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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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Everything you always wanted to know about jack o’ lanterns but were too busy to Google

Best. Jack O' Lantern. Ever.

Who doesn’t love a nice jack o’ lantern?

These modified pumpkins were a big deal in my family when I was a kid.  Once we had them carved, we’d set them on the fireplace mantle and light candle’s inside them.  Then we’d turn out the lights and sing every Halloween song we knew.  I’ll never forget those spooky nights.

Now that I have kids of my own, Meadow and I always take the time to carve pumpkins to their requested specs.  Boo’s this year was a painfully intricate scene from How to Train Your Dragon.  West and Coulter had regular scary faces– but Coulter requested his have a mustache, because mustaches are just plain cool (remind me to tell you his comment about my 5 o-clock shadow sometime).  Miss Ella’s pumpkin was Coraline.  Deedle’s was Nacho Libre.

What is it about pumpkins and candles, darkened rooms and spooky songs that delight us so?  Where did the jack o’lantern come from?  Check out the links below:

History.com: History of the Jack O’ Lantern

History.com video: All About the Pumpkin

HowStuffWorks.com: Jack O’ Lanterns

(Hat tip to Hailey for the pumpkin chef pic above)

 
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Posted by on October 28, 2010 in Halloweentime, History

 

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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

 

Is Fairfield’s Stagecoach Inn really haunted? See for yourself

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

When it comes to places you’d think might be haunted, the Stagecoach Inn in Fairfield, Utah doesn’t immediately come to mind.  No ghastly crime took place within its creaky walls.  No ghoulish legend lurks in its past.

The old inn’s claims to fame are its age– it was built 152 years ago– and its roster of colorful guests.  Among the notable characters that frequented the inn were General Albert Sydney Johnston and Orrin Porter Rockewell.  Beginning in 1860, the inn served as a stop along the Pony Express route.  So while the Stagecoach boasts no tales of death or torture,  its past is storied just enough to give it some haunted cred.  Utah State Parks staffers and Fairfield residents reservedly acknowledge strange occurrences in the old place.  Rumors of otherworldly phenomenon at the inn even prompted a paranormal investigation a few years ago.

More on this and some of the inn’s lore Wednesday.  For now, though, why not set a few hours aside on October 29 to participate in Camp Floyd’s  annual public ghost hunt?  Click here to read more about Camp Floyd, then here for info on the ghost hunt.

 
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Posted by on October 25, 2010 in Halloweentime, History

 

Remembering the ghost town of Bauer

Bauer, Utah, circa 1923 (copyright Utah State Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.)

Bauer’s fate was sealed when its last viable operations were destroyed by fire. Rulon Aufdemorte’s final task was to dismantle and ship off any salvageable properties. When the last truckload finally pulled away, Aufdemorte gathered his belongings and drove to Salt Lake City, leaving Bauer’s crumbling ruins to the wind and ghosts.

The first ghost town I ever visited was officially Cortez, Nevada.  My first Utah ghost town, however, was Bauer.  I haven’t written anything about that trip because it ended up being a wild goose chase.  Tyler and I had no waypoints or directions to guide us to the townsite– nor did we know anything about the town’s history.  And it probably didn’t help that we were searching for this ghost town after dark.

To be sure, we got close that night– within at least 50 yards.  We may have seen a few outbuildings, none of which we logically attributed to the town itself.  Disappointed, we moved on to the next ghost.

Years later I realized that the odds had been stacked heavily against us.  Not much was left of Bauer by the time we tried to find it.  The few walls and foundations that remained were quite visible in daylight, but obscured by the adjacent Tooele County Landfill and were inaccessible to the public.  At present, most of Bauer has been bulldozed.  Oh, and it’s a Superfund site.

I don’t foresee being able to explore the remains of the town any time soon, but recently I was able to interview a few old miners who lived there back in 70’s.  For the interviews and a quick run down of Bauer’s history, check out my Hometown piece at the Tooele Transcript Bulletin:

Remembering Bauer: Former employees reflect on camaraderie, memories shared at historic mine

Miners at Bauer, date unknown (Copyright Utah State Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.)

 

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Lake Point concrete arrow points back to early days of aviation

Glare from the rising sun had botched my photo efforts on the first two passes.  This would be our third and final pass.  If we were going to escape the glare we’d need to creep within the mountain’s shadow– and that meant we’d have to fly in close.  Really close.

A Western Air Express Douglas M-2 bi-plane used for Airmail in 1926 (source unknown).

The following originally appeared in the July 8, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

“How’s your head?”  Brian Staheli asked as he piloted the Cessna Super Skylane in a low loop over the Great Salt Lake’s southern shore.

“All good!” I lied.

I figured my airsickness was the last thing Brian needed to worry about as he executed a highly technical maneuver.  Moreover, we both had jobs to do.  His was to safely position the aircraft over the extreme northwest tip of the mountain range; mine was to spot our target on the ground and snap a decent photo.

Glare from the rising sun had botched my efforts on the first two passes.  This would be our third and final pass.  If we were going to escape the glare we’d need to creep within the mountain’s shadow– and that meant we’d have to come in close.  Really close.

Brian made a tight turn over Lake Point and flew northward, hugging the Oquirrh flanks.  I popped my ears and steadied my camera.

“Just to let you know,” he warned, “this might feel kind of weird.”

