Category Archives: Iosepa

Weekly Run-Down: Zee Avi, Iosepa, and Selling Out

A Note on the new Zee Avi album
I know I promised a review, but these last few weeks couldn’t have been more hectic for me.  I still plan on writing one, but it defininitely won’t be until next week.  Suffice it to say that the new album is excellent.  Whoever called the shots on instrumentation is a genius.  Avi’s voice is sweet and distinct.  Favorite track so far– ‘Just You and Me.’

Iosepa or bust
My family and I attended the annual Iosepa festival last Saturday.  If you’re new to this blog, read more about this Hawaiian ghost town here.  Below are some pics from this year’s festival:





One of this town’s distinguishing characteristics was its pressurized irrigation system, which exploited 5 mountain streams by converging them into cement and wooden aqueducts.  Last year, archaeologist Benjamin Pykles was excavating one of the old lots, he showed me some BLM archaeological papers that mapped out remnants of that aqueduct system.  This year, I attempted to locate one of the ruins but turned back when I decided my family vehicle’s axles and tires were more important than a moment of archaeological elation.  Read all about it in this week’s Transcript Bulletin column, which I’ll post here this weekend.

Selling Out
Yeah, so I haven’t blogged much the last few days, nor have I had much time to read all of your blogs and leave comments.  That’s because the missus and I are frantically preparing to sell our house.

No, I didn’t lose any of my jobs.  It’s just that we looked at the number of children we have vs. the number of bedrooms and square feet in our little starter home and decided it might be wise to take advantage of the buyer’s market.

It was split-second decision, and as heart attack inducing as that is for me, most of our better decisions have happened that way (getting married to each other, having kids, and buying our current house all come to mind).

The down side is that gave us a week to re-landscape our yard, redo our bathroom floor, and try to make the place look like 5 kids really don’t live there.  All amidst family reunions, weddings, school activities, and work.

Of course if we don’t sell our house, we won’t buy the one we’ve made an offer on, which fortunately is just up the street.  Wish us luck.


Return to Story Rock

A sea turtle carved into Story Rock in the vicinity of the Iosepa ghost town site (photo by Clint Thomsen)

A sea turtle carved into Story Rock in the vicinity of the Iosepa ghost town site (photo by Clint Thomsen)

Last Thursday I went hiking on Salt Mountain with Jeff Barrus, editor of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.  He was planning an article about Iosepa, so I led him to Story Rock, which I wrote about last month.  Having spent many years in the islands (why he ever left them I’ll never know) and the South Pacific, Jeff has a unique perspective on the story of Hawaiian pioneers in Utah.  Click over to the Transcript Bulletin to read his article, “At Iosepa, a few pictures are worth thousands of words.”


Search for Hawaiian petroglyphs in Skull Valley ends in discovery

This article originally appeared in the July 31, 2008, edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

Poignant petroglyphs carved in stone at Story Rock by the Polynesian settlers of Iosepa include (clockwise) the sun, a sea turtle — a Hawaiian symbol of longevity, peace and humility — an island with palm trees and seabirds, and a family circle or ohana. -photography / Clint Thomsen - montage / Troy Boman

Poignant petroglyphs carved in stone at Story Rock by the Polynesian settlers of Iosepa include (clockwise) the sun, a sea turtle — a Hawaiian symbol of longevity, peace and humility — an island with palm trees and seabirds, and a family circle or ohana. -photography / Clint Thomsen - montage / Troy Boman

Search for Hawaiian petroglyphs in Skull Valley ends in discovery

by Clint Thomsen

Tyler parked his car near the old Iosepa cemetery. After the half-hour ride, the engine’s abrupt hush amplified a profound silence. A crescent moon hung over the Stansburys and the stars began to fade with the morning’s twilight. The range’s western slopes still hid from the half-light, stifling any attempt to visualize our unmarked route. Even by this early hour, a diffuse heat had rested upon the valley.

We stopped on a foothill and gazed down at the abandoned Hawaiian town site, where overgrown sidewalks fade to dust and a lone, tall tree marks the corner of a vanished town square. The buildings themselves are gone, but a certain inscrutable feeling lingers. It’s a feeling characteristic of historically rich places — but in this case it’s mixed with reverent undertones of aloha.

I fell in love with Iosepa a decade ago. Curious at an unexpected cluster of vehicles on the hillside, some friends and I investigated. We were greeted warmly by a man wearing a Hawaiian shirt and lei who told us how his Mormon ancestors came from Hawaii and built a town there called Iosepa.

He talked about the town — the traditions, the hardships. And though the tidy community died out in 1917, its spirit lived on it its settlers’ family lines. We had stumbled upon their annual celebration, and they invited us to stay for dinner.

