbell says he looks at each investigation as a court room case.  Until he finds solid evidence, he’s not convinced.  Solid evidence, as Campbell defines it, would be a documented phenomenon that he is unable to recreate himself.  But the lack of solid evidence of the supernatural at Mercur Cemetery doesn’t mean nothing’s afoot there.

“It’s definitely a hot spot,” Campbell ceded.

In his book, Talking to Yourself in the Dark, Wasatch Paranormal founder Tom Carr recalls leaving the cemetery after a particularly disturbing visit:

“No more than an hour into the investigation, we found ourselves heading back down the hill to our cars.  I would have to say this was the first time in a long time that I was that scared.”

I’m glad I didn’t read that chapter until after our own trip.  The storm clouds parted almost full moon illuminated the picket fenced graves.  I only needed my flashlight to examine the sole carved headstone.

“1898—that’s forever ago, Dad,” pondered 9 year old Bridger.  “Wow,” echoed his 7 year old brother, Weston.  They scampered from plot to plot looking for another legible headstone.  I paused to collect my thoughts.

No voices, cold spots or other disturbances— only a solemn calm, punctuated at times by a slight unease.  Maybe the ghosts had taken the night off.  If so, I wasn’t complaining.  Perhaps they weren’t ghosts at all, but echoes of consciousness—or reflections of our own.

Were we welcome there?  Were we imposing?  Craig Campbell or Tom Carr might have asked out loud.  I didn’t, just in case.

When my flashlight finally died, we hiked back to the car and drove up the canyon to the gate.  Mercur was back there, once upon a time.  When we arrived home I emptied my pockets, habitually clicking my flashlight’s power button as I put it away.  It was only after I was half asleep that I realized it was working just fine.

 

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The case of the Fairfield shooter, or, Who owes John Carson a wall patch job

Exhibits A and B

When I promised Monday to write some more on Camp Floyd/Fairfield’s colorful history, I had forgotten is that I had already touched on my favorite story in an earlier post.  That’s ok– it’s still a cold case.

What drives me nuts about this story is that I can’t seem to dig up the details on it.  The only account of this event comes from this wall plaque at Fairfield’s [possibly haunted] Stagecoach Inn:

The plaque

My thoughts when I read this plaque:

1. When did this take place?
2. Who was Guest A?
3. Who was Guest B?
4. Did Guest B need to change his britches after the shot passed 2 feet over his head?  And,
5. Did he beat up Guest A in the morning?

Crazy, I know.  Heaven forbid somebody make a passing mention in a journal somewhere.  Well I’m certainly not losing sleep over this, but how cool would it be to know little stuff like this?

The Utah State Parks Service made the plaque based on information provided by the descendants of John Carson, who built the inn in 1858.  According to Parks Service staff at Camp Floyd, there was no registry kept at the inn, and the story of the shooting was passed down through oral tradition.  Gotta love that!

Guest A (the shooter's) room

Guest B (the almost victim's) room

Fortunately the evidence is there.  One bullet hole in one wall, a matching hole through the other, and pellet marks on both.  We know the inn was frequented by the legendary Porter Rockwell, but just for fun I think we can rule him out:

First, it’s doubtful that an ace gunslinger like Porter would have accidentally discharged a shotgun.  Second, if he had been Guest A, Porter would have profusely apologized to Guest B, bought him a new pair of britches, given him free drinks for life at one of his saloons, and patched the walls himself.  That would have made it into a newspaper somewhere.

Could Porter have been Guest B?  Well, as far as we know, Guest A made it out of the inn alive.  Just sayin’.

So it looks like I’m out of luck on this one.  At least for another 20 years or so until somebody’s great great great great grandkid finds a journal in an attic.

 
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Posted by on October 27, 2010 in Ghost Towns, Halloweentime, History