Salt Lake City Air Mail Radio Station, March 1925 (photo courtesy FAA).

Many private aircraft owners fly for recreation.  Far fewer, I imagine, take to the skies for historical reconnaissance.  Our target that morning was a rare piece of aviation history—a 60 foot array of concrete slabs situated atop an Oquirrh bench in the Lake Point area and arranged in the shape of a double-tailed arrow.   Aside from a certain mystique, the large northeastward-pointing arrow shares another characteristic with phenomena like crop circles or the ancient Nazca lines of Peru:   it was meant to be viewed from the sky.

Brian brought this fascinating structure to my attention in 2008.  A corporate pilot and a flight instructor, he had noticed the arrow while flying around the Oquirrhs.  We did some research and identified the structure as a relic of an era less celebrated, but every bit as adventurous as the Pony Express.

The story begins in the early days of powered flight, when open-cockpit airplanes were equipped with only a compass and an altimeter, and pilots used railroad maps as navigational charts.  Seeking to speed up delivery service, U.S. Postal Department introduced the U.S. Air Mail system in 1918. This new class of delivery service had a definite cool factor, but it was wildly inefficient—mostly due to the fact that flight was restricted to daylight hours.

That changed after an experimental flight in 1921, when pilot Jack Knight completed a night flight from Chicago from North Platte, Nebraska, guided by bonfires lit along the way by Postal Department employees and helpful farmers.  Beginning in 1923, a system of tower-mounted light beacons was installed along the Transcontinental Air Mail Route, which connected New York and San Francisco via airfields that included Salt Lake City.

Airway beacons were placed at 10 mile intervals and featured rotating million candlepower lights (photo courtesy FAA).

The 51 foot tall towers were placed at 10 mile intervals and each was topped by a 1 million candlepower rotating lamp that was visible within a 40 mile radius.  Two additional color-coded course lights pointed up and down the airway and flashed a Morse code letter that identified the beacon.

To enhance daytime navigation, most beacon towers were built atop large concrete arrows, which pointed in the direction of the next beacon.  This arrow/beacon system grew exponentially when the Air Mail Act of 1925 required that Air Mail service be contracted out to various commercial airlines.

Contract Air Mail (CAM) routes were established along the Transcontinental backbone.   Salt Lake City became a major terminal field along five CAM routes, with 11 beacons housed in Tooele County.  Information on our Lake Point beacon site was scant—not even the Smithsonian Institute’s National Postal Museum could track down a construction date, though they estimate it was placed sometime between 1923 and 1925.

Sadly, all we know about the beacon is its official designation of “Airway Beacon 61A,” which it probably received during a 1934 revamp of the routes.  61A is unique in that it marked the junction of two CAM routes to Salt Lake City from San Diego and San Francisco—hence the arrow’s double tail.

The arrow is located on property owned by Rio Tinto.  Van King, a Rio Tinto asset manager, accompanied Brian and I to the site last month.  There we noted the tower’s four steel footings set at each corner of the center slab.  The tower itself had been cut away with a torch at some point, and its twisted remains lay beside the concrete array.  Traces of orange paint on both the concrete and steel provided an idea of coloration.  There were no signs of the beacon itself.

A standard airway beacon setup. When possible, beacons were powered by a small generator shack built at the arrow's tail (photo courtesy FAA).

The anatomy of Airway Beacon 61A. There is no evidence of a generator shack (photo by Clint Thomsen).

Airway Beacon 61A's arrow from the ground with the remains of its beacon tower visible just to its right (photo by Clint Thomsen).

Just how long Airway Beacon 61A serviced the routes is unknown, but most of the network’s 1,550 plus beacons had been phased out and dismantled by the early 1970’s.   Walking along the concrete “Y” shape was like stepping back in time.  And while it was satisfying to see the structure up close, the adventure wouldn’t be complete without experiencing it the way the original air mail pilots did—low and slow from the air.

I tried to picture the Cessna with primitive controls and an open cockpit as we climbed from the runway in Erda.  We explored the Great Salt Lake and the Saltair area before the sun rose high enough to illuminate the beacon site.  My head didn’t start seriously spinning until our third pass, but it was mind over body when it came to the mission at hand.

One of the last surviving airway beacons stands in the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum (photo by Clint Thomsen)

“I’m going to put you right over it,” Brian said before executing an uncoordinated flight aptly referred to as a “slip,” which rapidly dropped us to 50 feet above ground level and gave me a square-on view of 61A.  Whether I got the shot or not, it was time to pull out and touch back down in Erda.

King says Rio-Tinto is intrigued by the history of the arrow and is reviewing ways to protect its cultural value.  61A may be just a concrete slab, but it’s a slab pilots like Brian hope to fly over for decades to come.

—–

Special thanks to Rio Tinto/Kennecott and Brian Staheli.

 

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Adventure = (Air + Concrete + Steel)

Tonight’s TTB column addresses a little-known period in postal history.  I know what you’re thinking– what could possibly be more riveting than postal history?

Well, what if I told you this story about little-known period in postal history has all the elements of a grand adventure?

  • A fascinating backstory that stumped even the Smithsonian? Check.
  • The discovery of forgotten historical artifacts? Check.
  • A hike? Check.
  • An acrobatic airplane flight? Check-o-rama.

Here’s a hint:


Check tonight’s Transcript Bulletin for the story.  I’ll repost here on Monday.

 
 
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