Attempting to grasp the irony of a tropical, sea-loving people settling an arid, landlocked desert, I queried our hosts long into the evening. One mentioned a rock high in the mountains, into which Iosepa’s settlers had carved images of boats, turtles and palm trees in memory of their homeland.

The paradise/desert contrast is literary gold, and most writers mine it liberally when addressing Iosepa. But our mountains and Great Salt Lake sunsets actually reminded at least one Hawaiian of his island home: “It’s the pseudo-ocean, the islands on the lake,” my friend Alan Serrao once told me. “The clouds that hang low and heavy on the mountains with peaks popping through them — it looks a lot like home. The Hawaiians that came here must have noticed this.”

Early Hawaiian Latter-day Saints weren’t unfamiliar with arid mountains and remote locales. Iosepa, Utah, is actually the second LDS Hawaiian settlement to bear the name. The original Iosepa, located on the Hawaiian island of Lanai, was the first gathering place for Hawaiian LDS in 1854. The isle is much more desert-like than its lush neighbors. It’s still only sparsely populated today.

Like Utah’s Iosepa, the Lanai settlement faced many hardships. Water scarcity and crop failures contributed to the eventual decision to abandon Lanai for Laie, Oahu. Some of Lanai’s settlers also ended up in Skull Valley.

But as similar as some aspects are, a pseudo ocean isn’t an ocean, and Skull Valley isn’t Hawaii. So wistful tales of ocean-scene petroglyphs didn’t surprise me. I had to find that rock.

“Unless you’ve been there before, it’s hard to find,” a man at Iosepa once told me. “But it’s there.”

I’ve recalled that first statement many times since that evening, as I’ve sometimes casually, sometimes seriously tried to locate what he called “Story Rock.” My quest to find the elusive rock art was the subject of my first column in this newspaper. I spent a day scouring the mountainside, but my search proved fruitless.

Eight months later, I sat in a hotel lobby with Dr. Benjamin Pykles, an archaeologist from the State University of New York at Potsdam, who was conducting a field study of the Iosepa town site. I had stopped in to help him wash some of the artifacts he had unearthed that day. Pykles handed me a toothbrush and a bag full of glass shards, then joined me at a water basin.

On the floor were several crates filled with artifacts. To Pykles and team, each glass fragment was a priceless clue into Iosepa’s past.

“Ah, the tedium of archaeology,” Pykles remarked, hoping that brushing clay off glass wasn’t boring me. It wasn’t.

Pykles and I had discussed Story Rock at the Iosepa celebration last May. He had heard the stories but hadn’t yet gone looking. I had all but given up. Then after a luau, a familiar face greeted me and scrawled a crude map on a scrap of paper.

It would be July before I would have time to test out that map. Tyler had been with me there 10 years ago and was eager to share the discovery. The sun was starting to peek over the Stansburys and our route was becoming clear. So far, my unpretentious little map had been dead-on.

A few ridges and a couple cheatgrass fields later, it stood before us. Walking toward the limestone slab, the petroglyphs seemed to jump right out at us. First an island scene complete with a palm tree and birds. Then a sun. Then a circle of figures holding hands. And those were just the obvious examples. Nearby was a figure in a boat, a jellyfish, and what looked like whales or sea lions. Even further were a deer, a lizard and a picture-perfect sea turtle.

The carvings had a definite turn-of-the-century look, and were carved several centimeters deep into some of the sharpest, hardest rock I’ve ever felt. The complicated locations of some of the petroglyphs had us puzzled over how the artists could have positioned themselves to make the etchings. We waited for the sun to fully rise, then I photographed each figure, hardly able to contain my elation.

Scanning our surroundings, it was easy to see why I hadn’t found this spot before. I thought of the Hawaiian pioneers who trekked to the top of this mountain to carve their island memories in this rock. Did they do it in memoriam? Or was it more like when I carve my wife’s name on a tree trunk? We may never know.

All I know is that unless you’ve been there before, Story Rock is hard to find.

But it’s there.


Author’s note:  I receive several emails every week from geocachers and explorers who have read this article and want directions or waypoints to Story Rock.  For various reasons, including anthropologic and cultural concerns, I am not at liberty to disclose the location of the Iosepa petroglyphs.

I’m certain that at some point, word will trickle out to the public.  Sadly, once this happens, I give this site a year, tops, until it’s tagged, otherwise defaced,  or completely destroyed.

I know there are many respectful and responsible people who would love to see the petroglyphs.  But don’t ask me– I’m not going to tell you.  No offense intended.  If you do happen to locate the petroglyphs in your own travels, do me a favor:  keep the details to yourself.  Thanks for understanding.  –ct


Weekly Run-Down: U.S. Outdoors Today and Iosepa

Ok, so I know I’ve been slacking on the Weeky Run-Downs.  A lot has been going on lately on all fronts, but an update is in order.  Somebody please remind me to write soon about a recent health scare involving our baby daughter that landed us in Cody, WY, for a few hours one night last month.  Let’s just say that my views on mountain solitude may have, um, evolved a bit.

First, I’d like to welcome everybody linking over from  They picked up the AP ghost towning story and analytics show that a few thousand curious readers have stopped by.  Welcome!

U.S. Outdoors Today

I’d like you to check out a budding new website called U.S. Outdoors Today.  It’s run by my friend Jason Hendricks of The Adventurist and Skinny Moose Media.  The publication is geared toward outdoor journalism, education, and conservation.  Whatever your outdoor pursuit, U.S. Outdoors Today is a great source of informative and interesting articles.

Iosepa Update

Dr. Benjamin Pykles and team are wrapping up their archaeological study of the Iosepa ghost town in Tooele County, Utah (click here for previous Iosepa posts).  With the help of a special radar system, Pykles located a privvy pit, from which he and his students have pulled numerous artifacts from the turn-of-the-century Hawaiian ag community, including bottle and ceramic fragments, animal bones, and various trinkets.

Interestingly, based on his findings, Dr. Pykles has concluded that Iosepans used a whole lot of mentholatum jelly.  He initially wondered if this might be for sinus reasons, since Iosepa’s settlers were used to a humid island climate.  But he told me last Saturday that a Native American he met mentioned that her ancestors also used a lot of mentholatum- not for health reasons- but to straighten their hair.  Hair straightening, Pykles told me, “was one possible function of the mentholatum.”

Also Saturday, Pykles, in concert with the Iosepa Preservation Society, opened the old townsite to the public and displayed his findings.  I wasn’t able to make it, but I was out there the day before, and the good Doctor gave Tyler and I a tour of the dig.  Pretty cool stuff.

Though his scheduled time in Iosepa is up on August 2, Pykles plans to return in 2010 to continue his study.

In the meantime, Tyler and I made a little discovery of our own, which you’ll be able to read about in Thursday’s TTB (I’ll probably post the teaser and pics on Friday morning).


Posted by on July 29, 2008 in Iosepa, Weekly Run-Down


Iosepa ghost town finally sees much deserved media attention

Iosepa cemetery, Iosepa, UT (photo by Clint Thomsen)

I’ve written several pieces about the Skull Valley ghost town named for LDS leader Joseph F. Smith and settled by Mormon Hawaiians from 1889-1917. Five years ago, a Google search on the term ‘Iosepa’ would return scant results- my early (and frankly, crappy) writings being the first two or three on the list. That was back when the ghost town- along with it’s history, it’s location, and annual celebration- was one of Tooele County’s best-kept secrets.

The north end of Skull Valley is heavily visited by campers, ATV-riders, and people who shoot cows for fun. But few people venture far enough south to the old town site, which is pretty barren 361 days of the year, and has been for almost a century. Passing by, the only readily visible evidence of Iosepa is the cemetery and pavilion area, which lie 2/3 mile east of the road at the base of Salt Mountain.

Had a couple of the BUDS and I not been passing by on Memorial Day weekend 9 years ago, we would have never given the place a second glance. Curious about the swath of parked cars, trailers, and tents on the hill (an extremely unusual sight in Skull Valley), we turned off on the ranch road to investigate.

We parked and walked right into what turned out to be a huge Hawaiian luau. We were greeted warmly and invited to join the crowd for dinner later that evening. The people there, we discovered, were descendants of the town’s original Hawaiian settlers, and we had stumbled upon their yearly celebration.

Few outsiders attended the festivities that day, and I saw no journalists there. In subsequent days I found only one brief mention of the 4-day celebration in the Deseret News. Those of us that returned for dinner that night and were treated so kindly that we came back the next year. My family has attended the celebration almost every year since.

But only recently, it seems, has the local media discovered this special place. In fact, an archive search of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin returns only 13 results since 1997 (I’ve written two of them). Only one mention pre-dates 2006. I was surprised Monday evening when I saw a story about Iosepa on the KSL news.

I suspect the ghost town owes some of its new found media popularity to the recent announcement of a thorough archaeological study of the site. Dr. Benjamin Pykles of the State University of New York at Potsdam and his team began studying the site last summer, and will spend the month of July tracing the town’s streets and water system, and investigating as many buried remnants as possible.

Sidewalk to nowhere, Iosepa, UT (photo by Clint Thomsen)

Dr. Pykles addressed the gathering last weekend to outline the study and ask Iosepa descendants to help record oral histories. I spoke briefly with him about the project, and I’m excited to see what he uncovers. Expect to see more pieces on Iosepa in the greater Salt Lake area media this summer. Locally, my colleague Sarah Miley will be on top of the news developments, and I’ll bring you the outdoor adventure and deep history angles.

Previous Iosepa stories on


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


My First Published Article in the Tooele Transcript Bulletin


By Clint Thomsen

I’m not a huge fan of November.  Don’t get me wrong- I appreciate Thanksgiving as much as the next guy, but November is a strange month.  No longer warm but not yet real cold, it’s an awkward transition between the Halloween and Christmas seasons.  It’s too late to listen to the Beach Boys, yet still too early to break out the Mannheim Steamroller.

So when a sun-drenched November day like last Saturday comes along, I’d be crazy not to drive west and climb a mountain.

Tooele County is the second largest county in Utah.  With an area of over 7,000 square miles, it spans at least a dozen mountain ranges, hundreds of canyons, and over 44,000 acres of salt flats.  It’s an explorer’s paradise.  The Stansbury range alone is 30 miles of creeks, peaks, lakes, and trails- all ripe for adventure.

It was just me and my boys- 6, 4, and 2 years old.  After a quick stop in Grantsville for beef jerky and gas, we headed west on I-80 toward beautiful barren Skull Valley.  I had heard stories about petroglyphs carved into a slab somewhere above the old Iosepa ghost town site, and while I’ve explored the areas a few miles northward extensively, I’ve never climbed Salt Mountain to look for them.

The approach to the mountain is hilly and peppered with small limestone outcroppings, with several small canyons leading up to its 6,020-foot summit.   The terrain is tame until the timberline, where grasses and sparse juniper give way to vast fields of loose rubble and cliffs.  Several narrow trails wind upward through the foothills.  We parked near the pavilion and took the steepest and straightest route, walking in the footsteps of the Polynesians who settled this place over a century ago.

The desert has always been a refuge for me.  As a Boy Scout, I spent the weekends walking dusty trails and swimming beneath the mossy surface of Horseshoe Springs. Even now, I often head west with some high school buds to spin yarns by a campfire and sleep under a bowl of stars.  There are few stresses that a little U2 and a short drive west can’t remedy.

“Don’t worry, West,” Bridger assured his little brother as we paced up the first steep hill.  “It’s only really steep for a little while at first.  I came up here with Kekoa once to look for lizards.”  The boy was in his element. A natural born hiker, he enthusiastically assumed the task of keeping the normally trail-shy Weston encouraged.  2 year old Coulter was just happy to be along for the ride, strapped snug against my back in his baby backpack.  I figured we’d go until we found the petroglyphs or the boys got tired- whichever happened first.

The going was faster than I expected, even with all the stops to point out “snake holes” and examine fossils.  Eventually the trail faded away and we followed three mule deer up a creek bed, all the while discussing the mysteries of life and pondering questions like “Dad, are there driver ants in America?” and “Why did Jesus make cactuses have pokies?”  Before we knew it we were two thirds of the way to the summit.  We rounded the top of what I thought would be the last big hill before the steeper boulder fields, only to find ourselves at the base of another big hill.  I offered to carry Weston if he needed me to.  “No thanks, dadda.  I can took care of my selp.”

We stopped to let the boys rest and throw rocks while I scrambled through a rubble slope and scaled a rock face to take in the view.  Skull Valley looks much like I imagine Tooele valley would look like without the marks of civilization.  In the spring, the valley is blanketed in a lush green.  By late summer the entire valley is a lurid khaki, interspersed with juniper and the occasional groomed field.  This wilderness is harsh, and the journals of many an explorer attests to that fact.  Yet something about it lures me in and drives me with an uncontrollable urge to keep hiking further and climbing higher.  As I scanned the valley below us, I recalled a quote from Edward Abbey:

“Despite its clarity and simplicity…the desert wears at the same time, paradoxically, a veil of mystery. Motionless and silent it evokes in us an elusive hint of something unknown, unknowable, about to be revealed.”

My epiphany was interrupted by the chirp of the two-way radio and another profound quote- this time from Bridger:

“Dad, you look like you’re made out of Legos.”

I climbed back down and we made our way northward over a canyon, checking every rock face that looked like it could possibly have petroglyphs on it.  No luck.  Despite the boys’ insistences that they were not yet tired, I decided it was time to make our way back down to the car.  We looped south and back toward toward the ghost town.  We’d have to find the petroglyphs another day.

Maybe we were on the wrong mountain.  Maybe the stories are unfounded.  Then again, perhaps the carvings really exist up there, hidden somewhere in the dancing shadows- elusive mirages flickering in and out of human vision in this paradoxical landscape.  It would have been nice to find them, but in the end I came away with something more precious than pictures engraved on a rock- an afternoon of wide-eyed delight with my three closest pals.  Perhaps that’s what I was looking for all along.